Bamidbar: In the Desert ~ The Week's End: May 19, 2023
May 19th 2023

This Shabbat we start a new book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. Hebrew speakers might pick up that the English name of the book, Numbers, is not at all a translation of the word  Bamidbar, which means In The Desert. We see the same issue with the name of the book we just finished–VaYikra means And He Called, not Leviticus (or anything to do with Levites).

The themes of Leviticus relate to Priests and Levites, and the book of Numbers begins and ends with a census of the Israelite nation. But I believe that the Hebrew names of these books mean a great deal more. Vayikra signals closeness between Moses, the people and God, a fitting opening to a book that discusses so many aspects of ritual, purity, sacrifice and ethical behaviour. And Bamidbar not only describes the milieu of the book's stories – all set in the desert – but also points to the poor behaviour of the Israelites throughout the book, as if they are deserting God and cannot find their way.

This book of the Torah, covering over 38 years of time, includes the challenging stories of the 12 spies sent to scout the land and their negative report, the rebellion of Korach against Moses and Aaron, the slanderous speech of Aaron and Miriam against their brother Moses, numerous stories of idol worship by the Israelites, the odd narrative of Balak and Ba’alam, and more. It is a cautionary tale of the trials and tribulations of a young nation trying to figure out how to function.

I cannot help but think of the current political situation in Israel as I write this, another young nation figuring out its next steps. My hope is that just as the Israelites eventually do reach the Promised Land and begin the next stage of their nationhood with unity and purpose, so to do Israelis and their leaders come to an understanding that leads to peace, prosperity, goodwill, and unity of purpose and direction.