Bamidbar: Family, Peoplehood, and the Sacred Center

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Dear Friends:

It’s finally springtime in New England! The seasons turn every year,
as do the books of the Torah. Every year, we return to parshiot we
read the previous year- the texts have not changed, but perhaps we
have, and can see familar words with fresh eyes. This week, we begin
the book of Bamidbar- called “Numbers” in English, but more accurately
translated as “In the Wilderness.” Bamidbar begins with a counting of
the Israelites as they prepare to set out from Sinai to cross the
desert; there is a census, and an arranging of the camp into tribes
and families:

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘ The Israelites shall
camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral
house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.’ ”
(Bamidbar/ Numbers 2:1-2)

About five years ago, I wrote a drasha (see link below) in which I
interpreted this verse in terms of finding one’s personal place within
a broader Jewish context. Without consciously remembering what I had
written, this year I came upon this verse and saw something very
different. Instead of seeing the emphasis as “each [individual] person
with his standard,” [standard here meaning flag or sign] what felt
important to me in this verse is a model of Jewish identity with
multiple dimensions: peoplehood, family ties, and a spiritual
connection to the Divine Presence.

Thinking about the instructions given in the verse above, it strikes
me that we are “Israelites,” members of a world-wide people who share
both a destiny and covenant of spiritual ideals. We are also each
members of an “ancestral house,” that is, a particular family, and
sometimes our Judaism is entirely bound up in memories of parents and
grandparents, family celebrations and rituals. These memories of loved
ones- our “ancestral house”- are also a source of deep Jewish
connection: when I make kiddush using my grandfather’s kiddush cup, I
am both fufilling the spiritual purpose of Shabbat and connecting with
my grandfather’s memory; the deep family connection adds its own
richness and beauty to the act of entering into “Shabbat time.”

Our verse concludes that no matter how we “camp”- that is, where we
situate ourselves among the Jewish people- we must be oriented to the
Divine Presence, represented in our verse by the Tent of Meeting,
where this Presence dwelled among the people. Judaism is not only
about peoplehood, or family, or a personal journey, but also about the
experience of the Sacred, and constantly reorienting ourselves towards
a holy life.

In the years since I wrote my earlier d’var Torah, I’ve officiated at
hundreds of funerals, lost my parents, given thanks for the birth of a
niece and nephew, become engaged, seen my country at war, and felt the
pain of a world-wide renewal of violence against the Jewish people.
I’ve had occasion to think about not only my personal spiritual
journey as a Jew, but also about where I fit into a web of covenantal
relationships with my ancestors, my descendants, my people, and the
God of Israel. We all have the task of finding our “standard,” our
personal place within Judaism, but our Jewish is inextricably linked
to other people, both past and present, across time and space, and
with the Divine Presence as our orientation along the way.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- As usual, you can find the text of the parsha and haftarah here:

The commentary which I wrote several years ago, referenced above, is
found here, along with a summary of the parsha:

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