Finding Direction to Move Forward with God

Bemidbar By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On May 23, 2014 / 5774 | Philosophy

This Shabbat opens the fourth book of Torah known as Sefer Bemidbar, the book of Numbers. Though in Hebrew, the title translates as “the Book of the Desert,” alluding to the desert wanderings of the people, the standard English translation is “Numbers,” referring to the census that is commanded to the Israelites at the beginning of the narrative: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses” (Num. 1:1–2). Rashi, the prolific medieval biblical commentator, notes, “it is out of Divine affection for Israel that God seeks to count them at every hour.” This notion of affection or love plays out beautifully in our parashah and in these days leading up to Shavu’ot, the holiday in which we mark the giving of Torah.

Joseph Bekhor Shor focuses his opening comments on the map of the Israelite encampment. The first verse of our parashah refers to a month after the raising of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was finished and the days of its dedication had passed along with the ordering of sacrifices. God then warned them concerning impurities—that they should not desecrate the Tabernacle. God also commanded them here to count the troops that would be stationed around the King; this refers to those who were fit to wage battle. They were divided under four banners so that they would be encamped from four directions. This is the way to show honor to a king: his ministers and servants surround him and the king is in the middle.

And so the placement of the tribes is anything but random. As the Bekhor Shor points out, such a layout reflects the honor due to a king. More than that, this encircling of the Tabernacle reminds one of the bride making her way seven times around the groom (and today it is often true of the groom encircling the bride). Such a gesture is one of both knowledge and love. To go around something is to know its essence.

Our exegete’s comments dovetail well with Midrash Tanhuma. This collection of rabbinic legends portrays the giving of Torah as the engagement of God and the Israelites. The day on which the Tabernacle is raised represents the wedding between the two. And now, the setting up of the encampment plays on this same imagery: the Israelites placing themselves around their beloved. Sadly, we often lose sight of God in our daily lives. We forget to be more conscious of the direction in which we orient ourselves; and we turn our backs on the Divine Presence. Parashat Bemidbar and the Bekhor Shor remind us that we must be attentive to the way we design our daily encampments—at once being cognizant of the four directions outward and deriving inspiration from our beloved inward. Only then can we (humanity) and God move forward together.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.