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Parashat Bamidbar

May 19, 2023
28 Iyyar 5783
Numbers 1:1-4:20
43rd day of the Omer

Dear Friends,

This week we begin the 4th book of the Torah, Bamidbar (“in the wilderness”) or, as it is known in English, Numbers. This book begins with exacting detail. First, we have a census of the male heads of clans, then we are given the schematic of how each of the tribes will array themselves around the mishkan, tent of meeting, with particular attention paid to the priestly class and their precise duties, particularly as the Holy site needed to be movable. The duties always remind me of what it must have taken to move a circus from place to place with each member of the crew having an assigned task to make sure that nothing went wrong.

Jan Luyken, Castra metatio (Camp Formation). Amsterdam, 1700.
(Biblical Prints Collection, JTS Library)

My teacher, Rabbi David Greenstein, imparted an important lesson to me about this parasha, which at first blush can appear extremely technical. I Invite you to look at the illustration above. See how all of the tribes are arrayed around a central location, each one having a different vantage point. The arrangement was like when you go to the theatre; much depends on where your seat is in relationship to the stage. In some ways, your vantage point dictates your experience.

This arrangement means that the different tribes each have a different vantage point. It means that they all experience the Divine presence at the center a little differently. Some might see this as a cause for jealousy among the tribes, but as my teacher taught, it is a reflection of what our lives are like. We may all want similar things: a caring community, good friends, meaningful work, loving family, food, shelter, purpose, etc., etc. But each of us has a different vantage point, a different set of experiences that bring us to that vantage point.

Much too often, we do not consider that those around us may be experiencing the same event in an entirely different manner due to a number of different variables. And here in this Torah portion, we are given the opportunity to recognize that although we may want the same things, our ability to be close enough to access that which is holy is not always the same. Is it fair? Is it fair that the priests get to be close to the Mishkan and is it fair that they have the heavy responsibility of caring for it and all of its various elements?

Where we sit in life makes a difference. Who our parents were, how they treated us, how they treated one another, how society sees us: all of these factors make a difference. And if it makes a difference in the story we tell ourselves about our lives, so too does it make a difference in the lives of those around us.

Knowing that each of us has a different vantage point -- a different story -- can enable us to see those around us more fully and give them the space to shift and share their stories, should they so desire.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Tue, October 3 2023 18 Tishrei 5784