Bemidbar – on Shavuot, on showing loyalty, and on standing together

I delayed writing this until after Shabbat/Shavuot to be able to reflect upon the incredible experience of being at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all night learning session). We honour the tradition of studying Torah all night by experiencing learning sessions on a range of Jewish topics. This is my favourite community-wide Jewish event in Toronto! Hundreds of Jews from all denominations and walks of life come together to learn, eat, and be together. The panel I was on that offered the most material related to the weekly parshah was entitled “What happened at Sinai? Who cares?” Four rabbis from many movements discussed the meaning of Torah, the story of the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai (the rabbinic explanation for Shavuot), and more. We often disagreed but there was lovely overlap as well, particularly about the Jewish expression of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) being a core part of what we value about Judaism. I also had the opportunity to co-lead the Havdallah ceremony with a Kohenet from Jewish Renewal, Annie Matan. I loved this experience! We asked everyone inside a packed theatre to imagine that this night was their mountain. To look around and notice who they were standing with. To realize that we may not believe literally that “all Jews were at Mt. Sinai the moment of revelation” as the religion teaches, but we can use that metaphor to imagine ourselves as part of a community with long-standing roots who come together to experience significant moments together. 

All of this is a lovely lead in to the book of Numbers. The title in Hebrew means in the wilderness/desert, but the title in English – “Numbers” – comes from the Greek Septuagint version which took the title from the census at the book’s beginning. In this book we’ll experience a narrative about loyalty and betrayal. While most religious interpreters understand that the narrative is about loyalty to God, in a Humanistic understanding we might find more interesting the lessons about loyalty to humans and about leadership in general. Moses has sacrificed for his people and is trying to deliver them to their promised land, but the people rebel. While the book is clear that those who make moves against their own people should be condemned, there are also hints that Moses and his siblings are a) disloyal themselves at times and b) sometimes let their power lead them to act unfairly. The book of Numbers can remind us of other literary texts, such as Hamlet, that focus on both how power corrupts but also how loyalty/disloyalty can have a significant impact on a kingdom or people. In the book of Numbers we have censuses, land divisions, and appeals for justice, which all work to solidify the people as a people. Loyalty is going to be paramount to keep this group together. Passover is celebrated in the desert for the first time, and the commandment to wear tzitzit is prescribed – both powerful ways of distinguishing the Israelites from others and making them cohere as a unified group. Thus the narrative continues to describe how a people becomes a people and, although we know the narrative is almost certainly not historically accurate, readers through the generations have identified with the characters in the desert and the story has served to solidify loyalty amongst the people through the generations. 

In this parshah, we have the first census mentioned in the bible. The idea of a census being written into the text is likely simply a reflection of a practice that was happening in order either to collect some form of tax or to count those who might qualify to fight against enemies. The census here comes up with a number of over 600,000, which is clearly impossible. While commentators have theorized that the census was so God could count his most beloved people(oddly suggesting that the all-powerful deity did not already know who or how many his people were), this idea of chosenness weaves its way throughout the book of Numbers. Many modern Jews take issue with the idea of the chosen people, but one can also understand that in a text about inculcating people into a coherent group, the concept was one that could wield a lot of leverage.  

The idea of leadership, or at least of those set apart, is inscribed in this first section of the book. Chieftains of each clan are put in charge of counting the people, and the Levites are not counted in this initial census but rather put in charge of the Tabernacle. Midrash indicates that the Levites are granted special status because of their continued loyalty to God, thus reinforcing the themes of loyalty and power that run throughout the book. As the camp is arranged, the tribes are organized according to their matriarchs from Genesis and the attributes of Joseph’s sons. Again, this reinforces the idea that God rewards those who have been loyal and instrumental in defining the Israelites as a people. 

Lastly there is the idea of the wilderness/desert. Midrashim often highlight that Yahweh shows his love to the people in the desert, the most barren and desolate of places, to highlight that he is ever-present even in times of distress. From a Humanistic perspective, it is interesting to consider the meanings of the desert as well. We all find ourselves feeling lost at times. Our wanderings might not be so long or so dangerous, but many of us feel stuck or without a particular direction at different points in our lives. The way through the wilderness is often to lean on others. Community is essential for both survival and also finding hope and peace – especially in the “deserts” of our lives. The coming together of the people as a people in the desert is a reminder that finding our own place in community is a way of garnering strength as we face our own challenges. Standing with Toronto’s diverse Jewish community at our mini-Sinai for Shavuot each year is a good reminder of that. 

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