Who goes first?
This question is central in my household nowadays, as my eight year old son and five year old daughter frequently argue over who gets the first turn at everything. They debate who gets to tell me first at dinnertime how their day was at school. To resolve this issue, I made a chart listing the days of the week with their names alternating as to who gets to recount their day first. Then they argue over a flaw in the chart. They noticed that since there are seven days of the week and two children, one child invariably gets the first turn two days in a row.
The kids also debate who gets snuggles first at bedtime. This time, thinking I was smarter, I made a chart of two weeks (since fourteen days is equally divisible by two), but then they objected that this system too was unfair, because the bedtime chart didn’t correspond to the dinner chart. The same child could end up talking first at dinner and receiving the first snuggles in the same day! As a solution, I suggested moving my daughter’s bedtime fifteen minutes earlier than my son’s so that each of them could have my snuggles “first” at their respective times. Both agreed to the plan, and familial harmony has been temporarily restored.
At bedtime, I tried to explain to my daughter that she doesn’t have to compete with her brother because I love both of them the same amount – infinity, which is bigger than any number. “No, mom,” she corrected me, “The biggest number is a hundred finity hundred finity.”
I now appreciate anew God’s genius in this week’s Torah portion. This week’s parasha begins the book of Bamidbar which recounts the Israelite’s trek through the wilderness. Like children, the Israelites were a quarrelsome bunch, and one of the questions which would have arisen was: who goes first to the Promised Land? But God had a better plan.
In this opening portion, God charts how the people should march through the desert. God arranged the people by family and tribe. But rather than any tribe walking in front of the other , God arranged them in a configuration around the ark which was placed in the center. In this way, no tribe was ahead or behind, each was equidistant from the ark and the tabernacle.
This plan was not merely a wise way to avoid arguments. The arrangement offered an orientation on life. It reminded the people not to measure themselves against one another, relative to their destination. Rather, they should see themselves as dots on a circle in which God is the center – all equally essential, connected to each other by sharing the same focal point.
How fitting then that this portion called “in the desert” is read on the week of the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. In the Mekhilta (a third century collection of interpretations on Exodus), the question is asked: why did God give the Torah in the desert?
One answer is so that there would be no disputes between the tribes, since none of them would be able to say that the Torah was received in their territory. “Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, in a public place that belonged to no one.” The passage further explains that the Torah was given in the desert because just as it is free to all who come into the world, so too the words of Torah are free to all who come into the world.” The Mekhilta underscores the Torah portion’s message that God acts with care to make sure all God’s children feel treasured.
As I try to make my children feel equally cherished, I hope that I can convey to them the wisdom of this week’s portion – that God loves all of us equally “a hundred finity hundred finity.”
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