Numbers Caring is Sharing

By Rev. Tom Reid
Rev Tom Reid

Parashat Beha’alotcha Numbers 8:1-12:16

Being a person of faith is challenging in a variety of ways. One particular challenge that faces those of us in Abrahamic traditions is the inherent tension between living in community among humans and living in relationship to God. We humans are messy, complicated, imperfect creatures. God defies understanding and transcends all limits, expectations, or demands we might attempt to place on God. These are two difficult, unruly forces. Perhaps it would be easier if we could tune out the rest of the world and live our lives one on one as ‘God and me.’ Fewer variables. Fewer complications. But that’s not the way God is. And that’s not the universe God created.

This week’s Torah portion runs a huge gamut of human experience, from extremely detailed instructions for living, to complaints about the way things are going and the idealization of an awful past—what Nechama Leibowitz calls remembering the good and forgetting the painful. We have a leader getting frustrated with the peoples’ complaining and would-be leaders jockeying for position. How challenging! And how very human.

There’s an awesome, seemingly impossible specificity captured in the beginning of the parashah. We worship a God that is greater and vaster than anything we humans could ever imagine. Our God measures and experiences time on a scale so vast that even the most long-lived among us constitute less than a nanosecond of God’s time. Our God is the creator of all that is. Yet at the same time, God, as they say, is in the details. God knows us more intimately than we can imagine (and possibly more than we would ever prefer…“I don’t know what you’re talking about, God…I never did that thing or had that thought…”). What a wonderful contradiction held together in our relationship with the divine: magnitude and finitude all at the same time.

Speaking of specificity, I love the care that God gives in instructing how to observe Pesach, the central liberative act in the lives of the people of Israel and the primary celebration that anchors Jewish history and identity. No one should be excluded from sharing in this core practice. And no one should be excused…without good reason. God demonstrates God’s relational and understanding nature by addressing the inevitable questions that arise from the human community: what do we do if we are ritually impure when Pesach comes around? Are we just to be excluded from participation?

Moses then models good leadership skills as he navigates the human-divine axis: “Good question,” he says. “I don’t know… let me check.” He who has unparalleled access to the divine asks God a follow up question. And God answers Moses reinforcing the extreme importance of observing Pesach and the inclusive, expansive nature of God’s love. If folks can’t offer the requisite sacrifice at the appointed time, then let them do so the following month in the same manner prescribed. And woe to anyone who chooses not to participate.

We worship a God who cares enough to go the extra mile in order to ensure that no one is excluded from participating in communal life. And I am grateful for the inclusive nature of God who speaks of one law that is to apply to all people: “There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.” (Numbers 9:14) Being in the in-crowd does not put anyone above anyone else. Neither does it exempt strangers from knowing and learning how to fulfill God’s commandments, something else that can only happen in community. Only the individual can choose to not fully participate. And no one should ever dare presume to make that choice for others.

Looking at the human-human axis, we find a series of refusals to accept authority at various levels. The people complain about the journey and the food, thereby rejecting God and God’s sovereignty. Miriam reportedly instigates the resentment that she and her brother Aaron expressed in accusing Moses of stealing the spotlight and minimizing two of the sibling trio. Even Moses begins to lose his patience with the people God tasked him with leading. “Why don’t you just kill me and put me out of my misery?!” Moses blurts out.

Anyone who has tried to lead a community of humans has likely experienced similar frustrations. You try to get people moving in a particular direction and you inevitably get some trying to move in other, sometimes opposite directions. People agree and then change their minds. People who could not be bothered to show up to meetings where decisions were made inevitably jump in at the eleventh hour with new ideas that disrupt and delay even the best laid plans already in motion. That’s the way people seem to work. People are willful. We have our own ideas, and we often don’t agree. Yet, God reminds Moses, we are communal beings, and we are called by God to live in community. We are not intended to go it alone or do it all ourselves. It is not possible. We have to work with others. We have to share the burden or else risk burnout or worse.

God models this aspect of wise communal and religious leadership. God hears Moses’ complaints: Why have you done this to me? You say you love me, yet you give me these impossible people. I’m doing everything I can to lead and keep your (not my) people from dying in the wilderness and here they are complaining about the food!

And God responds: Stop trying to do it all by yourself. God instructs Moses to gather seventy leaders to stand with him. “You will not have to go this alone,” God says. “I gave my ruach (spirit) to you and it’s time to share some of it with others. Then you will not have to bear this burden alone. Others can lead alongside you.” God also gives Moses a plan for the food, but Moses can’t seem to hear what God is telling him. All Moses hears is: “you are going to give ALL the people meat for an entire month.” But there are 600,000 people, Moses cries! Where in the world is he going to find that much meat? And in the desert!?

God, who in turn is perhaps getting a bit frustrated as well, responds in typical God fashion: “Little mortal, is there any limit to what I can do? Do you doubt my power and my commitment to my word?” And the answer is: of course not! But it dovetails with some sage folk wisdom: “Be careful what you wish for.”

Living and working in community is hard, but it is who we are and who God calls us to be. May we be able to trust in God’s power and commitment to us, even when things feel bleak or impossible. May we remember to look to one another, and to the gifts God instills in those around us, making space for them to shine too. And may we keep our hubris in check to remember Who is in charge and that we cannot do it all nor have all the answers.


Rev. Tom Reid is pastor of Newton Presbyterian Church in Newton, MA. He has also served in a variety of roles with Hebrew College’s Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership, most recently as director of the Building Interfaith Leadership Initiative (BILI) Launchpad Fellowship. After seven wonderful years, Tom is stepping down from the Miller Center at the end of June 2024.


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