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Parashat Bamidbar

June 3, 2022
5 Sivan 5782
Numbers 1:1 - 4:20
48th Day of the Omer

In studying the weekly Torah portion and preparing for Shavuot, which begins Saturday evening, I was struck by the way in which the pilgrimage holiday and the Torah portion echo one another. Coming from different directions, both Shavuot and Bamidbar (in the wilderness) reflect the importance of seeing the individual.

We get so caught up in numbers that we lose sight of the individuals. We can count how many individuals have died at the hands of gun violence or we can look at the families and communities that have been affected. The choice is ours. However, our tradition makes it clear that there is a Jewish way in which we deal with numbers.

We are told in this week’s Torah portion that a census was taken. However, the language that is used does not refer to counting off people (most English translations will not help here). But, Numbers 1:2 refers to the taking of the census as the “se’u et rosh” -- literally to lift one’s head. When we are seen lifting our heads one by one, it is a different experience than the passive one of being counted by another.

Numbers can be numbing and they can be abstract, but when we look into what the number represents, worlds unfold. When I write that each one of us is created in the image of the Divine, it is in recognition of the uniqueness of every soul. Each soul is a universe unto itself. No two people experience the world in the same way, even if, from the outside looking in, we see commonalities.

The Golden Calf incident in Exodus is a potent reminder of what can happen when the crowd holds sway over a group of individuals. Our tradition teaches us of the importance of the individual. We are constantly reminded to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst. Notice how it is written in the singular. We are called upon to see the individuals around us.

The language in this Torah portion asks us to recognize the importance of the individual. However, there is a difference between individuality and individualism. The former recognizes our uniqueness even while part of a larger community, while the latter leaves one operating on their own, often unable to be part of the larger community. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” (Hillel).

All of this comes together in some of the teachings about Shavuot and standing at Sinai together. There is a blessing in the Talmud found in Berakhot 58a, that upon seeing a multitude of Israelites in one place, one recites “Blessed are You, Adonai…who discerns secrets.” In recognition of the truth that we are all different, we are also taught that at Sinai when the Divine voice rang out it was heard according to the abilities of each one present.  

The universal message of Torah was made direct and personal, and with it comes the challenge. How do we take this understanding that each of us has a unique vision of the path we are on, yet realize that we do not need to be alone on the journey as long we are able to see one another, and still acknowledge that we are all unique?

This is a time of celebration, as we begin another book of the Torah, observe the holiday of Shavuot, and celebrate our children, our first fruits. The road has not been smooth of late. It is much easier when we do not journey alone.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Fri, August 19 2022 22 Av 5782