Parshah Summary – P’shat (literal level)
The parshah opens in the Sinai Desert encampment, with the Children of Israel receiving instructions to conduct a census of men suitable for battle from the twelve tribes, between 20 to 60 years of age. The tribe of Levi is excluded, but included are the two sons of Yosef, keeping the number of tribes twelve. The tribe of Levi, who is to serve as the spiritual leadership, is counted separately. These Levi’im (Levites) are given responsibility for the Mishkan (Sanctuary), and all of its vessels and sacrificial equipment. Whenever the Children of Israel would break down the camp to travel, the three Levite clans would dismantle and transport the Mishkan, and then reassemble it at the center of the next encampment. They then erected their own tents around it.
The Kohathites, who carried the Sanctuary’s ritual objects (such as the Ark and menorah) on their shoulders, camped to its south; the Gershonites, in charge of its tapestries and roof coverings, to its west; and the families of Merari, who transported its wall panels and pillars, to its north. Before the Sanctuary’s entranceway, to its east, were the tents of Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons, who served as the kohanim, the priests. Beyond the Levite circle, the twelve tribes camped in four groups of three tribes each. To the east were Yehudah, Yissakhar, and Zevulun; to the south, Reuvein, Shimon and Gad; to the west, Ephraim, Manasheh, and Binyamin; and to the north, Dan, Asher and Naphtali. This formation was kept also while traveling. Each tribe had its own nassi (prince or leader), and its own flag with its tribal color and emblem...
Torah of Awakening
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד
בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃
שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כׇּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כׇּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם׃
Hashem spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year from the Exodus from he land of Egypt, saying: “Raise up the heads (take a census) of the whole (battle ready) assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their ancestral houses, listing the names, every (battle ready) male, according to their count.”
- BaMidbar (Numbers) 1:1,2; Parshat Bamidbar
Yankel wasn’t inclined to do physical exercise. But as he got older, he realized that he had better take care of his body, or he would be in trouble. So, he hired a personal trainer to motivate him out of his sloth and help him to work out. The personal trainer began by coming to his house every day. First, she taught him the exercises that would be best for him. But when it came to actually doing them, Yankel was so lazy, that the trainer would have to yell cheers to get him to exert himself. “Come on you can do it!” she would shout. “That’s seven, just three more to go! Do it!”
Over time, Yankel’s resistance seemed to drop away, and it became easier and easier for the trainer to motivate him. After several weeks, the trainer didn’t have to do anything except come over and make sure Yankel was working out, simply by witnessing him. Yankel even shouted out his own motivational cheers: “I can do it! One! Two! Just eight more to go! Getting stronger! Three!” Eventually, the trainer didn’t even come inside, but just listened at the door. She would hear Yankel yelling to himself: “Getting stronger and stronger! I can do it! Five! Six! Four more to go!” When she would hear him yelling through the door, she would leave, satisfied that he had established his workout habit.
But, when they had a meeting after several months to evaluate and adjust his routine, she noticed that he didn’t look like he was exercising at all; he was just as unfit looking as he had been before they began. “How strange! I hear you working out every day, but it seems to not be working!”
“Oh, I haven’t been working out,” said Yankel. “But I come by every day and hear you doing it!” said the trainer. “Oh, that’s just me yelling, not actually working out,” said Yankel. “I figured if you heard me yelling, you would think I was working out and leave me alone.”
When it comes to prayer, many folks are just like Yankel – perhaps going through the motions, saying the words, but nothing is really happening. It’s not that the words are irrelevant – as with working out, the cheers and counting of reps can be a good accompaniment to exercise, but they do not substitute for exercise. Similarly, with prayer, the traditional words are a beautiful accompaniment, and even a beautiful expression of prayer, but they are not the prayer itself. As long as the words are helping us do the real inner activity of prayer, they are doing their job. But if they become a substitute for prayer, then we are missing a vital opportunity.
