Parshat Bamidbar

By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, ’07

The Narrative of Numbers Then and Now

G-d provides us with two models for how we can understand G-d’s presence among us, based on where the Tent of Meeting is placed in the desert. Rabbi Israel Knohl, a noted Hartman Institute scholar expounds. In Parshat Ki Tisa, in the book of Exodus, Moses puts the Tent of Meeting outside the camp. Anyone can access it and commune with G-d. In this week’s parashah, Bamidbar, in the book of Bamidbar, Moses puts the Tent of Meeting in the middle of the camp surrounded by the tribes who each have a different obligation to protect its position as G-d is preparing them to go to war to enter the land promised to them. Only the priests can enter it. Corresponding to today, Rabbi Efrat Zerren-Zohar, a Florence Melton Regional Director and Scholar, uses this metaphor to explore how we can access G-d —through our central agencies and synagogues or through entities outside the established order, outside the camp.

As I was considering this, I remembered a CBS news report that a census indicated that 1 out of every 7 Americans is currently living alone, with 40% of people in major cities occupying single-family dwellings. The majority of singles are over 65 and of that population, the majority is female. I wondered what G-d was preparing us for today, moving us out of families and communities and into isolated living units. In the news report, two forty-year old singles were compared. One woman relished not having to be responsible for anyone except herself and not having to answer to anyone. One single man was desperate to find companionship and in his search for it through social media, he had encountered 70,000 others who had responded to his call for friendship. Both of these people had received book contracts to extol their life style of either praise or lament for being single.

And so I go back to what G-d may be saying about our current numbers and our current roles as we wander in our various deserts looking for divine revelation.

We have to find a way to take care of the single among us. These numbers are humbling. On the one hand, we have the individual who loves singlehood as a healthy, active, self-sufficient adult. How can we use them as a model to train people who are used to relying on others to become self-sufficient, so they can thrive without depending on a spouse or children or even community support? On the other hand, we have a growing number of people who are alone and want and need friendship, support, hospital visits, and companionship where they live. How can we provide them with the connections and community that they yearn for? How can we use the two models for where we place the Tent of Meeting in dealing with this modern census data? How can we use our central agencies and synagogues as well as invent new programs to bring people into a relationship with G-d’s presence in their lives?

As we prepare for Shavuot, our holiday that celebrates the revelation of Torah, we can look to the mystical Counting of the Omer that occurs between Passover and Shavuot and ends this Shabbat. On this Shabbat, the 43rd day of the Counting, we meditate on the value construct of Malchut b’Malchut; sovereignty in sovereignty, being grounded in the tachlis or pragmatics, of life. How do we maintain the sovereignty of the tradition in relation to the sovereignty inherent in the individual? The numbers have shifted from the tribe to the individual and the Tent of Meeting, where G-d’s presence dwells, lies both inside and outside the camp.