Parashat Bemidbar

Hazan Marcia Lane

Where Am I? (or “Stuck in the Middle Again!”)

The fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, begins with one of those statements that sounds, at least to me, as if it was being narrated by Charlton Heston.

“The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year, after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying: Take a census ….”  (Num. 1:1-2)

It’s a cinematic moment. The entire nation (together with all the hangers-on) have been camped at the foot of the mountain, growing and weaving and building all the elements of the mishkan– the movable sacred space – and learning the necessary laws for what will be their life as an independent nation, living in its own land. For two years and one month the people have been sojourning here, in the wilderness of Sinai, at the foot of the mountain. Soon the tabernacle will be complete, the tribes will have their marching orders, and this enormous mass of people will start to travel, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

 Can you picture it? The mountain on one side, and a vast expanse in every other direction. It can be awkward or frightening to be in the middle of nowhere, to be surrounded by nothing. On the other hand, it can be comforting to be in the middle of a group of friends, family, or defenders. How you feel about the middle depends on what’s around you. Who feels comfortable standing alone, and who requires the comfort of the crowd? Then there are people who push forward, even when the timing is wrong, or when they are not the right people for the job. Even architecture can help to define the relationship between the group and its leaders. Picture the difference between synagogues that are structured on the auditorium model of audience and performers, and those that position the reading table in the middle of the sanctuary. In the second situation the sheliah tzibbur (prayer leader) and the Torah reading are betokh– in the midst of – the congregation.

Our parashah emphasizes several different ways of being in the middle or of standing out. In preparation for the coming journey and for the dangers they will inevitably face, Moses is commanded to conduct a census and to call forward one man from each tribe to stand with him as part of the ritual count. They are identified as ish, rosh leveiyt avotav, each man the head of his father’s house, chiefs of each tribe. After listing their names they are identified again:

“These were the renowned of the congregation, princes of the tribes of their fathers, chiefs of thousands in Israel.” (Num. 1:16)

These twelve are the ‘stand-up/stand-out’ guys, the men who are identified – not by themselves or by Moses, but by God – to be not in the middle of the pack, but at the front. Imagine the pressure on them to lead an army, to represent their tribe bravely. (Later, in next week’s Torah reading, Naso, these same men will also model respect and collegiality when they each present the exact same gifts to the tabernacle.) In their case, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to stand apart from the group.
In addition to designating these twelve men to stand apart, God also instructs Moses to separate out the tribe of Levi. They are not to be included in this census, because they will not serve in the army. The Levites stand apart from and are representative of the nation. They represent the offering of the firstborn sons to God, and they will serve in the Tent of Meeting, performing tasks associated with ritual sacrifices, strengthening the bond between Israel and God. If they do well, if each man performs his job with

kavannah– with care and intentionality – then the people prosper. If not, the individual Levite could die.

There is yet another example of what it means to be in the middle, in the midst of something:

“The Tent of Meeting, the camp of the Levites, shall journey in the middle of the camps; as they encamp, so shall they journey, everyone at his place according to their banners.” (Num. 2:17)

So the Tent of Meeting travels surrounded by the tribes, equidistant from each one. The late 19th early 20th century commentator known as the Hafetz Hayyim (“the one who cherishes life”), Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, commented on this verse.
Because the Torah rests in an ark that is in the Tent of Meeting, it’s essential that the tent always be in the “the midst” of the camps, in the center, not nearer to or further from one or the other, just as the bimah is at the center of the synagogue, and the Tree of Life was planted in the middle of the Garden….  the Torah is a Tree of Life, and it’s necessary that everything is focused around it, with it (Torah) in the center…visible to all who pass by.
The focus on the ark/Tent of Meeting/Torah as the center of our lives gives a different meaning to the notion of being surrounded by difficulties. If we look outward it’s possible to be overwhelmed by the midbar, the wilderness in which we wander. But if we look to the center, we see the laws that guide our journey, and we see each other.




Hazzan Marcia Lane has served congregations in New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. She currently lives in Nashville.