May 20, 2009
Parashat Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)
Numbers, this is the English name of the Book of Bemidbar. Whoever chose the name must have been overwhelmed by the meticulous descriptions of the multiple censuses of the Israelites, the Levites and the firstborn. Then we have the manual of camping, building the Tabernacle, taking apart the Tabernacle, traveling and so on, ad infinitum.
The Hebrew name, on the contrary, seems to reflect nothing of the content of the book; in fact, it is nothing more than the first distinctive word in the opening verse of the book (the timeworn words preceding it are: And the Lord spoke to Moshe). As a matter of fact, if we look at the full picture of Bemidbar, we will find that our first impressions are wrong.
As much as the book is concerned about numbers, it does so only until Chapter 11, where the scene and the storyline change abruptly. From a world controlled by numbers, divided into perfectly matching and harmoniously moving units, where boundaries are clear, rules are respected and authority is revered, the Book of Bemidbar takes a precipitous fall into chaos, rebellion and strife.
From chapter 11, we are constantly reminded that the events of the book indeed take place in the midbar, the wilderness. It is in the latter half of the book that every imaginable manifestation of defiance, anarchy and distrust takes place.
It starts with people being consumed by fire after they raise Hashem’s ire by grousing (Numbers 11:1-3). Next, the riffraff who are tired of manna reminisce about the delicious smorgasbord at the Egyptian slave house (11:4-9). This ungrateful behavior, in turn, inspires Moshe to denounce his role and responsibilities.
He tells Hashem, “If You deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness” (11:10-15). But when Hashem promises Moshe that He will provide the people with fresh meat, Moshe retorts with a statement of disbelief that sent the commentators scurrying for explanations: “The people in whose midst I am number six hundred thousand men; yet You say ‘I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month.’ Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea gathered for them to suffice them?” (11:21-22).
These stories are followed by the autonomous prophesying of Eldad and Medad (11:26-27); Aaron and Miriam complaining to Moshe (12:1-14); the tragedy of the scouts (13:1-14:38); the unsanctioned and disastrous war against Amalek and Canaan (14:39-45); Korach’s rebellion and its aftershocks of demonstrations against Moshe and Aaron (16:1-17:15); the people’s complaint for lack of water (20:1-5) that caused Moshe to lose his temper and to be told by Hashem, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm my sanctity in sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I had given them” (20:9-12), and culminates with the fateful encounter of the Israelites with the Midianite women, where all boundaries of religious, moral and ethical code had been breached.
It seems as if there could not have been a sharper contrast between the “numbers” and the “wilderness” personalities of this book. Is it deliberate?
I think that the answer is positive. The lesson we learn from the collapse of the carefully outlaid structure of the Israelite encampment and its hierarchy is that limits and boundaries are extremely important and necessary, but that no government, be it as perfect as possible, can function and thrive without full cooperation of the people or without people respecting the personal space and the rights of others.
This last concept is shown in the last section of our parasha. When the Tabernacle was taken apart, the lower-ranking Levites were not allowed to be in the holy of holies until the high priest and his sons would cover all the vessels. In the words of the Torah: “Let not the sons of Korah go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.”
The holy ark is analogous to our soul, and just as one should not witness the sanctuary being dismantled, so should humans respect each other’s need for privacy, intimacy and dignity. In that vein, the rabbis said that we should not offer comfort at the first moment of grief, that we should try to look aside if a friend is caught in an embarrassing situation and that we should not pry into others’ private lives.
The lesson of Bemidbar, then, is that between the rigidity and inflexibility of rules and boundaries on the one hand and the anarchy of a no-man’s-land wilderness on the other, there is a fine equilibrium of self-respect and respect toward others we must maintain in order to achieve a peaceful, harmonious society.