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Parashat B’midbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

“The Children of Israel did everything that the Lord commanded Moses,
so did they do.” (Numbers 1:54)

Parashat B’midbar opens the fourth book of the Torah, also called B’midbar, in the wilderness. The wilderness is both a physical space (the territory the Israelites must traverse to reach Canaan) and a metaphor for a state of mind (the decision space where they must choose to live up to the social and spiritual ideals presented in Leviticus).

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman (Professor Emeritus of prayer and liturgy at HUC-JIR) builds on this notion by considering the Torah, the blueprint of creation (Genesis Rabbah 1:1), a parable of human development. Thus, Genesis is about conception, birth, and childhood. Exodus is about becoming yourself. Leviticus is about finding purpose. And now B’midbar is the mid-life crisis, when the real and metaphoric question of where is my life going (“wondering while wandering”) come together.

But B’midbar also provides a compass for the journey. It opens with a command to count the Israelites, “…from twenty years old and up, kol yotzei tzavah b’yisrael, all who go out to the legion in Israel, you shall count them according to their legions, you and Aaron.” (Num. 1:3) Tzavah is usually translated as army so the census is understood as preparation for the military conquest of Canaan. But Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888; German rabbi considered the father of modern Orthodox Judaism) interprets tzavah to mean communal service of any sort. Now B’midbar is saying serving the community is how you find your way.

Covid-19 has created a wilderness in which the physical isolation brings into high relief the importance of community. This, in turn, challenges each of us to question our contribution to strengthening that community.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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