Num. 1:1 – 4:20
Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss
In a few weeks, my youngest son will be graduating from preschool here at Beth Ami. It will be a bit of a transition for both of us. Ethan is nervous about leaving his safe community and the friends he knows and loves and going off to a new school. I will miss our rides to work together in the morning and my afternoon visits to see him in aftercare. As difficult as transitions can be, they are inevitable.
This week’s Torah Portion also discusses transitional moments and venturing into unknown lands.
This week we start the fourth book of the Torah, B’midbar which is translated as Numbers or “In the Wilderness.” The Israelites are in the in between. They are now freed from the slavery of Egypt and yet, they still have not reached the Promised Land. They will wander for 40 years “in the Wilderness.”
We too, wander through life without a road map. As much as we plan and anticipate, we never know what exactly will unfold on our life’s journey. While it was difficult for us to relate to the antiquated rituals the High Priests performed in the Temple in our last book of Leviticus, B’midbar is more relatable. We are all travelers on an unknown path. It feels timely when we begin Numbers a week before we arrive at Shavuot, the holiday where the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is a time of transition.
Dr. Erica Brown points out that Moses guided the Jewish people from slavery to freedom, led them through the transition from being a mass of individuals to become a people with purpose and mission. In her book “Leadership in the Wilderness,” she points out that we must do the difficult balancing act of preparing for uncertainty while also accepting the insecurity of transitions.
This is precisely what the Israelites did. In this moment of transition, as they approached unknown lands they took a census. They counted how many men age 20 and up they had among them to be God’s foot soldiers. This was likely tactical. They must be prepared for any battles that they would encounter on the way.
On the other hand, Rashi says that God counted the people “every hour” out of love. While Italian biblical commentator, Sforno believes that numbering the people dramatizes each person’s individuality and that each person matters. Rabbi Kenneth Weiss suggests that “perhaps God ordered a census in order to tell each person numbered —more than being counted-he or she must be someone God can count on.” He says, “Census taking in Torah must be a spiritual endeavor, not just ‘count me in” but ‘you can count on me.”
When I feel anxious about the number of tasks before me, I like to make lists. The act of writing it down and organizing my thoughts helps me feel a sense of control. We count the days left in the year, the days of the Omer, and the number of loved ones we can count on when we need support. There is strength in numbers and in our community. It is comforting to know that in transitional and difficult moments we are not alone. This is why it is comforting when we see people that care about us at a funeral or shiva. We have people that check in on us when we are going through transitional moments and there are people that pause to acknowledge the milestones along the way.
B’midbar reminds us that while we are all in the wilderness, we are not there alone. As you travel on your life’s journey, I ask you to consider:
- Who can you count on for support?
- Who can you offer support to in a transitional moment?
- How can you both prepare for uncertainty and accept the insecurity of transitions?
Change is the only constant in our lives. I think that the census reminded the Israelites that when they walked B’midbar, they were not alone. They had each other to rely on. The census of B’midbar helps remind us that even when we feel isolated, even when we walk through a place of uncertainty, we are not alone.