This coming Shabbat, Jews the world over will once again initiate the public reading of the fourth of the Five Books of Moses known as Sefer Bamidbar (or more accurately BeMidbar), the Book of Numbers.
For me, this Torah portion holds special significance as it was the Parashah on which I became a bar mitzvah, nearly four decades ago! I still recall, with great affection, the preparations for that Simchah, including mastering the technical skills of reading and chanting with the proper Ta’amei Ha’Mikra (musical cantillation tropes), as well as the unique opportunity to pour over these sacred texts with my father (may the Holy One grant him continued health and vigour of both body and mind!).
And the celebration that followed was nothing short of exhilarating, filled with joy, warmth, meaning and consequence, as well the priceless gift of the fully engaged participation of beloved family, dear friends, and cherished teachers, spiritual guides and mentors.
And yet, as I prepared for the writing of this D’var Torah (Torah commentary), the first thoughts that came to mind are poignantly echoed in the disquieting words of introduction to this selection found in the Conservative Movement’s tour de force commentary to the Torah known as the Etz Hayim (which was sadly not yet available at the time of my coming-of-age):
“The Book of Bemidbar (literally ‘in the wilderness’) describes a people wandering through a spiritual as well as a geographic wilderness as a petulant, complaining people, constantly trying the patience of God and of Moses.”
And then the introduction goes on to state: “In (Rabbi Samson Raphael) Hirsch’s words, Bemidbar contrasts the people of Israel as it actually is to the ideal which is summoned in the Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus.”
Back then, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed by the fact that my Bar Mitzvah Parashah wasn’t a little more upbeat or optimistic. Why was I assigned a section that was less than flattering of our ancient ancestors? How fortunate was I to have a wise sage (and Abba) at my side to rechannel my overly dramatic adolescent misery.
“But look at your Haftarah,” he lovingly counselled, “It is truly glorious!”
In the prophetic selection paired with this Torah portion, the prophet Jeremiah paints a very different portrait than the one we experience in the Parashah:
“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride. How you followed Me in the wilderness. In a land not sown.”
Jeremiah (who was well-known for “calling it the way he saw it”) describes the Sinaitic wanderings as a love affair, a kind of lovers’ retreat or honeymoon; a time of intense intimacy and unparalleled affection between God and the People of Israel. Thus, the potentially troubling tales of the Book of Numbers become much more than a litany of tales of cantankerous petulance and abject lack of faith and gratitude.
In fact, taken in this light, Rabbi Hirsch’s comments above can now be understood not as denigration or condemnation of the Israelites, but rather as laudatory, a compliment. The Book of Numbers is their actuation and fulfillment of the teachings found in the previous volume, the Book of Leviticus. Sefer Vayikra – with its lofty program for human access to transcendent holiness – is not just a theoretical aspirational theory. It can and does work, as we see played out on the pages of Sefer Bemidbar.
The Book of Numbers represents a time of heightened intimacy and connection and surely includes squabbles, tiffs and spats. But as any of us who has been in an intimate relationship will attest, the passions of those uncomfortable moments and the lessons learned in those emotion-filled interactions are often the most profound, enduring and impactful.
So as we turn this Shabbes to the opening Prakim (chapters) of Sefer Bemidbar, let us not focus on the relatively small handful of unfortunate blunders and gaffes. Rather, let us revel and delight in the nearly four decades of love, fealty and fidelity that our ancestors displayed in the direction of their (and our!) Deliverer, Saviour and Redeemer and the Zechut (merit and privilege), bestowed upon them to have felt so strongly the Divine Presence — immanently — in their midst.
And finally, let us pray that we, too, in our own time and in our own way, may glimpse and taste the delight of such sacred, holy and transcendent moments. Amen!
Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose serves as the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair of Congregation B’nai Amoona, and he is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.