Parshat Bamidbar

Torah Reading for Week of May 17-23, 2020
“Start Up Nation”
By Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg-Margo, ’17

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
I would like to dedicate this D’var Torah in memory of my grandmother, Ruth Margo z”l.

As a part-time, freelance Rabbi with a full-time, secular job, I often bring one set of experiences and perspectives to the other, seeing the Torah through my experience at a global business software company and, conversely, seeing people management and corporate learning & development through a Rabbinic lens.  This is not a novel approach by any means, but it does inform my interpretation of this week’s parsha.  Torah is remarkable not only because of the profound sense of spirituality found within it, but also because of how utterly practical it can be.  Parshat Bamidbar tells the story of how the tribes of Israel began to organize themselves in order to operationalize the entire Jewish enterprise.  It is, in essence, a “start-up” narrative.
This start-up began in partnership with Abraham.  The purpose, or vision, was clear: l’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai (to perfect the world by means of the rule of [one] G-d).  This is carried out by the Jewish mission to be Or laGoyim (a light for the nations).  The strategy, or “how we will accomplish our mission” is revealed in Leviticus 20:26, “And you shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the other peoples to be mine.”  To live this strategy we are required to carefully distinguish the sacred and the profane (or the pure and impure) via the priests and Levites.  In continuing the start-up narrative, Bamidbar lays out the tactics, i.e., the execution of the strategy.
In order to successfully deploy your workforce, you need to know your headcount – you need data.  Bamidbar opens with the commandment for Moses to take a census, or “lift the head of all the community of the children of Israel” (Num. 1:2).  The instruction continues by excluding those under twenty years of age and not male.  The census is data collection for the purpose of workforce analytics as the leaders needed to know “who are able to go forth to war in Israel” (Num. 1:3).  “War” can, and often is, a metaphor for the competitive marketplace.  As Sefer Bamidbar unfolds, the Israelites will encounter competition in the form of other native tribes and other religions.
The parsha continues to map out an organizational structure by listing the chieftain of each tribe and their respective marching and camping positions relative to the Tabernacle, which is always in the center.  As the encampment begins to take shape, the placement of each tribe and the further descriptions in chapters three and four of the Levitical clans and their specific roles in dismantling and setting up the Tabernacle resonate lines of business as well as the development and promulgation of policies, procedures, and work instructions.  An example of one such work instruction can be found in Num. 4:7, “Over the table of display, they shall spread a blue cloth; they shall place upon it the bowls, the ladles, the jars, and the libation jugs; and the regular bread shall rest upon it.”
The structure of Bamidbar responds to the very first question asked in a performance management consultation: Have expectations been clearly established and communicated?  As more than half of the 613 mitzvot (358) are given between the departure from Egypt and the conclusion of Leviticus, we may well consider this a clear establishment and communication of expectations.  Bamidbar teaches that in order for any operation to work efficiently (doing things right) and effectively (doing the right things), there needs to be a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities (who does what by when).  Each individual needs to know where they stand in the matrix.  No position is better or worse than any other position and no task is more or less important than another; they are all needed to achieve the desired outcome.
An intriguing example of this can be found in Numbers 1:53, “The Levites will camp around the Tabernacle of the Pact and there shall not be wrath upon the community of the children of Israel and the Levites shall preserve the watch of the Tabernacle of the Pact.”  Does the proximity to the Tabernacle make the Levites a more important role within their society?  Are they more holy than the rest of the community?  They are essentially protecting the rest of the community from “wrath.”  However, from an organizational matrix perspective, the Levites are, at the same time, managing “up” and managing “down.”  They are managing up in that they are guarding the Tabernacle from any impure thing and they are managing down (via instruction and ritual) to protect the community.  We already saw the ramifications when Nadav and Abihu failed to follow proper protocol.  The Levites are the boundary between a constant state of purity and a world which is the source of impurity.  They are one role among the myriad that make the company work.
So, by the end of Parshat Bamidbar, the former Egyptian slaves have become a structured society, keenly aware of their respective roles and responsibilities.  A series of concentric boundaries are established emanating from the center of the Tabernacle and extending outward via the Kohanim, the Levites, the twelve tribes and finally to the outside of the camp where the impure would be held until it could return.  The structure of the camp reflects the varying degrees of purity and susceptibility to impurity, from the most pure center to the most impure periphery.  The corporate guidelines, in the form of mitzvot, as well as the corporate structure, as described in our parsha, laid the foundation of the biggest transformation effort in recorded history, that of a start-up people to a start-up nation.
Shabbat Shalom.