Stand and Be Counted: Or How Not to Wander


NASO, Numbers 4:21-7:89



Getting there, they say, is half the fun. But what if it seems like you're not getting anywhere?

In our fast-paced modern world, a few things remain agonizingly slow: the long line at the DMV, the Schuylkill Expressway at rush hour, the wait for contractions to progress to full labor. But in each of these cases, there's a light at the end of the tunnel — a goal, a finish line.

The Jewish people, however, didn't have it so easy in the desert.

For 40 years, a generation wandered, taking a circuitous route around the Land of Israel, realizing for most of the time that they wouldn't be privileged to dwell there. Because of the sin of the spies, they were forbidden from entering; only their children could conquer the land.

Knowing this, it would be easy to read the beginning of this week's portion — which among other things, details the laws of a Nazirite and lists the identical Tabernacle offerings of each of the 12 tribe's leaders — as comprising little more than a story from the past. Continuing from the end of last week's portion, the Almighty commands that Moses take a census of all of the Levites between the ages of 30 and 50, and assign them specific jobs related to the transport of the Tabernacle.

But the Torah is not a history book. Each of its details possesses an instruction in daily life. We don't have a physical Tabernacle in today's world, and the commandment to count the Levites was a one-time thing. Nevertheless, the Zohar records a profound idea that, when extended, offers a unique lesson in how we should approach the world around us.

Even though wandering the desert was a punishment, the Jewish people accomplished much during their journey. According to the Midrash, the very act of following the pillar of fire, and moving the Tabernacle from place to place, effected a physical change in the early Israelites' surroundings. Where before there were scorpions and snakes, there was land bereft of harmful creatures.

Wherever the Jewish people went, according to tradition, Miriam's well followed. This allowed a barren desert to sprout vegetation. Thus, by wandering for 40 years, the Jewish people took a desert and made it into a habitable land. This is the power accorded to each and every one of us.

Before setting out, the Jewish people had to be counted. Why?

In Jewish dietary law, certain nonkosher items can be nullified in the presence of their kosher surroundings, such as when a drop of milk accidentally falls into a pot of meat soup more than 60 times the volume of the milk. One thing that can never be nullified, however, is an item counted by virtue of its importance.

So, too, in the act of counting the Jewish people in general, and the Levites, in particular, the Torah is assuring that by carrying the Tabernacle in the desert, they will be able to affect their surroundings — and not the other way around.

In our lives, when we meditate on our surroundings, we might discern certain impurities in the world. There may be a lack of peace and harmony; there may be hypocrisy and strife. It could be that we're living in a spiritual desert.

This week's Torah portion, however, instructs us to take that desert and make it bloom. Only then will we be able to inherit the spiritual Promised Land.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is editor of News. E-mail him at: [email protected]


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