It is understandable that the form of prayer – how many times per day, what texts to say, and so on, could easily eclipse the real, inner reality of prayer, because the form is quantifiable. You can easily define how to fulfill the prayer in form. But the inner reality of prayer is connection with the Timeless, with Un-Countable…
שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל – Lift the head (take a head count) of the whole community of the Children of Israel…
This is about quantifying the people, giving them a number, so as to know how many soldiers they have. On the other hand, the haftaora begins…
וְֽ֠הָיָה מִסְפַּ֤ר בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ כְּח֣וֹל הַיָּ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יִמַּ֖ד וְלֹ֣א יִסָּפֵ֑ר וְֽ֠הָיָה בִּמְק֞וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יֵאָמֵ֤ר לָהֶם֙ לֹֽא־עַמִּ֣י אַתֶּ֔ם יֵאָמֵ֥ר לָהֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֥י אֵֽל־חָֽי׃
The number of the Children of Israel shall be like sands of the sea, which are not measured or counted; instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,” they shall be called “Children of the Living God.” - Hosea 2:1
The text then leaves this uplifting vision, “Children of the Living God,” and talks about how they have strayed from the Divine and run after idols, the ba’alim. Israel is compared to a harlot, an unfaithful wife, running after other lovers. Why does she do this?
אֵלְכָ֞ה אַחֲרֵ֤י מְאַֽהֲבַי֙ נֹתְנֵ֤י לַחְמִי֙ וּמֵימַ֔י צַמְרִ֣י וּפִשְׁתִּ֔י שַׁמְנִ֖י וְשִׁקּוּיָֽי׃ – “I will go after my lovers, for they will give me my bread and water, my wool and linin, my oil and my drink.” In other words, the Children of Israel aren’t satisfied; they want more. Rather than appreciate what is present, they run after that which is not present; they imagine they can achieve more gratification. But…
וְרִדְּפָ֤ה אֶת־מְאַהֲבֶ֙יהָ֙ וְלֹא־תַשִּׂ֣יג אֹתָ֔ם וּבִקְשָׁ֖תַם וְלֹ֣א תִמְצָ֑א וְאָמְרָ֗ה אֵלְכָ֤ה וְאָשׁ֙וּבָה֙ אֶל־אִישִׁ֣י הָרִאשׁ֔וֹן כִּ֣י ט֥וֹב לִ֛י אָ֖ז מֵעָֽתָּה׃
Pursue her lovers as she will, she shall not overtake them; and seek them as she may, she shall never find them. Then she will say, “I will go and return to my First Husband, for then I fared better than now.”
Eventually, Israel realizes that the obsession with more, also called “idolatry,” only causes her suffering, and so she comes to appreciate the gifts she had and thereby returns to true connection with the Divine. The hint here is that, on a deep and practical level, “idolatry” really means to fixate on that which is not present; it means to elevate the images we “engrave” in our minds above the actual Reality right in front of us. The “idol” is that which is not present; the true Divine is Presence.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with imagining what we need or want in the future; that is the job of the mind. We have to count and quantify; we have to make maps of the world in order to navigate life. The point is not to elevate the map over the territory; the point is not to live in your mind, but to live in the Living Present. The maps of the mind are useful, but they are not alive:
פֶּֽה־לָ֭הֶם וְלֹ֣א יְדַבֵּ֑רוּ – They have mouths, but cannot speak… - Psalm 15
The “Divine,” however, means That which speaks to us from amidst the “wilderness” of life:
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י – The Divine spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…
Right now, and always, Hashem is speaking. The words aren’t necessarily conveying a conceptual message, but when we deeply connect with the truth of this moment, then Reality Itself can be received as the Divine Speech, shaking us from the virtual reality of the mind and into the Living Present. And when we receive the moment in this way, hearing the unfolding of Reality as Divine Speech, then we can connect with the essence of prayer, putting our conscious intention into each syllable, as we call back to the One that constantly calls to us. This is the Path of פ Pei, “Presence in Speech.”
Read past teachings on BaMidbar HERE.
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