Parashat BeMidbar

By Karen Levine

Rabbi David Max Eichhorn, an American Army chaplain, stood on a makeshift podium in the middle of the vast roll call square. On a table behind Rabbi Eichhorn sat a simple wooden ark that held a rescued Torah scroll, donated to him as he traveled through France with the advancing American army. The prisoners who were strong enough gathered, on May 6, 1945, for the first public Jewish service in the concentration camp at Dachau.

This event caught my attention at a museum exhibit. It featured a short film of the slender, mustached Eichhorn chanting El Malei Rahamim before a group of solemn survivors. From Rabbi Eichhorn’s Army report, I learned that he had led a “short Torah service.” I looked up the portion, curious to know the first words of Torah read publically in the oldest Nazi concentration camp.

It was Bemidbar.

I was stuck immediately by the irony. Bemidbar. In the wilderness. At Sinai, the wilderness was a desert about to be crossed. Weeks before the Israelites embark on their long journey to the Holy Land, God commands Moses to count all the men of military age. He identifies the tribes and assigns the leaders. Described is the way in which the Levites must dismantle, carry and reassemble the Tabernacle. There’s more counting: the number in each tribe, the Levite males, the firstborn Israelites, the Kohanim. Moses arranges a system of encampment according to tribe. In Parashat Bemidbar, Moses, as instructed by God, is effectively assembling a mobile military force that includes the entire nation of Israel.

For the Jews listening to Rabbi Eichhorn, Dachau was a wilderness of unimaginable suffering. Starved and beaten, every dignity had been stripped from them. Their captors identified them not by name, but by number. They had been counted and recounted, day after day. And there they were in the roll call square, listening, of all things, to the opening passages of the Book of Numbers.

There’s a story of the Hasidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunem, who carried two notes, one in each pocket. One note said, “I am but dust and ashes,” and the other read, “The world was created for my sake.” Perhaps the extremes that Rabbi Bunem considered were never better illustrated than they were in those moments of the Torah reading at Dachau. On one hand, we observe the survivors of a Jewish genocide, so nearly reduced to “dust and ashes” and on the other hand, we realize God’s miraculous fortification of a people for whom the world had been created. How can the simultaneous occurrence of these contradictory concepts possibly be reconciled?

I believe, with hope.

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, as well as sub-camps of Dachau, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red… Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!'”

Their survival depended on hope.

Our own survival depends on hope. All of us, at one time or another, find ourselves in a midbar-a physical or emotional place of confusion and suffering. In our darkest hours, when we might think we’re hardly more than dust and ashes, we can remember that, as in the wilderness of Sinai or Dachau, or even our own backyard, there is hope. Parashat Bemidbar is safe in our other pocket, ready to demonstrate howGod creates order from confusion, and to remind us that in many ways, the world was created just for us.

At the conclusion of Rabbi Eichhorn’s remarkable service, the small but cohesive congregation of survivors, surrounded by hand-made flags oddly reminiscent of the banners that flew for the tribes at Sinai, joined in the singing of Hatikva-the Jewish song of Hope.

The lesson I learned from Parashat Bemidbar and its poignant connection to our more recent history is that God is always there to offer us hope, even (or perhaps especially) in the wilderness.


Karen Levine is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.