By Rabbi Kami Knapp
Imagine the scene: Moses, Miriam and Aaron have led the people from Egypt. With slavery at their backs and freedom before them, they have surged forward with adrenaline.
But then they come to the edge of bamidbar and stop as they look across the expansive horizon. An Israelite looks forward and only sees an abyss, a never-ending trek. Another Israelite looks forward and sees limitless possibilities.
The one who sees limitless possibilities urges the others to move forward, while the one who sees the abyss turns to look behind him and realizes the suffocating expanse goes on in all directions, both going forward but also from where they have come. He realizes the energy it will take to return is just as daunting as the energy it will take to forge ahead.
Both Israelites find themselves in the same position: They must go forward. But how?
When our tradition speaks of bamidbar, it speaks of so much more than a physical place; it speaks of uncharted territory, the unknown, unexplored potential. The word bamidbar evokes a swath of emotions as well: fear, trepidation, excitement, creation.
And this word seems apropos for where we find ourselves today. We find ourselves at the edge of the bamidbar of what lies ahead with our changed reality. Two months ago, we had to close our doors and reassess our traditional ways of connecting to community, and now we find ourselves at the edge asking how do we go forward now?
This week’s parsha offers us wonderful tools in navigating the unknown before us.
Torah says: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of the ancestral houses…’” (1:1-2).
Moses and the elders set out to count all male Israelites over the age of 20 — all those old enough to defend the community. Once having reached the total of 603,550, the tribes are arranged in military divisions around the tabernacle. G-d prompts Moses and the elders to take two different censuses concerning the Levites — one to determine how many Levites are available to guard and service the Tabernacle and the second to determine how many older Levites are available to transport the Tabernacle when wandering.
Here we have a tool for the edge of bamidbar: the necessity to stop and assess how large our community spans and, more importantly, what abilities lie within our community — abilities that can, in turn, be used to give back to the community in order to sustain it through the wilderness.
As we experiment with online services or prepare for the High Holidays — territory that will look different than we have seen before — let us be inspired by our ancestors and take inventory of the special abilities within our communities so that we can creatively maintain that which is most central to our communities.
That leads to our second tool from this week’s Torah portion: determining our center.
After the revelation at Mount Sinai, we learn that G-d transplants G-d’s self from Mount Sinai to the tabernacle, to accompany and live within the Israelite camp as they travel. After the initial census, the tribes are situated at various points throughout the camp. “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (2:2).
Therefore, each Israelite’s identity consists of three parts: oneself, one’s immediate family and the community. The central values of the person and the central pillars of the community all face one collective point: the ark (a relationship with G-d). What we come to see is that every tribe is situated strategically in relationship to the same central point, the tabernacle and the Ark. The camp declares through action what is central to their community as well as their identities.
And this is our second tool as we stand on the edge of bamidbar. We must ask ourselves what is our collective point? What central point do we want to face as we move through this uncharted territory? What gives us meaning as we wander together but also gives us strength in the moments of fear?
This will look different for each community. But by understanding what is our central point and what resources we have within our communities, we can adapt to the needs of our communities as we must shift and adapt to the changing realities.
This time we find ourselves in feels awkward and, at times, impossible to navigate, but our tradition demonstrates to us that our people have navigated the unknown before and reached the Promised Land.
We all have it within us, by using the tools of our tradition, to look out at the expansive horizon before us of bamidbar and rather than see limitless possibilities or feel the tug to turn and return, that we can navigate putting one foot in front of the other as we navigate it together, as community.
Rabbi Kami Knapp is the rabbi at Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.