This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar. Bamidbar literally means “In the desert” because it’s about the events that happened to the Israelites in what was supposed to be a short jaunt into Eretz Yisrael, but ended up being a 40-year journey.
This week’s parsha, along with part of the following one, 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. We are told how many are in each and every tribe. I don’t know about you, but details of bureaucracies don’t exactly excite me.
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 of the four groupings.
Then we focus on the tribe of Levi, because they took center stage in 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.
Zzzzz. Let’s face it, census taking, while necessary, is not the most fun thing to be reading about.
There is a bigger issue at hand when it comes to counting the masses. And that is that they can be downright demeaning. 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 will become lost among the crowd. We have a fear that we will be overlooked in the large, nameless and faceless collection of people around us.
There is nothing more discouraging than feeling that your life doesn’t have its own unique place and meaning in the world. It’s very depressing if a person feels subsumed among the masses and forgotten about. This is why evil societies such as Nazism and Communism routinely employ means to erase any sense of self. They don’t want you to feel unique or even human. People have no names and are relegated to 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 ideology.
There is a simple solution to this census lost-in-the-crowd syndrome and it also happens to be found in Bamidbar. It’s 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 a special time and place just for you. It’s a point – an exact space for just one person and only that person. When you visit a 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 fleeting, was life-changing. Think the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his very brief dollar-giving encounters and the indelible mark it made on so many.
But no nation is made up of a bunch of individuals doing their own thing. There is still a larger, tribal affiliation, and that too is noted in the parsha when it relates which direction each particular tribe was situated. The Torah’s narration of the tribe’s location hints at this larger identity. Each direction had it own unique characteristics and personality. In fact Eretz Yisrael, 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 and the Caribbean. The West is associated with financial strength and power. We even talk about the Western nations as the economic powers. In Israel as well the West is where you will find the economic hub of the nation such as in Tel Aviv, tech-heavy Herzliya and the port city of Haifa. 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 discover that 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 the great, Moshe, Aaron and Tribal Leader.
We might feel at times in life that we are wandering Bamidbar – in a desert without form, definition or direction. But a person has to look a bit deeper, realize that he or she is created in God’s image and understand that we are not alone in a desert but in the midst of Pikudim – personal appointments with God. And it’s those moments that clarify and define our date with our own personal destiny.
מול עתיד מעורפל…
כולנו אבודים בחלל
אל תרגיש כה אומלל
Facing an uncertain future
We are all lost in space
(But) Don’t feel miserable
Come with Me