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Pluralistic Perspectives The Numbers of Those Who Wandered in the Wilderness

By Burton Visotzky

This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, known in English as the book of Numbers. This text, however, carries a different name in Hebrew. The English/Latin title is all about the census of those who wandered in the desert; the Hebrew title, Be-Midbar, is all about the wilderness in which they wandered. I wish to explore the relationship between the numbers and the wandering.

There is a dramatic story in the Palestinian Talmud (Ta’anit 9:11, 69c) that teaches that when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, every year on the night of the 9th of Av—the national day of mourning—each member of the Exodus generation dug a grave and slept in it. The following morning, some 15,000 individuals were found dead in their graves. According to tradition, this harrowing ritual was repeated annually for forty years, until the original 600,000 Israelites who left Egypt—those who doubted that they could attain the Promised Land—finally died off. Only on the day on which all of the people of the younger generation rose from their graves was the community of Israel finally worthy of inheriting the Land. Triumph and tragedy were thus intertwined.

Our Torah reading falls at a time of counting. Not only do we count the numbers of Numbers, but we count our days on the calendar, as well. We count the Omer, commemorating the grain offering in the Jerusalem Temple of old. We count the dates in the Hebrew month of Iyyar; a month that includes Israel’s Memorial Day, Jerusalem Day, and this year, if we switch calendars for a moment, we also count America’s Memorial Day. In this Hebrew month of Iyyar we also counted Israel’s 66th Independence Day. This also marks what the Palestinians call Nakba Day, which if we switch back once more to the Gregorian calendar, fell this year on May 15th. Tragically, as we celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel, our neighbors mourn their defeat and displacement.

The Palestinians continue to mourn the exile of hundreds of thousands from their ancestral homeland. The numbers of Palestinians who have dwelled since then in their encampments has grown, and the burgeoning youth population is staggering. As it was for the biblical Israelites of old, the cost of the Jews finally entering their modern Promised Land involved the suffering of another group of people. Needless to say, this was a complicated moment in the histories of these two nations, in which both parties failed to create a peaceful resolution to their competing claims to the land.

The recent failure of the State of Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement on a two state solution just extends this tragedy another year. Each year, more Israelis and Palestinians will lie down in their graves. This bloody conflagration threatens the future of the Jewish state and of the emergence of a Palestinian state. The failure of faith and absence of vision on both sides is a Nakba, a catastrophe of biblical proportions.

Recently, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, in his unsettling book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, joined the ranks of other Israelis who have spoken openly about the moral cost of the establishment of the State of Israel. In the United States, the book has been discussed widely, leaving many Jewish readers deeply pained about the complex origins of the modern Jewish state. More recently, former speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Avraham Burg published an Op-Ed, printed in the Israeli paper Ha’aretz and in the Huffington Post, called “Independence Day and Nakba: Intertwined and Inseparable.” While one can critique elements of the work of both of these men (and each holds different views on a range of issues), it is clear that Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, need to develop a greater capacity for empathy if there is going to be any hope for peace.

As we count the days toward Shavout, the time of receiving the Torah, a time when we stay up all night studying Torah, it behooves all Jews to wrestle with the words of Shavit and Burg as we seek to embody a Torah of empathy. We urge our Palestinian neighbors to engage in similar soul-searching activities. It is time for Jews to hold fast to our Promised Land, but to admit to the other’s catastrophe. It is time to urge the Palestinians and the Israelis to return to the table to find a way to peace for two peoples, in two states. It is time to bring an end to the wandering in the wilderness.

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Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is the author of Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud. He serves as Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. There, he directs the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue and also is the Louis Stein Director of the Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, charged with programming on Public Policy.

Hebrew College’s Seventy Faces of Torah blog appears weekly on the Hebrew College website and Learn more about our rabbinical ordination program. Hebrew College is reimagining Jewish learning and leadership for an interconnected world. Making our lives more meaningful, our communities more vibrant, and our world more whole.

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