Minutes of Torah

This week’s Torah portion of Bemidbar or Numbers, often appears as it does this year, on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot. In the holiday cycle, this week we reach the conclusion of the period of the counting of the omer, when we symbolically arrive and stand at Mt. Sinai with past and future generations to receive Torah.  In the Torah reading cycle, this week we open with the Israelites organizing and preparing to leave Mt. Sinai and embark on an extended journey through the wilderness to the Land.  

The Book of Numbers resumes the narrative at the beginning of the 13th month after the Israelites have left Egypt. Over the course of a little more than a year of freedom, the Israelites have crossed the Sea of Reeds, traveled to Mt. Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, built and worshipped the Golden Calf, constructed and dedicated the mishkan/Tabernacle, and installed the priests who will officiate over the sacrificial service there. It is time to move on from Sinai; the question is how to do so.

In Bemidbar, Moses models the concept of ‘order,’ organizing the Israelites into a coherent whole to ready them for the journey. First, he takes a census by tribe of all the men able to bear arms, twenty years and older, apparently for military purposes. The narrative opens with language connoting “lifting” to describe the process of counting each male individual:

“Adonai spoke to Moses: “lift the head” of (usually translated as ‘count’) all the community of the Children of Israel, according to their families, their father’s households, counting the names of the men by their heads.”

On a literal level, this passage simply describes mustering troops to defend the people and the mishkan.

But a Hasidic interpretation detects a potentially deeper significance in the use of the term “lift”, as in “lift their heads,” instead of the word ‘count’:

The real counting of the souls of Israel points upward, toward their Source in Heaven above. That’s why the text says, “lift up the head” and not simply “count.”  This act of Moses’s counting awakened the light of that Source, shining down brightly upon Israel.  It raised them up to the highest rungs of awe and love, directing their hearts to the ever-present God. 

Rabbi Yosef Bloc, a 19th century Chasid, here equates counting individuals with linking each person’s soul with its deepest roots, the sacred qualities from which each soul emerges. Thus, here Moses is charged with engaging the community in elevating each individual and enabling them to realize the latent holiness within them, not unlike our own practice of appealing to the better angels of our nature.  So, the initial step in preparing the community for its journey was recognizing and nurturing the innate goodness in each soul.

Second, Moses organizes the people by clan and tribe symmetrically around the mishkan, the Tabernacle, saying:

“The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting.”

A midrash on this Torah passage emphasizes that the process of ordering the community under each of their separate banners, activates the latent holiness within each individual and the community as a whole.  

This narrative of the Israelite camp’s organization describes the creation of a human community striving to personify the sacred, integrate heaven and earth, and translate the eternal into the here and now.

We can practice this in our lives by paying closer attention to the extent to which the individual elements of our lives (e.g., family, work, friendships, passions, leisure, etc.) line up with each other. We can notice whether these elements are infused with attention to others and our own innate worth, and whether they are pointing towards our highest aspirations.  

In this week of Bamidbar, we immerse in both the holiday and the Torah reading cycles, simultaneously arriving at and leaving Sinai. Let’s pay special attention to “lifting up each head,” our own and others’, giving honor to each individual and honoring his/her place in this world.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz


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