The book of Bamidbar, literally “in the desert” or “in the wilderness,” is a hard book to read. Over and over, plagues break out and thousands are killed. The reason, we are told, is a pronounced lack of faith in God. I found the repeated spilling of Israelite blood difficult, to say the least, until Bible scholar Adriane Leveen put it into mythic perspective for me.
Life is not easy. In fact, at times it’s downright infuriating. Our natural tendency is to want to blame someone, and the easiest target is God. We may carry anger at HaShem for our entire lives. As a result, we miss out on decades of spiritual connectedness and comfort.
The mind of the midrashist drifts effortlessly over the face of the Tanakh as verses from the Torah conjure up similar verses and phrases from other sacred books. Thus, our parasha’s descriptions of the thanksgiving offerings and the free-will offerings call to mind a phrase found in Psalm 50: “The one who sacrifices a thanksgiving offering honors me.”
What’s up with God?
We are taught from a young age not to “judge a book by its cover” and we raise our children to look deeper than just at the clothes someone is wearing.
Having just come off Tisha B’Av, not only do we focus on the parasha, Va’etchanan, but this is also Shabbat Nachamu, the healing Shabbat of Comfort, so named because we read the words of Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).
My grandmother loved to tell family stories in which key details were changed. Sometimes she swapped out one time period or location for another. Sometimes key characters were replaced or motivations recast. More than slips of memory, these alterations were her way of putting the past into perspective, of teaching lessons and of casting a favorable light on the generations gone by. I lovingly called this trait “Nana’s revisionist history.”
In 2008, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed written by Marisol Leon, a young woman who graduated from Yale in 2007 and returned to teach in the same public middle school she had attended:
My sister just touched down in Israel. I can feel her elation way over here in California. Time stood still; there was silence. The land and the woman were one. She had returned home.
When looking for biblical themes on the importance of community, one needs look no further than those portions at the end of Exodus that deal with the construction of the mishkan (Tabernacle). This special structure represents the collective spiritual power of the Jewish people, which is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Separately, the individual Jew does not have enough spiritual energy to bring the Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, into this world. But when the Jewish people join in the construction of a communal edifice, a structure that represents their collective worship and spiritual energy, the Shekhinah eagerly embeds Itself within the people.