Parshat Bamidbar

Torah Reading for Week of May 13-19, 2018

“Speaking of Wilderness”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Professor of Comparative Religion

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.

Bamidbar: In the desert.   A new sefer begins a tale of wilderness life which will end, some 38 years later, with the passing of leadership from Moshe to Yehoshua before entering the land of Israel.

This particular parsha focuses primarily on taking a census, organizing the tribes, and distinguishing the Levites.  The framework is a marshalling of the troops, generally for the travel through the desert  – which no one knows at this point will be “40 years” – and perhaps for war.

This preparation is carefully organized. The census of the tribes is completed in good order.  Their arrangement in the camp and is described in detail.  The number of Levites is carefully aligned with the number of first-born males as priestly duties are about to be shifted to the Levites. In the last aliyah of the parsha, the duties of the tribe of Kohath are described regarding the precise preparations for travel with the vessels of the sanctuary.  God insists that Aaron supervise; he is concerned that the Kohathites be protected in this most holy work, “lest they die.”

The next parsha continues with the other clans of the Levites in their duties. In many ways, Bamidbar and Nasso continue the concern with priestly purity that we encounter in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). The people depend on their relationship with God, and that in turn depends on the devoted service of all the families of the Levites, to the purity and proper operation of the Mishkan.  They are examples of devotion for the rest of the people, in moral and religious ways.

And yet – Bamidbar also points toward something else.  The English name of the book that begins here emphasizes the census, by calling it “Numbers.”  But the word Bamidbar meaning “in the Wilderness” or “in the Desert” has a different tonality.  Moreover, the word can be vocalized differently in Hebrew, so that the consonants of midbar become medaber, meaning a speaker.  This is a hint to another reality in the book of Bamidbar:  how we speak, how we use our linguistic ability.  And be-medaber, what is inside the speaker.

In Bamidbar and the following parsha, God is the one who speaks, setting forth the order of things.  But when the people begin traveling, we soon we hear another kind of speech, what the Torah calls mitonenim, murmuring, “speaking evil in the ears of the Lord.” (11.1). At first, one might think this is relatively normal. The complaints center around the food – and isn’t that typical for an army?  God resolves the problem by sending quail.

But other issues rapidly emerge. In the next chapter, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moshe: “Are we not prophets also?”  Among the highest leadership we suddenly see dissension and jealousy.  The false report of the spies – another select group of leaders – occupies parshat Shelach. In the following round of trouble, even the Levites, those whom God chose to take the place of the first-borns, enter the fray: Korach starts a nasty argument over authority. He adds another layer of disturbance, crafting his language carefully to confuse the people.  The Sages call this genaiva da’at, “stealing the mind.”  Eventually, silence descends – it’s not clear exactly when, but the silence itself is deadly.  People are dying and being buried in the desert every year for the sin of the spies.  Then, near the end of the 40 years, in parshat Chukat, Miriam dies, and then Aaron.  Now their leaders are disappearing, and the people complain again, this time of lack of water.  They provoke an ugly confrontation with Moshe, who we should remember is grieving over the loss of his sister, and who now bursts out in angry speech. Then comes the story of the prophet Balaam who claims to be a professional in language – the language of cursing.

The external order begins so elegantly:  the order of an army, the precision of the priests.  But internally, says Bamidbar, there is a desert, a wilderness, at the hearts of the people.  Fear, doubt, jealousy, insecurity affect everyone from hungry youths to experienced leaders. Their emotions burst out in words of desperation, anger, challenge.  What will we eat?  Are we not prophets also? Why did you send us here to die?  We look like grasshoppers in their eyes! You take too much on yourselves!  Listen, you rebels!

Bamidbar deliberately gives us the perfection of an opening scene, like a peaceful castle before the hordes descend.  Its name, however, portends something quite far from perfection, alerting us to listen to the wildness, the “bewilderments” that tear societies apart.  In many ways Sefer Bamidbar is an astute social psychology of leadership and its discontents. It reminds us that the most artful design, the greatest mechanical precision, the most careful counting and accounting, do not begin to touch the alchemical fires of the human heart.