22/23 May: Bemidbar :Shabbat comes in 8:42 pm, ends 9:58 pm
Parashat Bemidbar – Who Serves Whom?
Sefer Bemidbar, the book entitled ‘In [the] wilderness [of Sinai]’, is otherwise known in English as the Book of Numbers. It gains this title due to the numbering of the people that takes up a large portion of the book. This census can seem puzzling partly due to its depth. We do not simply receive an overview of the numbers of individuals in each tribe, but rather a deep dive into the sections of those tribes, including lists of names that are enough to make the eyes lose focus.
To the leyener (those who chant from Torah), those lists of names can be a touch bothersome. Names do not follow the same grammatical rules as other parts of language, and many of these names do not turn up elsewhere; the sounds must simply be memorised. And though some of the names turn up in narrative areas of the Torah or in midrashim (creative rabbinic storytelling), this is not true for most of them. So why did the Torah record these lists of names, of individuals long gone from this world, whose stories are not remembered in our sacred texts?
One response to the above question is that the Torah is reminding us of the balance between the community and the individual. We may think of the generation of the wilderness as a whole – the revelation they experienced, the rebellions they partook in – but these names remind us that this community was made up of individuals. So too, for the Jewish people. We are a part of something that is much greater than ourselves, something that spans the world and reaches out across millenia. And we are also a community made up of individuals.
Now is an interesting time to call to mind the question: do individuals serve the community, or does the community serve individuals? The Torah’s response here, I believe, is that it must be both. We must be both givers and takers in order to participate fully in Jewish life.
So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.
Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself. This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:
” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”
Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.
I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman