Jewish learning Dolphin Skins and Aluminum Foil: A Legacy of Wanderers
Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)
I don’t like packing. While there is something satisfying about the moment when I am done packing, it rarely outweighs the unpleasantness of the task itself. Having fewer occasions that require packing was perhaps one of the silver linings of the pandemic. When my family prepares for a journey, though everyone helps gather things, I do more than my share of the planning and the actual work of loading things into suitcases, boxes and bags, and then into the car. Typically when I finish packing, several hours after I hoped to be done, I tell my family, “You all go and have fun. I’m worn out. I think I’ll stay here and recover.” The longer the journey, the more potentialities it requires, the harder and more exhausting the packing becomes. While I always relent, and usually feel better a short way down the road, I often wonder whether the journey will be worth the work it takes to get going.
This week’s parashah, Bamidbar, begins the book of Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Desert,” known in English as the book of Numbers. Both are apt appellations. The book chronicles [some of] the events of the Israelites’ forty-year journey through the desert. And it begins with this week’s parashah, focused on the details of how the people must organize themselves and pack for the journey, full of lists of names and numbers. It not only sets the stage for the long, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous journey ahead, but also becomes a model for the many moments throughout Jewish history, both ancient and modern, that Jewish communities have had to wander far from home, maintaining our connectedness and identity and safeguarding the things that sustain us physically and spiritually along the way.
I am familiar with traveling, with organizing groups of people of various sizes and configurations, with making sure everyone is accounted for. But this year, in reading through the parashah’s lists of who was counted by name and linked to their ancestral houses, I found the counting alienating. The people, all the people, young, and old, strong and vulnerable, people of all genders, along with their flocks, have been encamped at the base of Mount Sinai for a year. And when it is time to go, Moses and Aaron gather chieftains of each tribe and count up men fit to serve in an army, organizing them into camps and marching formation. They count men and boys who will dedicate their lives to service in the Temple, or who need to be redeemed from such service. As the people prepare to go, the women, the children, the vulnerable and the disconnected disappear from view. While some years I am able to read the counting as inclusive, personal and unifying, for whatever reason, this year, I can’t see myself in the picture.
Where I find myself, this year, in the parashah, is in the packing of the sacred vessels of the traveling sanctuary. This is, of course, also done by an exclusive group of men, but there is something in the process that feels intimately familiar and nurturing. As the priests wrap the various items meticulously in layer after layer of carefully chosen materials, I find myself thinking of my childhood lunches. My mom wrapped and expertly sealed each item in several layers of aluminum foil, sometimes with some Saran wrap or parchment paper thrown in for good measure. While lunchtime might not have been long enough to unwrap everything, the food was always safe from harm and at no risk of leaking out into the outer lunch bag or backpack beyond.
This care and detail in packing is described in our parashah, only with regard to the sacred vessels of the sanctuary, which were wrapped in carefully ordered layers of blue and crimson cloth and the skin of something called a tachash, a mysterious animal understood to be anything from a seal to a dolphin to a narwhal to some sort of unicorn that existed only at that particular moment, which provided a waterproof protective covering for the precious items. But I imagine that as the priests did the glamorous work of packing the vessels that were critical to the people’s spiritual sustenance, common people, those whose names and numbers may have been lost in the recording or transmission of the text we have before us today, were developing the same skills, carefully wrapping and packing the more mundane items of life as a wandering Jew. In my imaginings, these ancestors laid the foundation of traditions that would one day leave me wondering at my own mother’s skill with a roll of aluminum foil, a modern miracle perhaps on a par with the ancient miraculous tachash skin. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shape it as elegantly as she does, and I know she still wonders at the kinds of handiwork that her mother had perfected.
Numerous midrashim and commentators point out how the multiple layers wrapping the sacred sanctuary objects extend beyond the cloth and leather coverings to include the tribe of Levi, which is entrusted with their care, and the entire people in either marching or camping formation. Before the Levites can safely do their job of carrying these objects, the objects must be wrapped by the priests. Without the coverings, such close contact could kill the Levites. The whole structure of the sanctuary when encamped, and the pieces, when on the move, are surrounded on four sides by families of Levites. Their presence protects the rest of the people from the danger of coming too close to the sacred. The Levites are surrounded by tribes of Israelites, three tribes on each of the four sides of the camp, each flying a flag symbolizing their ancestral houses. Rabbeinu Bahya (on Numbers 2:2) describes several ways of understanding the symbols on the flags. In one, each of four flags has a symbol of its lead tribe, but together these symbols make up the four faces of the angels in Ezekiel’s vision. In another, the flags symbolize the deep desire of the people to resemble the heavenly hosts of angels who travel with their own banners. In others, each flag, each encampment represents an aspect of God’s being or a particular angel of God’s entourage. In this way, the whole traveling encampment reflected a tie to the sacred. Every individual human being participated in the careful wrapping up and packing of the sanctuary, a process that protected the sacred objects and the people, but more importantly, tied them together in a bond of connection to and imitation of the Divine.
The Israelites have spent the past year encamped at Mount Sinai receiving revelation, building and learning to use their desert sanctuary, and anticipating the journey to come. Now that it is time to begin, the instructions and the work they do to organize themselves and pack are more than practical considerations. They contain instructions on how to safely and securely transport what sustains us, how to value and honor each individual and each tribe, and how to bind them together into a community. These acts of packing, both the small and the big, the individual and the communal, the explicit and the implicit, come down to us through the ages, sometimes as text, sometimes as stories, sometimes in a well-packed suitcase or perhaps enveloping a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that is at once sanctified and mundane.
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Rabbi Shira Shazeer received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010 and a Masters Degree in Jewish Education with a focus on special education in 2022. Previously, she studied Torah in the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Learning and music at Goucher College. Rabbi Shazeer teaches in the learning center at Gann Academy. She is a Yiddish enthusiast, a singer, accordion player and occasional composer, and parent to three fabulous kids.