Counting in the Desert

This week we begin reading the 4th of the 5 Books of Moses, which actually has 3 different names: Bemidbar (Hebrew for “In the Desert”), describing where the action takes place, and Numbers, because, following the early Greek translation of the Bible, the book begins with a census and close attention to counting. Finally, this book also had another, earlier name: Homesh Hapekudim (Hebrew for “the Fifth of the Torah about Counting” (or reckoning)), emphasizing the several censuses (first in our parasha, the first few chapters, and then again in chapter 26).

I like the name Bemidbar (in the desert) because the desert has a connotation of being an in-between place… That is, the place between the enslavement of Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land of Israel. The desert is also a wilderness: the word “wilderness” has in it an echo suggesting a place of wildness. It’s where a certain kind of desolation and emptiness can make one wild and/or can help one journey through whatever is required to make one civilized. Have you ever felt the need for isolation in a quiet, empty space to re-calibrate your own balance, to become more “civilized” and fit for social interactions? What is it about a “time-out” in a quiet space that takes the wildness out of us? For the Israelites, Bemidbar is the place where the ragtag tribes who were taken out of Egypt go in order to become a civilized nation, with rules and proper organization.

Bemidbar begins with a head count, a census. This is where we get the notion that the tribes must engage in the business of nation-building, how to position themselves, how to divide things equitably, and how many able-bodied men there are to wage war. Israel is organizing — each tribe is assigned its proper place. In contrast, the Levites are not placed among the tribes; just as they don’t receive a regular inheritance in the Promised Land and have special responsibilities, they are assigned a location along side the Tent of Meeting, which is in the center of the camp’s concentric rectangles.

The whole book of Bemidbar is a composite book, with multiple narratives, and they don’t always fit together. More than any of the other five books, this one is clearly the result of an editorial process, according to biblical scholars. We have both snippets of ancient texts (often found in poetry) and chapters that seem to be written much later, but were added here by whoever edited the Bible, to emphasize certain points. You could think of the entire book of Bemidbar like a journal of a family trip: even though it looks like everyone was in the same place at the same time doing the same thing, each member of the family has his or her own experience of that place and that activity, and each will report on it in sometimes radically different ways. Each day of a family trip might be planned by a different family member, or parts of the day might be the responsibility of another member of the family. Bemidbar is our family’s journey in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land of Israel. It is a bunch of stories, some of which have the same theme, but sometimes the way the stories are assembled makes the narrative disjointed and confusing.

Another observation about the entire book is that the structural aspects of Bemidbar parallel its content. The 36 chapters alternate between discussions of laws and narratives. According to the late Professor Jacob Milgrom, one of the foremost scholars on Bemidbar, the book zigzags between laws and stories as follows: The first 10 chapters deal with laws. Then, chapters 10:11-14:45 are stories. Chapter 15 goes back to laws; chapters 16-17 are stories; chapters 18-19 deal with laws; chapters 20-25 are a narrative; chapters 26-27:11 again deal with laws; chapters 27:12-23 are stories; chapters 28-30 contain laws; chapters 31-33:49 are stories; and finally, from the end of chapter 33 through the end of chapter 36, we get more laws.

If you were to make a line drawing of the map of the wanderings of the Israelites and used what I listed, making a zig or a zag for every time there is a change in content, you would get a route that would show the extremely circuitous way that the people traveled through the desert, which is partly the reason they spent 38 years there, until the generation of those who experienced slavery died out.

One of the strongest narrative themes in Bemidbar is rebellion. There are eight different rebellions, most of them beginning with the Israelites complaining and whining and involving the same actors: Moses, God, the Israelites. The biblical scholar and prolific biblical translator, Professor Robert Alter, points out in his book, The Five Books of Moses, pages 676-77:

The scheme of the recurrent scene of ‘murmuring’ or complaint is as follows: the people bitterly protests its misery in the wilderness or Moses’s leadership or both: God’s wrath flares against the people, expressing itself in some sort of ‘scourge’ that decimates the Israelite ranks; Moses intercedes — in two instances God actually threatens to wipe out the entire people and begin anew with Moses — and He relents…. Restiveness under Moses’s rule is so epidemic that even Miriam and Aaron are infected by it, at one point resentfully rebelling against their brother (chapter 12). One suspects that all these repetitions of the scenes of murmuring are introduced because the writers conceived it as a paradigm for the subsequent history of Israel: recurrent resentment of God’s rule and of the authority of His legitimate leaders, chronic attraction to objects of base material desire, fearfulness, divisiveness, and the consequences of national disaster brought about, in the view of the biblical writers, by this whole pattern of constant backsliding.

