It was a few years ago, around this same time of the year.
"OK, yeladim. When we go into the sanctuary today we'll have assigned seats. Each group will have its own section, marked by a banner. Be sure to sit in the section for your group. It's really important that everyone be with their group so we can count everybody before we take off on our journey. Any questions?"
"What if I want to sit with my friends and they're not in my group?" "What if my group's section is way in back, and I want to be closer?" "I don't want to have to sit in the front where everybody can see me!" "Ploni is in my group and I'm not going to sit next to him no matter what!" "What if I have to go to the bathroom?" "My mommy said I'm not supposed to be with Plonit, and she's in my group!"
"My, my, such a fuss. Maybe Moshe was right."
"Right about what?"
"The midrash tell us that when Gd told Moshe to put the tribes in a specific order of surrounding the mishkan, Moshe complained to Gd that the now all the tribes were going to fight about who goes in front, who goes in back, and so on. And you are all doing exactly what Moshe thought would happen!"
"But, Mr. D., the tribes didn't fight!"
"No, they didn't. In fact, the Torah says something else. Who knows what it says?"
"It says they did exactly what they were told, just as Gd had told Moshe to tell them."
"I'm impressed, Ploni. You've really been studying your parasha."
"It's easy, Mr. D. This parasha was so full of all these boring numbers, that it was easy to remember when there was finally something different at the end of the list."
"How many lists were there, Ploni?"
"A whole bunch of them, Mr. D. All these names and numbers. It was really boring reading."
"Yes, yeladim, there are quite a few lists in this parasha. Does anybody know how many of them were lists of numbers?"
"Two is right, Plonit! Now let's see how smart your friend Ploni is. Is there something special about both those lists, Ploni?"
"Well, er, one is just a list of how may people are in each tribe..."
"The other is a list of where each tribe was, and how many were in it."
"And what does it say at the end of each list?"
"Oh, I see what you're getting at, Mr. D. Each list ends with it saying that the people did just as they were told to do."
"Brilliant, Ploni. That's exactly right. So we have two lists, one just of numbers, and one with places and numbers. And each one ends with the words that the Israelites did just as Gd commanded them to do through Moshe."
"And when something appears in the Torah more than once..."
"OK, so what are we all going to do when we go into the sanctuary? Are we going to fight and argue about where to sit, or are we all going to be like our ancestors?"
"But you're not Moses...or Gd, either, Mr. D!"
"Well, that is true. But I am in charge of you! So you think that means you don't have to do exactly what you're told? Is this only about what Gd commands? We don't have to do anything if it isn't commanded by Gd? Are the lessons we learn from Torah not useful in our lives all the time?"
Well, I'd like to imagine that from that point the children obediently went and took their places with their groups. It wasn't quite the same scene as it was in the wilderness of Sinai, with the tribes obediently lined up according to the instructions given to them. And we are such a stiff-necked and obstinate people. The connected verses in the haftarah from Hosea make that abundantly clear! Yet in parashat Bemidbar we did exactly as we were told. It's amazing. And one wonders why, in this case, we were so obedient. What made this situation different?
Was it some sort of innate understanding that, about to embark on this journey, we needed to come together as a community, each in their own place? Is it the knowledge that they were about to come in harm's way and it was necessary to allow some sort of military order and discipline to be imposed on them? (After all, that was the whole point of the census-to count all the eligible fighting men.)
The midrash teaches us that the tribes cooperated because this was the same order in which Jacob's sons stood to carry Jacob's coffin. A nice midrash, to be sure, but hardly satisfying. And one I doubt] I would have won over the students. No, there's some lesson, some meaning inside this little bit of text aside from the p'shat (plain meaning.)
Reviewing my previous musings on thisarasha, I came across one from 5759 in which I wrote about the haftarah from Hosea. I think the explanation and conclusion I came to in that could work for this musing as well:
It is here we encounter Gd's promise to banish war, and then the well known "V'eirastikh Li" -Gd's betrothal promise to us. Why is this connected to Bemidbar? Because it is a "why", an answer to why the children of Israel do all these things-take a census, march together under the standards of their own tribes, through the Wilderness to an uncertain future. Because Gd 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 Lrd. (Hosea 2:21-22-JPS)
When we do just as we are commanded, then we keep our end of the covenant, and then, only then, can we truly say that we shall "v'yada'at et Adnai" - we shall know Gd (the more literal translation of the end of Hosea 2:22.)
As the Shabbat Bride comes to your home, and the peace of Shabbat descends on you and yours, may you espouse her as Gd has espoused us.
© 2002 by Adrian A. Durlester
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