This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar. Bamidbar literally means “In the desert” because it relates the events that happened to the Israelites in what was supposed to be a short time there but ended up being a 40 year journey.
This week’s parsha, along with part of next week’s as well, isn’t exactly the most exciting bits of our Torah. It begins with Moshe being told to take a census of the Jewish people along with a tribal representative for each of the twelve tribes who will be assisting him and Aaron. I don’t know about you, but details of bureaucracies don’t exactly excite me. We are told how many are in each and every tribe.
Then the Torah narrates how each tribe should be aligned in the camp in a square formation. Four groups of three tribes in their respective directions of East, South, West and North – the Torah’s order, not mine. And here again we get more numbers. Once again how many in each tribe – not that it changed since the first time it was mentioned – plus the total for each group. Then we focus on the tribe of Levi, because they took center stage with their involvement with the Mishkan/Tabernacle. And here too we get more census numbers broken down to how many in each family of that particular tribe.
Let’s face it, census taking, while necessary, is not the most fun thing to be reading about. But there is a bigger problem to this numbering exercise that goes beyond its lack of exciting narrative. I have written about this before and I am not the first to note the inherit dilemma of counting masses of people. Whenever one is part of a larger group – and all of us belong to some sort of society – there is the danger that the individual may become lost among the crowd. We have a fear that we will be overlooked in the large nameless and faceless collection of people among us.
There is nothing more discouraging than feeling that your life does not have its own unique place and meaning in the world. This is why evil societies such as Nazism and Communism routinely employed methods to erase any sense of the individual. They didn’t want you to feel unique or even human. People have no names but are mere numbers. The dress code of every person is identical to the next and even the hair style of North Koreans is limited to certain styles. The individual gets completely lost in the supposed greater good of the state and/or ideology.
But three is as simple solution to this lost-in-the-crowd syndrome and it happens to also be found in Bamidbar. In the alternative name to the book in fact. According to Jewish tradition, “Bamidbar” is called “Sefer Pikudim”, the Book of Appointments. An appointment, just like the word in English implies, is the idea that there is a special time and place just for you. It is a point – an exact space for just one person and only that person. When you visit the doctor for your appointment, you are the total focus of his or her expertise to solve your personal ailment. And indeed, Pikudim is related to the Hebrew word, תפקיד tafkeed which means your role and place in society. Yours and only yours.
And this is how we overcome the feeling of being a lost nothing in a crowd. Because even though the entire nation was being counted en masse, they were also being visited – each and every one of them – by Moshe, Aaron and their particular tribal leader. They all had their personal appointments with the greatest and holiest people of their time. And the brevity of such a meeting made no difference. Being noted by such great men, no matter how fleetingly, was life changing. Think the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his very brief dollar-giving encounters and the indelible mark it made on so many.
The beginning of noting one’s unique status started with the direction their particular tribe was situated. The Torah’s narration of the tribe’s location hints at this personal identity. Each direction had it own unique characteristics and personality. And most interesting, the Land of Israel, despite it being a geographically very small country, still today manages to have all four identities:
The North is associated with strength and vigor. People who live in the northern, colder climates have to be strong to endure the long dark cold winters. In Israel we have the Hermon region where they even boast a ski resort. The South is associated with sun, heat and pleasure; think Eilat, South Florida, the Caribbean. West is associated with financial strength and power. We even talk about the Western nations as the economic powers and in Israel as well the West is where you will find the economic hub of the nation such as in Tel Aviv. And finally the East is associated with spirituality, wisdom and other-worldliness. We talk about Eastern religions and their willingness to forego the pleasures of this world for something higher. In Israel we have the focus of God and spirituality in Jerusalem and the Temple which is situated in the East.
Upon closer inspection, we see Bamidbar is a proper balance between the state and the individual. The needs of the greater good – the whole – while at the same time respecting and celebrating the differences of each tribe and even of each person within that tribe who received a personal appointment with Moshe.
Today we are getting a fantastic opportunity to focus on our individual selves since we are being forced to stay close to home and look inward. For most of us, it is the most time we have had to cut away from much distraction to take an honest look at our lives to better understand and define ourselves. As social distancing starts to ease up we can once again make our way into the world with a renewed sense of self, a renewed sense of what is important to us and what we can contribute to the overall good of our society, our nation and our world.
We might feel at times we are wandering Bamidbar, in a desert without form, definition or direction. But in reality we are in the midst of Pikudim – personal appointments with God; moments that clarify our date with our own personal destiny.
There’s a man who leads a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger…
Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name