Parsha Phil: Bamidbar
As we begin the book of Bamidbar — which means 'in the desert/wilderness' — the parsha begins with a counting, a census of adult males who will clear the path and conquer the land. God assigns the census-takers: Moses and Aaron, and a leader or point person from each ancestral house, tribal heads who serve as assistants and are responsible for those within their group. Like a philanthropy assistant, we can imagine them recording gifts and notes, creating reports, helping to make sure everyone is counted and that everyone steps forward proudly to contribute.
Gerald May wrote, “Wilderness….is not only nature you find outdoors. It can also refer to your own true Nature—the You that is closest to your birth. This inner wilderness is the untamed truth of who you really are (The Wisdom of Wilderness, p.xx). As we begin the book of Bamidbar—which means ‘in the desert/wilderness’—this week, we are called to discover our own true nature. How do we travel in the world? Who and what do we put first? Opening to the wild within calls us into a process of discernment, uncovering what anchors our relationships with people, places, and resources, identified and those not yet tapped.
The parsha begins with a counting, a census of adult males who will clear the path and conquer the land. Gd assigns the census takers: Moses and Aaron, and a leader or point person from each ancestral house, tribal heads who serve as assistants and are responsible for those within their group. Like a philanthropy assistant, we can imagine them recording gifts and notes, creating reports, helping to make sure everyone is counted and that everyone steps forward proudly to contribute.
The parsha tells us, “yachanu b’nai yisrael mineged saviv l’ohel moed yahanu,” that b’nai yisrael shall camp around and opposite the tent of meeting (Num. 2:2). Situated opposite the ohel mo’ed, everyone’s heart is turned towards the center. By sacred design, each member of the community can feel the gravitational pull of the holy, the reason we are counting, collecting and building. Everyone, in their own way, from their own place, is responsible for the whole.
The 11th century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra clarifies that where Num. 2:2 says the people were to set themselves up “mineged” in relation to the ohel mo’ed, this means “a good way off” (meaning, not necessarily that close). This reminds us that while some are close to the center, they remain in relation to the sacred and to each other; everyone’s work and effort has power that supports the whole. We must make space for everyone’s gifts and talents no matter where they are positioned.
In Honey from the Rock, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being….In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future….You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults. You see the world as if for the first time” (p.22). Kushner reminds us that the wild of the wilderness is not disorderly; it is core, honest and essential. The wilderness calls us to ask, and answer honestly, what values are at our core.
The wilderness blesses b’nai yisrael by teaching them that even sitting and assembling matters. Being together. Feeling one another’s presence and energy. To create sustainable community, we must remember we are not alone.
Committing to listen to the voice of the wilderness means placing holiness at the center, within ourselves, as Gd placed the sanctuary in the midst of the people while they traveled through the desert. The mishkan was set apart yet surrounded by strength and love; anchoring the community, and reminding everyone of their duty to serve something larger than ourselves.
Stepping forward to be counted, or in the language of census-taking in Torah—s’u et rosh kol adat b’nai yisrael (Numbers 1:2) raising up the head—is at the heart of sustaining connection to the past while journeying towards the future. Like our ancestors, we must step forward with heads held high to examine, imagine and interpret what is to come, seeing ourselves and one another as part of a sacred story whose upcoming chapters we are tasked with writing together.
Honoring the words of the wilderness and the wilderness within, we must appreciate and honor one another, and give in support of one another. We must practice journeying, embracing the exploration of uncharted territory alongside familiar routes, finding our way toward moments of sacred encounter. When we give as part of our essential nature, we illuminate the sacred coordinates we carry within ourselves—our holy personal GPS system—and count ourselves as part of the community as a whole.
Rabbi Lisa Gelber serves Congregation Habonim with joy. She is a fierce mother, marathon runner, spiritual director, breast cancer survivor, BRCA advocate, domestic violence educator and PELOTON enthusiast. Her journey to parenthood is profiled in the Emmy-nominated documentary ALL OF THE ABOVE: Single, Clergy, Mother. She lives, writes, runs and spins in NYC with her Torah muse: her soon to be bat mitzvah-aged daughter.