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Even in Wilderness, God Sat at Center of Things
Are you the type of traveler who plans every detail of the trip, making lists and the necessary reservations? Or do you throw everything together into a backpack and rely on your guidebook once you get there? Do you rent a car with a GPS, or ask the locals for directions? In this week's Torah portion, we are brought back to the travelogue of the Israeli people. How do they travel through the desert?
Bamidbar, the Hebrew name of the book of Numbers, means "in the wilderness." The Torah's fourth book opens with a careful census of the Israelite community, thus suggesting our English title, Numbers. As the text names and counts each tribe, it also instructs how they should configure themselves when in camp, and the order to follow when traveling.
We often say that the Israelites "wandered" for 40 years in the desert, which connotes an aimless trek. But as we learn in this portion, the so-called wandering was highly directed. The Israelites knew when to stop and go by divine command: The cloud of God would settle on them when it was time to camp, and lift when it was time to travel.
In the center of these troops was the Tent of Meeting, or the Tabernacle, attended to by the Levites. The portion treats the Levites' special status as a tribe consecrated to God and set aside to service the priests and the tent. The Levites camp next to the Tent of Meeting, and they march next to it.
Within the Levites, each clan was assigned a certain part of the tent to attend to. The Gershonites were in charge of the coverings of the tent; the Kohathites were in charge of the ark, the table, the lamp stands, the altar and so on.
The breaking down and packing up of the tent is described at the end of the portion in great detail. Only Aaron and his sons may do this task, for even the Kohathites, who will carry the tent, will die if they witness it being dismantled. Each piece of the Tent of Meeting is taken down, and wrapped with blue or crimson clothes and dolphin skins.
What can we make of this description of dismantling the Tabernacle, especially after so much description in Exodus and Leviticus of how to build the Tent of Meeting and how to sacrifice in it? We know from this opening portion of Bamidbar that we are being prepared for how to travel, how to be on the move. We put the more settled concerns of Leviticus aside for now.
Life on the Road
Numbers will still deal with sacrifice and purity, but it will return to the adventures of being Bamidbar, in the desert. As the Israelites make their way toward the Promised Land, they will deal with the deprivations of life on the road, they will meet different people on the way, and they will prepare to explore their destination.
Yet the centrality of the Tent of Meeting will ensure that in the midst of their travels they will not forget who they are. There is a precise order to their society, and it is centered around the tabernacle -- their means of worshipping and communicating with God. Even as the Israelites go forward into the unknown wilderness, they bring the ordered identity of their community with them, keeping God at the center of it.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: [email protected].