The Torah’s Lessons for Building Communities
Bemidbar, the fourth book of the Torah, opens with a demographic and geographic description of the Children of Israel. After taking a census of the people, God teaches that the camp will be arranged with the Mishkhan, the Tabernacle, situated in the center. This mobile, holy site is flanked on four sides by first the Levite families in an inner layer and then the twelve tribes in an outer one.
Reading these seemingly mundane administrative details, we wonder what can be learned from the census and the physical layout of the camp. Is there a relevant spiritual lesson for our contemporary Jewish community?
From an urban planning perspective, one appreciates the rationale of conducting a census before organizing the camp. With exact and intimate knowledge of the population, the camp can be set up in a way that distributes the people evenly, allowing every Jew not only living space, but also access to the Tabernacle. Dwelling in the wilderness for what will turn out to be two score years, this layout provides a secondary benefit, namely defense. The Levites living closest to the Tabernacle and the twelve tribes immediately behind them constitute two lines of protection for the Tabernacle and its holy vessels.
Another way of understanding this arrangement of the Israelite camp relates to crowd control. Unfortunately, as our ancestors trek from slavery to freedom they backslide on many occasions, most notably at the foot of Mount Sinai when they construct the Golden Calf. Some commentators assert that the Tabernacle is necessary as a physical manifestation of God in the world, assuaging the Israelites’ fear and anxiety. That the Tabernacle is situated in the center of the encampment and visible from every corner of the camp may signify its dual purpose as a deterrent for rebellion.
Since transforming the Israelites from slaves to free people and a “nation of priests” represents the central mission of the Exodus, it is hard to believe that God took the Children of Israel out of Egypt merely to suppress and repress them. By contrast, I believe that the Exodus and its miracles, the giving of the Torah, and the encampment’s layout down to the last detail are all intended to inspire our ancestors to new spiritual heights.
The main indication that these experiences are about uplifting their spirits is found within God’s command to count the people. The Torah reads: “Se’u et rosh kol adat bnei yisrael lemishpekhotam levayt avotam b’mispar shamot kol zakhar legulegelotam.” (Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clan of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.) (Etz Hayim-Num. 1:2)
Carefully examining the Hebrew words, we find something quite perplexing. The Hebrew words se’u et rosh do not translate as take a census. While interpreted by the traditional commentators to mean count the people, this expression literally means raise the head. What does it mean that when counting the people there is also an implicit instruction to raise, or elevate, the head of every Jew in the community?
The census of the Jewish people is not the first time in the Torah that this expression appears. The first two occurrences of se’u et rosh relate to a human ruler’s actions, specifically the Pharaoh during Joseph’s time. When Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharoah’s incarcerated cupbearer and baker, he relates to both that yisah pharaoh et roshecha (Pharaoh will lift their heads). For the former, his dream predicts that Pharoah will pardon him and elevate him back into the court (Etz Hayim-Gen. 40:13). For the latter, Joseph unfortunately bears the responsibility of imparting the bad news that his head will be raised only as part of his impending execution (Gen. 40:19).
In Genesis “se’u et rosh” is tied to the whims of a human ruler. However, when connected to the census of the Jewish people, this perplexing expression communicates God’s hopes and aspirations for the Jewish people. Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, a late sixteenth-century Eastern European sage also known by the name of his greatest work, The Sh’lah, explains:
The Torah uses the word rosh here, for what we translated as number. The word rosh, literally head, teaches us the importance of the Jewish people, that each is a head, each is important in himself. Each Jew must accordingly feel the great responsibility he has for all of his actions, for every action of his can improve the condition of the world, or Heaven forbid, make it deteriorate.”
The somewhat awkward language employed by the Torah to conduct the census teaches that each one of us plays a unique role in God’s world and destiny to fulfill as part of the Jewish people. Visibly placing the Tabernacle in the middle of the Israelite camp not only reminds the people of their collective past, but also underscores their shared path to the future, using the Torah as the central guide.
This biblical urban planning program serves as a powerful model for us today. First, building our Jewish communities entails elevating the head of every Jewish person, thereby making her/him feel valued and recognized. Second, Torah must occupy a central and vital part of the conversation about who we are and aspire to be. Finally, being a part of the Jewish community then and today should be an uplifting experience that brings us closer to God, Torah, and one another.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.