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Parashat BeMidbar

May 25, 2011

By Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay

The fourth book of our Torah is called BeMidbar in Hebrew, meaning, “in the desert,” and Numbers in English, referring to the first parashah (also called BeMidbar) in which we learn the numbers of men of military age who would defend the Israelites in the event of attack. In the second book of our Torah, Exodus, Moses had begun to lead the Israelites “in the desert” on their journey to the Promised Land of Canaan. Here, the journey continues.

The Israelites were a well-ordered people: the numbers of men able to bear arms is determined:the Kohanim, the Levites and Kohathites are given their specific responsibilities with respect to the Tabernacle while the other Israelites would be camped in four groups under their ancestral banners around the Tabernacle. These are a people to be reckoned with: liberated from enslavement and with the Holy One as their spiritual traveling companion, they are well-organized, emboldened and resolved to successfully navigate the wilderness of the desert and reach the Promised Land. There is no hint here of the crises in confidence the Israelites had and would later experience in the desert as described in earlier and later parashiyot.

When I received a lung cancer diagnosis in June of 2010, I began my own desert journey, and found myself immediately surrounded by numbers of family and friends, and a loving a merciful God, all of whom have enabled me to navigate what seemed would be the beginning of a long and ominous odyssey. And if there are, as the months and years pass, crises in confidence, I know I will not be alone in facing and overcoming them.

I, too, had entered into the desert as a well-ordered person, one to be reckoned with: rather than enslaved by cancer, cancer liberated me from ever taking a casual appreciation of life. I was emboldened by my cancer, resolved to successfully navigate the wilderness of the desert I had entered and not merely to survive but to thrive.

On occasion, friends and acquaintances, including clergy of several faith communities, have said about my diagnosis, “It’s unfair.” And then asked, “Why you?” Not for a moment have I asked myself, “Why me?” The title of a book I read 20 years ago after the death of my father has remained vivid in my mind: Why Me? Why Anyone? by Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe, James Rudin and Marcia Rudin. Indeed, Why anyone?

In answer to the question, “Whyme? I am also reminded of what Rabbi Pesach Krauss wrote in his book, Why Me? Coping with Grief, Loss, and Change, “Rather than going down the blind alley of comparing myself to others, I learned to take stock of my own assets and put them to the best possible use.” That is what the Israelites did and that is what I have done.

Anyone carrying the burdens the Israelites carried, in both Egypt and in the desert, would ask, “Why me?” In Egypt the Israelites took stock of their assets and put them to the best possible use: they gauged their strength on the number of their fellows enslaved with them and in their faith in a God who went down to Egypt with them. They were not alone. It was not just “me.” I have not been alone. It has never been just “me.”

In the desert, the Israelites again took stock of their assets and put them to the best possible use: they numbered their able-bodied men; they numbered those who would be responsible for the sanctuary, and they numbered the commandments given at Mt. Sinai as evidence that God had left Egypt with them. They were not alone. It was not just “me.”

I, too, have taken stock of my assets and put them to the best possible use: I have numbered my wife, Jo, our daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, sister, and even my mother who passed into Life Eternal on April 22nd; I have numbered the commandments given at Mt. Sinai, especially the first commandment, “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” the commandment that assures me that God is also with me on my journey.  I am not alone. It is not just “me.”

Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “… the desert is a place that recalls the pristine majesty of creation. The sand and stars remind us of our smallness, and tempt us to translate that into our insignificance. Of what account are we in the vast wasteland? Receiving the Torah in the wilderness makes a powerful statement: Beside God and the totality of God’s creation, we are truly puny, ephemeral. Yet to experience God is to stand at the summit of creation. We are nothing; we are significant.” “Why me?” I am nothing. “Why me!” I am significant.

Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay, Ed.D., AJR 2001, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Emeth of Mount Sinai (Suffolk County, New York). He is author of A Jewish Book of Comfort, co-author with his wife, Jo, of Make Your Own Passover Seder and Technical Editor for Torah for Dummies by Arthur Kurzweil.