The Book of Numbers, your bar mitzvah portion, is a departure from the Torah’s overall narrative. Whereas the other four books of the Torah focus on the founding generations of Abraham’s family (Genesis), the birth of the Jewish people (Exodus) and the religious/ethical outline of our religious practice (Leviticus) and Moses’ inspiring blessing to the nation on the doorstep of the Holy Land (Deuteronomy), Numbers focuses mainly on our ancestors’ trials and tribulations in the desert.
The Book of Numbers, then, appears to depart from the Torah’s overall theme of preparing Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) for life in the Promised Land and focuses instead on the threats that emerge along the way. It is a time the Israelites struggle to maintain faith after the miracles they experienced at the Red Sea and Mount Sinai (Shlach); when dangerous enemies threaten to derail their historic mission by threatening both their ethical compass and even their very lives (Balak).
It was also a time of gratuitous bickering, serious enough that God himself intervenes with Korach and his legions in a manner reminiscent of the way He once dealt with Egyptian slave holders.
It would be easy to conclude, therefore, that the primary message of fourth book of the Torah is cautionary: Now that we’re out of Egypt, we must adopt a defensive, reactionary worldview in order to survive. In this view, the Land of Israel serves as a safe haven for the nation to protect itself against the existential threats of the danger-filled outside world, rather than a lifelong celebration of the breathtaking “count the stars if you can” inheritance that God promised to Abraham way back in Genesis.
I contend, nevertheless, that the Book of Numbers is not primarily one of danger and warning, but rather one of promise and preparation, albeit seasoned with a healthy dose of realism. Yes, there are significant, major bumps on the road in the desert and no, they should not be understated.
But there are highlights, too – Numbers is also the book that gives us the priestly blessing, the one that celebrates the consecration of the ancient Tabernacle, the mitzvah (commandment) to attach tzitzit, ritual fringes, to our four-cornered garments and more. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the author of the 19th century Torah commentary HaEmek Davar, writes that the Book of Numbers marks the Jews’ transition from “Egypt-leavers” to “Israel-inheritors.”
My son, it would be hard for me to think of a more powerful or relevant observation than Rabbi Berlin’s, both for you as an individual and as a member of the Jewish people in the 21st century. Having been born just three days before Shavuot, your birthday is inextricably connected both to the “real world” challenges described in the book of Numbers and to the world of miracles and direct Providence represented by the revelation at Mt. Sinai.
On a macro level, too, you are coming of age at a time that the Jewish people are re-living that Biblical journey, shaking off the lingering effects of a long, painful exile and returning at last to our national home.
As you take your place in both of those dramas (or is it one drama with two themes?), I suggest four lessons from your parsha to illustrate Rabbi Berlin’s observation and to animate your personal journey as a Jewish adult.
• Stand up and be counted. The Book of Numbers opens, appropriately enough, with a census of the Jewish people. The goal of a census is two-fold: to gain a broad oversight of the nation at large, as well as to identify the unique qualities of each sub-set and individual member of the group.
Learn to identify your abilities and interests, nurture them, and then think creatively about how to use them wisely.
• Don’t underestimate the power of national unity, but don’t fall into the trap of confusing unity with uniformity. The Jews in the desert the Jews had 12 tribal flags, with each tribe assigned a specific “parking spot” in the encampment. We all have a role to play in the Jewish story, and that story becomes richer and more rewarding when the Jewish people embraces plurality and difference.
• Stand up for what is right, even if it makes you unpopular. Don’t be afraid to follow the example of Yehoshua Bin-Nun and Calev Ben-Yefuneh, the only members of the “advance team” to return from scouting out the Land of Israel saying, “Yes, we can!”
Three thousand years later, I challenge you to name any of the spies who spoke ill of the Promised Land, but we all remember Yehoshua and Calev and their insistence that “the land is very, very good.” Which leads to the fourth point.
• Believe in yourself. Calev and Yehoshua saw the same things the other spies did, and they were undoubtedly intimidated by giant inhabitants of the Land and massively oversized fruits and vegetables growing here. But their strength of character and of faith gave them confidence to pursue the mission of conquering the Land, even knowing that the battle would not be easy.
Micha-el, you stand today like the Jewish People as they journeyed towards the Promised Land: Excited, scared, full of dreams and plans and perhaps even intimidated by the scope of it all.
But if you see what I do when you look in the mirror, your fears should quickly turn to excitement.
God has blessed you with so many powerful personality traits –kindness, empathy, understanding, happiness, and an inner sense of peace that allows you to find the goodness in everybody you meet. May He help you make the most of those tools as you journey toward your own personal Land of Israel.■
The writer is a journalist and longtime contributor to The Jerusalem Report.