This week, we begin the Book of Bamidbar with Parasha Bamidbar. In English, the book is called Numbers, because it begins with a census of every male among the Children of Israel who is 20 years and older, the “Legion of Israel”.
In Hebrew, Bamidbar means “in the Wilderness”. The story of this book begins in the second year after the Exodus, while the Children of Israel are still in Sinai. Recall that at the beginning of their time at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were told Moses was to ascend the mountain to receive the Torah, and they were not to approach the mountain so they would not die. Moses received the Ten Commandments on the mountain and, when he came down, he found some people worshipping the Golden Calf.
During the two years at Sinai, the Israelites constructed the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Ramban explains that the Book of Bamidbar arranges the laws relating to Mishkan. (“Introduction” to Bamidbar) He explains this book sets forth various commandments about protecting the holiness of the Mishkan, in ways similar to showing respect for the holiness of Mt. Sinai. For example, boundaries were set around the Mishkan, just as boundaries were set around Mt. Sinai so the Israelites would not approach too closely to such a holy place, and die. The Kohanim were also to safeguard both places. There were also commandments about how the Mishkan was to be treated when it was transported and when it was at rest. Even the entire camp of the Children of Israel was organized to encircle the Mishkan, so that the People surrounded and protected it.
Thus, as the people left the holiness of the mountain where God gave the Torah, they had the Mishkan with them throughout their journey as a place of holiness.
You have the opportunity to do something similar when you camp, to bring holiness to your travels. Take a siddur or Bible with you and set aside time for prayer or Torah study. When I go backpacking in the wilderness, I expect to encounter natural wonders that I do not see at home, so I make sure I have the words to the special blessing one says for seeing a comet or lofty mountains or very large rivers (… Oseh ma’aseh vereishit – … Who makes the work of creation). When my trek crew is together for a meal – one of the few quiet times during a camping trip – we make a blessing before we eat. As the flames of the campfire die down before we go to bed, I remind my crew of how blessed we are to be able to experience the beauty and wonders of God’s nature.
This weekend is Shavuot, and we have the treat of reading the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who converted to Judaism, left her home after her husband died and traveled back to Israel with her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi. She marries a member of Naomi’s extended family, and has a son, Oved, who is the grandfather of King David. Ruth’s story emphasizes the other side of what we learn in the parasha. The places where we encountered the Divine Presence in ancient days – Mt. Sinai, the inner spaces of the Tabernacle, and later of the Temple – were so holy that only those people designated by God, Moses on Mt. Sinai and the Kohanim at the Tabernacle and the Temple, were allowed to approach them. But everyone who is Jewish enjoys the blessings we receive from those holy places, including those who come to Judaism from foreign lands and different backgrounds.
Shabbat shalom and happy Shavuot,