Numbers The Forgetful Sands of the Wilderness
Parshat B’midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
The biblical book of Numbers continues the story of a people adrift and unmoored, winding their way through the empty wilderness. Much has happened thus far, including times of elation as well as failure; ours has not been a linear journey. God’s self-revelation and the giving of the Torah at Sinai was followed by the sin of the Golden Calf, and then the command to build the Tabernacle and thus establish a dwelling place for God amidst the physical world.
By the beginning of our Parshat B’midbar, over a year has passed since our initial burst into freedom from Egypt. We now carry the Torah with us in our peregrinations, in addition to the planks and boards that are now God’s home–but time after time, the wilderness leads Israel into a state of questioning, to indecision and to forgetfulness.
Like the overwhelming rapture that leads deep-sea divers into the abyss, the sweep of the wilderness is irrepressible and unfathomable. Anyone who has faced an empty canvas, a blank sheet of paper, or a classroom of expectant pupils, knows the feeling of being crushed underneath the infinite expanse of possibility. It is not simply the first stroke of the pen, or the initial sentence of an address that is difficult. Until we find our course, establishing a trajectory or structure, every step is a struggle. Potential is another name for chaos; it is unformed, stormy and as ever-changing as the sea. d
Our journey as depicted in Numbers is the paradigm of spiritual journeys undertaken in shifting sands of perpetual possibilities. It is a tale of religious awakenings attained and lost; moments of illumination that are swept away by the winds of change. Just as the heights of Sinai had been forgotten in Israel’s lust for a molten god, the divine promise of entering the land and dwelling in security are temporarily eclipsed when the initial scouts come back with a pessimistic report.
The Hasidic tradition often describes the wilderness as symbolic realm of forgetfulness, a temporary exile of consciousness and awareness inhabited after Sinai. We see in our own lives that moments of illumination retreat all too quickly, fading into distant memories of one-time insight; so too in the wilderness. Through the Exodus and revelation at Sinai, Israel broke free from their bondage, but this type of precipitous redemption, accomplished in a flash from on high, is ultimately unsustainable. Enduring redemption can only be achieved on an arduous journey and through hard work.
Let us focus for a moment on the census of the Israelite tribes which occupies much of our parashah. The census numbers bespeak tremendous, even fantastic fecundity; shortly upon leaving Egypt, Israel had grown into a mighty and populous nation. Why does the community of Levites, the tribe chosen by God to serve in the Tabernacle and to carry out most important religious functions, remain the smallest? Nahmanides (on Numbers 3:14) suggests that these extraordinary birthrates were a divine gift, measured recompense for Israel’s suffering under the spiteful hand of Egypt.
But several rabbinic midrashim hold that, unlike the rest of Israel, the Levites were not enslaved and subject to backbreaking labor; they suffered less than and were thus disconnected from their people. This detachment is reflected in their lower birthrates. They had no share in the suffering, and reaped no triumph in the blessing of fruitfulness.
While Maimonides famously claimed that the levitical mantle is still available to all individuals who emulate their service by devoting themselves solely to a life of God, his self-absorbed portrait of piety is troubling. (Interestingly, Maimonides himself served his community as a tireless physician as well as an unparalleled scholar.) The reading of Nahmanides affords a different perspective. The Levites were chosen by God to carry forward a special banner of faith, but this devotion should not come not at the expense of others. Their duties and their potential for blessing require them to be linked to all of those around them, including their disenfranchised comrades and those found in dire or straitened circumstances.
When we draw together these two threads–the forgetful wilderness and the life of piety as bound up with communal obligation—we can observe what or who is forgotten along our journeys, the result of either worries and travail—or equally, success and apathy. Who have we—especially those of us living as Jews in the US– forgotten to count and consider? Our own journey for acceptance, and even integration, on these soils has been unbelievably successful. But reading the news day after day, my own heart breaks over and over for so many others, including the victims of mass incarceration with its dreadful racial underbelly—a contemporary legacy of slavery that would be convenient but unconscionable to forget.
Returning to the scene of the census with its painstaking effort suggests to us that all individuals are to be counted because all are sacred and precious. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel often explained the biblical prohibition against making graven images of God this way: It is not forbidden, he said, because God has no image, but because there is only one physical entity that can bear witness to the Divine: the human being. No statues of bricks or stones can embody the divine majesty. The only fitting representation of God is a person, whose life is constructed of actions performed one at a time, moment after moment, day after day, year after year.
Every lifetime includes misdeeds as well as victories, but Jewish tradition holds an infinitely positive and optimistic view of what each person can become. “Three strikes” may apply to a goring ox, but not to the human being imbued with the divine quality of infinite self-transformation. Human life, checkered and complex, is the image of God in our world. To forget this is to forget that you stand in the presence of God each time you encounter another human being.
The Hasidic tradition depicts Israel’s quest through the wilderness (midbar) a journey to also reclaim the sacred value of speech and language (medabber or dibbur). In our day, this is a call to lend our voices to our brothers and sisters from whom it has been taken. In a year in which nativism, bigotry, and fear have been so prominent, this is our task as well: Redeem language, uplift your speech from the corrupt wilderness of ignorance, and refuse to forget that each of us is an image of the Divine.
Ariel Evan Mayse is the incoming Director of Jewish Studies and visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He holds a PhD in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el.