Bamidbar begins on the first day of the second month of the second year after the exodus from Egypt. Our Creator orders Moshe and Aaron to take a census in order that the people of Israel could be counted. In every tribe one male would be the leader of each tribe and he would be the one who was counted. This clearly shows us that the identity of Israel comes from the fathers not through the mothers as our rabbis keep insisting. The Torah never changed this, people did and they tell the Creator what He needs to do. It is clear that the promises were made to Jacob, Isaac and Abraham not to Rachel and Leah, Rivkah and Sarah. This is how traditions are formed and the result of this is the formation of multitudes of sects. God unites people but sects tend to divide us. Traditions are good in so far as they elevate the Creator but when they replace what was given to us by God then we run into problems. This however is not something new; at the end of the book of Judges we read “everyone did what was good in his own eyes.” Today we need to work hard to return to God’s order not man’s order.
Are you being counted? What does it mean to be counted? Each of us is made in a marvelous way; we are each unique. The greatest mistake we can make is to compare ourselves with others. In this book, Bamidbar, jealousy, strife and division arise because people were not satisfied with the role that God selected for them. There is nothing worse than when someone wants to be in someone else’s place. It is like trying to force a wrong piece into an empty spot in the puzzle. When a small piece is misplaced in a mosaic it throws the whole picture off.
God loves and creates order. Following this idea, the rabbis have formulated a siddur which means order of service. You can go to any synagogue and find the same basic order. At Pesach we have a Seder which is also an order of service. This is a good thing since it allows us to follow along and feel at home wherever we go. Our Creator organized the people into the 12 tribes of Israel. These later became 13 tribes when Joseph was given the double blessing through his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Numbers have a reason and in this book there are many prime numbers with 22, 273 being the highest prime number here. Computer science and cybernetics use prime numbers to codify. Bamidbar is also called Chumash Pekudim or the Book of Counting. Many hidden messages are encoded within the numbers and we only need to search to find them however for today my interest lies elsewhere. I want to speak to you about our participation and being counted within the community. It begins with the division of the 12 tribes plus the tribe of Levi which is not counted with the rest. The men of 12 tribes are counted to be in the army to defend Israel while the men of Levi are counted for the army who will serve in the Mishkan. These are two different functions. They are divided in the east, south, north and west according to importance of position each having their own banner. They form a square around the Mishkan in order to protect the people of Israel. Each of the Levites has a function with his own responsibility. When anyone tried to take someone else’s function, there was a heavy price to pay. We saw this in the case of Uzzah who died when he reached out to stop the ark from falling as they were bringing it back to Jerusalem. King David knew that only the Levites were called for this special role. We can learn many things from this. We each have been given a special function by our Creator. We sometimes spend a lifetime searching for it. He wants us to be fulfilled in whatever we do. When we are not fulfilled, it is because we are in the wrong place doing the wrong things. Instead of being a help, we become a hindrance. It doesn’t mean that we are not worthy or good for anything; we simply need to find our place. When you have the desire to serve and to give of yourself, you would be surprised how quickly you find your place. However when you try to do what you are not called to do, you become a problem for yourself and others. We need to avoid that.
Torah is not a legalistic system; it is a book of guidance, teachings, and principles. It is not to be taken literal to the point of becoming fanatic or religious otherwise we can miss the true teaching of our Creator. Let us not fall into the trap of doing personal interpretation. When studying the Scriptures, we need to ask ourselves, who wrote the book, when was it written and to whom was it addressed. If you are from Europe and you read a book from Latin America and you do not understand the culture, it will not make sense. You can misunderstand what the author is trying to say. Here we read that the people of Israel were given the command to count the men. Does that mean that He was discounting the women and the children? If you read it superficially, it looks like our Creator doesn’t care about women and children. In the Middle East of that day, the father was a very important figure; he represented the family. When someone asked who you were, you would announce who your father was; this way you would be revealing to them your identity, your status and your position within the community. This idea still exists in certain tribes and communities in Africa who can completely identify with this. We have lost this because we live in such an individualistic society. This is totally opposite to Torah philosophy where the welfare of the community comes before that of the individual and is dependent upon the individual. In our western society the direction has been changed to where the welfare of the individual is more important than the community. The community is there to serve the individual. The philosophy of the Torah doesn’t take away the importance of the individual; in fact each person derived his value and importance from knowing his tribe, his position and his function within the community.
Practically speaking, when we speak about “doing good” in the community, it refers to helping the people who have the most needs such as the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. We are witnessing this today with those refugees escaping persecution. At the time of the Torah, men were in charge while women were secondary. Women did not have careers or education; their role was to take care of the family. If her husband died, she would be unprotected and needed the protection of the community. The orphan without parents was helpless and the foreigner without land or property was both vulnerable and unprotected. These ideas can be projected to today. The Torah gave humane principles to the community to help the helpless.
Once we belong to something we have a place to grow and thrive. Community gives us the ability to be counted and to grow spiritually. We depend upon each other. It is not about position but how we are serving. Our mentality needs to change. Are you fulfilled in what you are doing? Later we will read the rebellion of Korach and the scouts who went to spy out the land. They created division and suffering within the community. The result was that instead of the trip to Israel being just 11 days, they were forced to take 38 extra years until that generation perished in the wilderness and the new generation could enter the Promised Land.
Let us go together on this journey and grow together in the appropriation of what we have and who we are. When we are in community, we need to learn that everyone is important; no one is better than the other; we just have different functions. Let us each do what we have been called to do. What is your calling? Where do you want to serve? Let us not say to ourselves: “I don’t want to have any responsibility.” When we are asked “Am I my brother’s keeper “, the answer is yes because we are responsible for each other.
The words Bamidbar Sinai in Hebrew are very interesting. The basic Hebrew word is daber which can be translated as “word” or thing”. The letters of the word “Sinai” – סִינַי when switched around and written as “nisi” – ניסִי has the meaning of “a miracle”. In receiving the Word, we have a miracle. This Shabbat is the 49th counting of the omer. Tomorrow we will celebrate Shavuot, the giving of the Ten Commandments to us. This house is a house of prayer for all the nations – כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים. We as people of Israel were to bring the Ten Commandments to the nations. That is our mission and we are united in that. Bamidbar is translated as wilderness and it was there that our Creator presented us with His commandments, not in the lands of Egypt or Canaan. This is to demonstrate to us that no one could take ownership of the Torah. It belongs to the Creator who gave it to His people. It is for everyone and in the wilderness there was nothing to distract us from receiving Torah and making it ours.