This week we begin to read from the Book of Numbers, known in Hebrew as Bamidbar “in the Desert”. The book opens with a census of all the males over twenty, the age when they became liable for military service. The total, (excluding the tribe of Levi) was 603,550. The Levites were not counted because their service is to be in charge of carrying the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and all of its fittings throughout the journeys in the desert.
The text continues with the arrangement of the camp in a quadrilateral form. The Tabernacle was in the centre with the Levite’s tents surrounding it, then the other tribes are placed surrounding the Mishkan around the perimeter. Judah, Issachar and Zebulun are to the East; Reuben, Shimon and Gad are placed in the south; Ephraim, Menashe and Binyamin to the West; and Dan, Asher and Naphtali in the North.
The Torah lists Aaron's genealogy. The Levites are instructed to safeguard the Mishkan, and to serve the Cohanim. The tribe of Levi is given the honour of looking after the Mishkan in lieu of the firstborn of each family, who were originally intended for the position.
The Levites are subdivided into three family groupings each with a different responsibility - the Gershonites were responsible for transporting the coverings of the Mishkan, the Kohatites for carrying the Ark, the Table, the Menorah and Altars, and the Merarites transported the boards, pillars, sockets and bolts. A census of the Levites is taken, all the males from the age of one month upward. Their total number is 22,000. The tally of firstborn males of Israel is 22,273. The firstborn are exchanged for Levi'im, and the remaining 273 firstborn have to redeem themselves for five shekels each. This money is then given to the Cohanim – redemption of the firstborn (pidyon ha ben) comes from this passage.
Politicians are fond of describing their wilderness years when, unwanted by the electorate or maybe by the new leadership of their party, they languish unlistened to and alienated on the borders of the important events until they can be brought back into the mainstream and be useful once more
This week we enter the wilderness years – the book we are beginning to read is called “Bamidbar” –“in the desert”, but the reality of the Hebrew midbar is not one of emptiness and alienation from life, quite the reverse.
Bamidbar takes us to a place rich in meaning and profound in experience. Not a place of biding out time while the inadequate and unaspirational generation of Exodus dies out, allowing a new braver generation untainted by the experience of slavery, to emerge.
But a place of construction and development, of encounter and learning, of creating a people with a shared understanding of themselves and their context, and a shared vision of who they will become. The midbar is a place of preparation, a gestational place where the forming and shaping and becoming takes place.
To be a religious person is not an absolute finished state. To be a Jew is not a once and for all event. It is a daily set of choices about how to behave, what principles to prioritise. Just as every morning we choose to get up and to face the world and what it might bring, so we choose to express ourselves as Jews on a daily basis. Some days are better than others of course. Some days the choices are clear, other times they are a struggle. We proceed from choice to choice and the time in between is not empty time, it is the time we use to help us to proceed, to digest and process what is happening.
Bamidbar – the wilderness years – are just that for the children of Israel. They are not able just to move from 430 years of slavery in Egypt to freedom and autonomy in the land of Israel. They need time to learn, to explore their new identity, to consider and think about and digest all the implications of building a Jewish society in its own land for the very first time.
Some are afraid and effectively paralysed, unable to make any choice at all. Some want to return to the safety of what they knew regardless of how bad it was for them. Others want a society they can control, their priorities acted upon. Some will follow for a reward of some kind. Most need time to get their heads around it.
Throughout the period in the desert, from the middle of Shemot (Exodus) to the end of Bamidbar (Numbers) we are not in empty time and space but in luminal time and space. We are between two stats of being; we are in the dynamic state of becoming. We all need such times, be they to try to mediate a hung parliament or time to understand and respond to a life change – a new birth, a change in status be it marital or professional, a time to grieve a loss, any number of changes we deal with on a regular basis. We need the space between one reality and another, time to locate ourselves in the new reality and to say goodbye to the old one. Every day we make choices, to live, to do (or not) what we need to do. We don’t randomly drift through the world, whether we admit it or not we live choice filled lives.
But to make such choices we need time, space, information, support, challenge, external and internal expectations.
The bible reflects this in the midbar, in the desert, where there are all the above and more. Before we leap to decisions we may live to regret – be they political or personal, ethical professional or relational, we should inhabit the liminal space, take our time and reflect, and see ourselves not as alienated and removed but as engaged in the religious activity of the thought-full, mind-full awareness of how our lives are lived.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild