Parashat Bamidbar 5781 / פרשת בְּמִדְבַּר
Torah Portion: Numbers 1:1-4:20
This has been a trying week in Israel, to say the least. Rockets flying from Gaza and, earlier today, from Syria are a direct threat to the civilians whom they are targeting not just in the border towns with Gaza but in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Today I checked in with members of our CAA community who have family in Israel. Thank God all their family members are safe, but with frequent explosions and sirens splitting the air around them, they are forced to stay close to safe rooms and bomb shelters and many are fearful and stressed. Meanwhile, Israel’s response has been swift and decisive. Though the IDF has been literally laser focused on military and operational targets in Gaza and it continues its practice of announcing strikes on large buildings, its airstrikes have tragically and yet unavoidably resulted in the loss of civilian lives.
Those of us familiar with Israel’s modern history should not be surprised by this turn of events. After all, we are all too familiar with the cycle by which Israel is attacked by rockets from Gaza, Israel responds by demolishing Hamas’s military infrastructure, and then we all wait several years while Iran resupplies Hamas, at which time a fresh round of fighting begins, just with even more lethal technology than before. What is different this time around, though, is that the cities and neighborhoods that have always represented the ideal of Jewish and Arab coexistence in Israel are now being rocked by clashes fueled by extremists on both sides. Earlier today an Arab rioter torched a theater in the northern coastal town of Acco, a theater run by Arabs and Jews who consider themselves one family.
Back here, my inbox has been flooded with messages from every imaginable Jewish organization promoting their point of view and appealing for my support. It has just been crazy! As I’ve tried to find learn about the situation, I’ve been overwhelmed by all these often-contradictory voices. Even with my rabbinical association listserv my Reconstructionist colleagues debate how to approach this week’s conflict. But you know what they say: two Jews, three opinions.
What are we to think about what is happening? How are we to feel? How do we balance hesed and gevurah – lovingkindness and mercy with justice and might? Are we allowed to criticize Israel for its decisions or feel empathy for any of the families in Gaza who’ve lost loved ones, whether they are combatants or not? Do we side with Jewish settlers or with the Palestinians in the village of Sheikh Jarrah in their dispute over who has the stronger legal claim to the properties in which many hundreds of Palestinians have been living for decades?
The answer to these questions is that we must allow there to be space for all views. The Jewish camp is expansive, after all, and encompasses many perspectives. We see this exemplified beautifully in this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar
This week we begin reading a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar or Numbers. Bamidbar comes from the first verse of the book where we read, “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness.” It is called Numbers because it opens with God telling Moses to take a census of all the men from all the tribes who are eligible for military service. In essence, we read of the military preparations of the Israelites as they embark on their then 38-year journey toward the very land making headlines this week.
What strikes me about Parashat Bemidbar is not so much the census as the placement of each of the tribes around the Ark of the Covenant. Each tribe inhabits a space to the north, south, east or west of the ark to protect it and themselves from would be aggressors. Implicit in the placement of each tribe is that each tribe would be responsible for either warding off aggressors who might attack its domain or back up the other tribes in their struggles. At the same time, all the tribes would also be oriented toward that which bound them together, the Torah.
In the Eytz Hayim chumash (p. 774) we read: “A tradition has it that the tribe of Judah, situated at the eastern edge of the camp, marched backward when the Israelites broke camp and traveled eastward, to avoid turning their backs on the Ark.” Even though Judah had its job to do, it remained focus on Israel’s covenant with God and with the community.
I know Israel can be a divisive topic and that we won’t all hear or respond to this week’s news the same way. We will have our differences. We will all bring our own perspective to the reality before us, just as each tribe would view the Ark from whichever vantage point it occupied on the march through the wilderness.
My hope is that wherever we stand, we will listen to all the voices around us and engage in civil debate but that we will follow the example of Judah and always orient ourselves toward one another, remembering our shared history, our shared values, and our One God.
May we all pray for the welfare of the State of Israel and those charged with defending it. May we pray for the safety of our loved ones and all innocents in the region. And may we live to see the day when all humanity will awaken to its common destiny, when all warfare and bloodshed will cease, when Peace will reign over all the earth and God’s name will truly be One.