A Slow Walk to Freedom

Bemidbar By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On May 8, 2013 / 5773

With this coming Shabbat, we begin the fourth book of Torah known as the book of Numbers or Bemidbar. Having occupied ourselves with the details of the priests, purity, and ritual, we now turn our attention to the Israelite wanderings in the desert. Notably, Parashat Bemidbar is obsessed with order: a census, Levitical duties, and the spatial arrangement of the Israelite encampment. We read the extensive list of names, exact numbers of those belonging to each tribe, and the precise location of each tribe in relation to the Tabernacle. How are we to understand and grasp this obsession with order in the desert?

Rabbi Shmuel Avidor HaCohen explains,

The wondrous organization that we see in this week’s parashah sparks astonishment, especially given the accepted perception that “order” is not one of the main characteristic of the people of Israel. From this, we see that if indeed we are truly plagued by a lack of order, this, I believe, is one of the remnants of our exile that stuck with us. But here we see a people, freed from slavery, marching toward its independence, becoming educated and disciplined in creating order. It is not only a matter of aesthetics and glory. They cannot be a chaotic camp nor a flock of wayward sheep. They must learn to act as free people. Perhaps, within this, we find a pedagogical exercise that is meant to free them from their exilic mentality. Order and outward manners trains a person toward ordered thought and the routine of a life marked by honor and discipline. (Likrat Shabbat, 141)

And so the Israelite journey of 40 years in the desert, according to Avidor HaCohen, has exceptional pedagogic value for the Israelites. Slowly, they work toward discarding their slave mentality and transforming themselves into the free People that will inherit the Land of Israel. To achieve this goal, however, they must endure the chaos of the desert: extreme heat, desolation, and external enemies. It is no wonder, then, that God demands that the Israelites create order and discipline for themselves. All of the tribes and all of the individuals must learn their particular place within the community. They are commanded to bring spatial and spiritual order to a natural environment that lends itself to chaos and emptiness. Ultimately, it is the crucible of the desert that will set the stage for this nation to inherit the Land and become a free People worthy of becoming a “light unto the nations.”

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