The importance of the wilderness
The wilderness is a biblical no-man’s land. At the same time, it belongs to no one and everyone.
It seems like it was just a few weeks ago that the Israelites were packing up their lives in Egypt and set out on a new journey into freedom. And what a journey it has been so far.
Attacks from the Amalekites, complaints about water and food, reaching Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah, building the Mishkan — and everything in between. The Israelites went through all of this as one community.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, things start to rapidly the change for the Israelites. The able-bodied men are counted in a census. The tribes are divided and stationed around the Mishkan. The members of the tribe of Levi are given special positions and duties, apart from everyone else.
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In “Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” Beatrice Lawrence writes, “Though all of the members of the community are traveling to the same place, they do so in a structured fashion in which boundaries of tribal units are carefully maintained, and in which some groups have more responsibility — and more access to the divine sphere — than others. The overarching tone of the parshah is subsequently patriarchal and hierarchical.”
The Israelites have undergone an extreme shift, from the chaotic, yet cohesive, life as one single people, to the organized and fractured experience as separate tribes.
This is why the first verse of our parshah is so important. “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month in the second year since they went out from the land of Egypt” (Numbers 1:1). The wilderness is a biblical no-man’s land. At the same time, it belongs to no one and everyone.
Sinai is specifically mentioned to remind us of the giving of Torah and the covenant established between God and Israel. Despite the new hierarchy that is established in the following verses, God and Torah belong to each of the Israelites as much as each of the Israelites belongs to God and Torah. PJC
Rabbi Stacy Petersohn is the spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.