Bamidbar: Bound Up with Justice

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Bamidbar begins the book of Numbers- so called for the opening commandment to take a census of the people. Moshe organizes the 12 tribes, with the Mishkan at the center of the camp. Then he assigns various duties to clans of Levites.

Hello one and all, it’s almost Mitzvah Day in Dutchess County and we’re excited for Sunday’s various activities!  Not only that, but do see the bottom of the page for a special announcement. . . .

Now- on to Torah study. This week we have a very clear link between our weekly readings and our daily prayer practice. The haftarah for Bamidbar comes from the book of Hosea and the theme of Israel in the wilderness links the Torah portion to the prophetic reading. Hosea is not an easy text; the first section is a long and complex set of images in which the prophet is told to take a wife, who is unfaithful. This is then compared to Israel, which is unfaithful to covenant.

In the end, however, there is reconciliation, both on the personal and national level. This reconciliation is portrayed as a new betrothal:

“And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will espouse you with faithfulness;
Then you shall be devoted to the Lord.”  (Hosea 2:21-22)

This passage, which is the uplifting end of our haftarah, is found in the weekday prayers right at the beginning of the service, connected to wrapping tefillin straps around the hand before the morning prayers.

This takes the image from Hosea – the people Israel as estranged bride- and turns it around: in every act of wrapping tefillin (around the finger, like a wedding band), one orients the heart towards the Sacred. Yet note the conditions of this “espousal”: justice, goodness, mercy. In other words, right at the beginning of morning prayers, we remind ourselves that the ticket into prayer is ethics: we have no right to wrap ourselves up in God- as it were- if we’re not acting with compassion and justice towards others. To be “bound up” with the Sacred is not an ethereal experience but a commitment to make manifest these values or ways of being.

Prayer may lift up our hearts towards The Holy One, yet our faithfulness must also be with those around us. The straps of the tefillin wrapped around our hands keep us “down to Earth,” while pointing us towards Heavenly deeds.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: Now for that special announcement I told you about: the latest episode of the Rabbi’s Roundtable is now on cable TV, in many (but not all) states, and featuring yours truly. Go here for more information on how to find The Jewish Channel in your area.

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