On the other hand (and this is another zigzag), we will see as we continue to read this book of Bemidbar, that we get a strong counter image of this nation-in-formation, as a bunch of tribes who are molding themselves into a people with a grand historical destiny in their future.

This week’s parasha has a lot of counting in it — and it comes at the end of the counting period known as the Omer, the 49 days we count between Passover and Shavuot. In her Torah commentary this week, Rabbi Abigail Treu of the Jewish Theological Seminary reminds us that counting must be seen in context. As we begin the book of Numbers, when it seems the text is hung up on counting, she reminds us of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

She concludes, “With all of the numbers and counting pervading our week, let us not lose sight of the message they bring: that what counts the most is spending time with one another, and that we measure our years by counting day in and day out the moments we spend with others wandering with us, blazing paths together through the wilderness of life.

Who Dwells Where?

Our G-dcast storyteller this week correctly informs us that Parashat Terumah is all about the Israelites’ newest project: building a portable sanctuary (mishkan) for worshipping God, right there in the middle of the desert. God gives the instructions to Moshe/Moses, and then we, as readers, get the dozens of details as a kind of blueprint in what might be considered numbingly boring minutiae.

But we need to ask ourselves: what is the point of laying it all out so exactingly? And does God really care about gold, silver, lapis lazuli and dolphin cloth??? And if not, why would these specifications be made?

Our storyteller suggests that we need to zoom in and zoom out of these particulars in order to see the bigger picture.

There are a few verses that really call out to me in this parasha, starting with Exodus chapter 25 verse 2:

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him/her.

What an incredible thing to find here in the Torah, a book full of commandments for so many things. Here, we are told that gifts are only to be brought if one WANTS to participate, if one’s heart is so moved… Only then, should he or she bring a gift to help build the sanctuary. This is the first startling thing in this huge, complicated new construction project the former slaves are undertaking.

The second verse that is at the heart of Parashat Terumah is also from chapter 25, a few verses later in verse 8:

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

God is actually telling Moshe that God wants to be “among” the people (b’tocham — in their midst). Not above them, not in a special place rooted in a specific locality, but AMONG them, in this portable tent-like santuary that moves with the people as they wander in the desert. What kind of God wants to be AMONG the people? What is God’s need, if we could be so bold in asking?

The storyteller also uses several words for this building, this “sanctuary.” First we get the Hebrew name, Mishkan, which has the same root as shakhen/neighbor and shekhinah/feminine presence of the Divine. The portable building is also referred to as a tabernacle (which always makes me think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Finally, it’s also called the Divine Dwelling Place.

Sanctuary implies a holy place, a sanctum, a place with sacred dimensions (mikdash/holy place). There is also the name Ohel Mo’ed /Tent of Meeting, referring to the function this place provides — it’s where Moshe encounters the Divine and receives instruction. These names seem like they might be interchangeable, but as we proceed through the book of Exodus and Leviticus and get more information on the Mishkan, we will see that each name implies a different function and/or is describing another part of the whole compound.

Still, think about what it could mean to have the Almighty say that S/He wants to “dwell among the Israelite nation.” Not only is this a profound gloss on the relationship between God and the people, it also suggests possibilities in the way we build our contemporary synagogues and places of worship right now, in the 21st century. Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America writes about this in his column on Parashat Terumah.

To consider as you continue reading:

  1. If you believe in God, is your concept of the Divine immanent or transcendent (close-by, near you or above you, far away)? In other words, is God inside you or way outside?
  2. What is the purpose of adorning holy worship places with gold and other precious materials (think of the great cathedrals of Europe)? What does it do for the worshipper?