This week's Torah portion begins a new biblical book, after which the parsha is named in English, "Numbers,"and in Hebrew, "Bamidbar," best translated as "In the Wilderness."
Juxtaposing the two very different names turns out to have resonance, both then and now. Between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land, our biblical ancestors spend 40 years in the wilderness -- a time of closeness to God but also a time of dissension and danger, conflict with other peoples and within their community. Amidst conflict and confusion, God instructs Moses to conduct a census, counting the males older than 20 in each family and tribe. Based on their numbers, the tribes both set up camp surrounding the tabernacle and fight as an army.
This combination of disorder and order, threat and containment, seems all too familiar: A time of journeying toward a goal that keeps receding and blurring; toward a land which we keep claiming, leaving and returning to. A time when the laws given at Sinai, however ennobling and enduring, don't always fit circumstances that arise. A time when our people's mustering of troops seems both a natural response to danger and woefully inadequate to the threat.
Back then, things were difficult, but also simpler. God's presence was palpable -- in the tabernacle, ark, cloud, pillar of fire and instructions to Moses. When enemies arose, God assured Israel's victory over them.
Now, in this spring of 2002, we number our days, our dead and our allies while facing a deepening wilderness. Without Moses and the Pillar of Fire to guide us, what should we count on? Amidst the fear and confusion, there is a natural tendency to close ranks and insist that the community speak with one voice. "Now is the time to stand up and be counted," we keep hearing -- and yes, surely this is a time when Jews need to deepen involvement with Israel and one another. But need we really speak with one voice and support one monolithic vision?
No, no. Instead of being counted through army-like discipline, we can request God's teaching us to "number our days, to grant us a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90). We can count on the Talmudic tradition of Elu v'elu, devrai Elohim Chayim: "These and those are the word of the Living God." The Jewish ethos of allowing, even encouraging, dissent has helped us navigate many difficulties in many generations. It has enabled us to value and encourage various readings of our sacred texts, applying them to changing conditions.
The rabbis gave Parshat Bamidbar one of the great Haftorot as its teaching partner: Hosea 2:1-22. It begins with the promise that "the number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted," and ends with the beautiful triple rhythm that accompanies the laying of tefillin and often, the circling of bride and groom: "And I will espouse you forever. I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, with goodness and mercy. And I will espouse you with faithfulness, and you shall know God."
Perhaps measuring and counting discernible units is not the Jewish way. Instead of surveying Jewish demographics and acreage, perhaps we'll conclude that true promise resides not with quantity, but with righteousness, justice, goodness, mercy and faithfulness. Instead of calling for larger and larger rallies, where everyone applauds the same message, can't we assemble in smaller, quieter forums, where more nuanced possibilities can be proposed and debated?
In all this, we need faith in the God of Israel -- who is, after all, God of all the world. May the holy day of Shavout, one week away, unify our hearts and spirits, while leaving our minds free to seek truth.