“Those are the elected of the assembly, the chieftains of their ancestral tribes: they are the heads of the contingents of Israel.” (Numbers 1:16)
Parashat Bamidbar opens the fourth book of the Torah (with the same name) and describes the preparations for the Israelites’ 38-year journey through the wilderness to Canaan. The opening verse describes God speaking to Moses, “…in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying.” (Num. 1.1) These two opposites are evocative: the wilderness is vast, open and unsheltered, and uninhabited; the Tent of Meeting is small, enclosed and protected, and frequented by Moses. The wilderness is… wild; the Tent is civilized. This opening sentence introduces a major theme in Bamidbar: how the Isralites learn (or don’t learn) to become a community.
The theme of community building is expressed again in the details of both the census of Israelite men of fighting age and the arrangements of the Israelite encampment around the mishkan, or Tabernacle. Each defines who counts, who belongs, and where they are supposed to be. Community relies upon boundaries, of all sorts.
But boundaries are not enough to establish or maintain community. Yalkut Reuveini (a 17th Century collection of rabbinic commentaries) claims the tribal leaders who conduct the census in Numbers (Num. 1:4) are themselves the Israelite foremen who supervise the slavery of their kin in Egypt (Ex. 5:14). Rabbi David Greenstein (Rabbi of Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, NJ) suggests the census ritual, in which each tribal leader, “…lifts the head of the entire Israelite community” (Num. 1:2) provides a critical ingredient for creating community: recognition and reconciliation. Instead of reducing the Israelites to a number through a counting procedure, the census instead allows a moment of face-to-face recognition as equals. Community requires personal recognition of worth as individuals, not oppressed commodities.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom