September 25, 2023 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum at the May 14 Shabbat Evening Service.
When our family moved to Cleveland in June, we were approaching the summer peak in Covid-19 cases in Ohio. But, we still wanted to get to know our beautiful new neighborhood and community! Since so much of our work looks just like this, interacting with wonderful humans through the bizarre squares of Zoom, we decided to explore the area by visiting coffee shops and parks. We’d hop in the car, set up the GPS, and try to find the best coffee in the different nooks and crannies of greater Cleveland. We still love to do this when we have time, by the way, so if you have a favorite spot let us know!
When I think back to last summer, those little excursions were so liberating. We’d leave our at-home hibernation and get out of the house for a little while. All we needed was some gas in the tank and our GPS app, and the city was ours! Even with a good sense of direction, our GPS apps have made it so easy to hit the road and explore, even if the journey isn’t far. Over the last few months, we’ve become less and less reliant on the GPS, as we’ve become better acclimated to getting around town. I remember years ago when my parents brought home a puppy, Izzy, now of blessed memory. When he was eight-weeks-old and we first brought him home, we’d take him for a walk around the neighborhood. In those earliest days of his life with us, he would spend the entire walk with his nose pointed home. You can imagine how tangled we all got in the leash! But his internal sense of direction was one that connected him home; even if he somehow got separated from his humans, he could just go in a straight line, follow his nose, and make it home.
In this week’s Torah portion, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, sefer b’midbar. The book begins with a census, recounted in quite a lot of detail, which is why the book earns the name Numbers in English. While a census doesn’t sound like riveting reading material, the beginning chapters of our torah portion help us to see how the Israelites understand their community. We read
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Numbers 1:1-3)
This is but one example of a biblical census, and another full census will take place in the later chapters of Numbers, to take stock of the 38 years that elapse and to see how the community has changed.
It seems an odd thing that God would require a census, particularly in this moment in their journey. Medieval commentator Rashi understands this census as an act of God’s loving attention. He teaches, “mitoch chibatan l’fanav monei otan kol shanah: because the Israelites were dear to God, God counts them every now and then.” Modern scholar, Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, expands on Rashi’s teaching. She writes, “Whenever God commands a count of God’s people, says Rashi, this becomes an expression of God’s love. After historical crises, like the Exodus and the sin of the golden calf, God counts them in order to find out how many have survived; and when God comes to dwell among them, God likewise numbers them. God’s love, it seems, is at its keenest in two opposite situations–in celebration and after catastrophe. Counting punctuates both presence and absence. It is a way of paying attention–for Rashi, loving attention–to the individual within society.”
Counting, then, becomes an act of love, a way for God to be present with the Israelites. Though God’s primary interactions with the people of Israel are through Moses, this census gives us a sense of God’s connection with the broader community. The detailed census taking in the book of Numbers becomes an act of relationship with God, which is something the Israelites long for.
What follows in B’midbar is a long march. As they travel from station to station, the Israelites will assemble according to their tribes, and display the emblem of their ancestral family on flags. Though in English we call the book ‘Numbers’, B’midbar in translation would be “in a wilderness,” or “in the wilderness.” Throughout this book, we will read as our biblical ancestors journey through the wilderness on their way to the promised land. Their path is anything but straightforward; unlike my family’s dog, Izzy, they can’t just follow a straight path home. But even without a clear pathway or direction to follow, there is this throbbing sense of purpose on their journey. It is in the wilderness that the Israelites become a people.
About the wilderness, Dr. Zornberg teaches, “This landscape does not yield to human demands: it frustrates the need for food and drink, but also the basic demand for direction, no markings to indicate a human mapping of blank space. No human steps have trod this sand, it stares back at the traveler indifferently–pathless, bewildering to the human imagination.” The wilderness is just that: wild and bewildering.
As Jews, we have our own kind of spiritual navigation system. Though it took our ancestors 40 years to travel through the wilderness towards the Land of Israel, we spend our whole lives, however long they may be, navigating our own wilderness, becoming ourselves, finding a space within Judaism that feels as much a home as the Promised Land.
Yehudah haLevi was Jewish poet living in Spain in the 11th century. He spoke about his own internal connection to Israel, as a Jew living in the diaspora. In one poem, he wrote,
לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west-
And, in fact, our traditional prayer choreography reminds us that no matter where we live, we turn our hearts and bodies to face east when we pray. This week, I know many of our hearts are in the east, even as we sit on the edge of the west.
Watching the violence escalate in Israel has been devastating. Seeing the loss of life for Palestinians and Israelis alike has been heartbreaking. It feels like every piece of this conflict is complex in and of itself, and together the puzzle pieces just become too complicated to fit together. We teach that every human being, Jewish, Arab, Israeli, Palestinian, or otherwise, is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and it is painful to witness such disregard for that holiness by the people in power. It’s been difficult to look on as antisemitism and anti-Zionism bubble up forcefully in liberal and progressive spaces. It’s been frustrating to see generations of conflict reduced to simplified infographics on social media, as nuance disappears and complex history is incorrectly distilled to new versions of colonizer and oppressed. And it’s been profoundly heartbreaking to know that a place I care for, a place where my family has its roots, is in pain. I am an American Jew, and I am also a granddaughter of Israeli Jews.
That an important place in my own journey to who I am today is in danger, and that there is not peace, but war, involving the inhabitants of a land I love, has me feeling deeply those words of HaLevi: my heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west. It feels wild and bewildering. I read something from British Reform Rabbi Deborah Blausten that helped orient me this week. She wrote, “Our sages taught, ‘make for yourself a heart of many rooms.’ And with that teaching a reminder that it is possible, perhaps essential, to be upset and angry at rockets, at evictions, at airstrikes, at racist incitement, and to not compromise our humanity through selective compassion.” In other words, we have a responsibility to provide loving attention to the individual within society.
As I so often do in times of emotional unrest and spiritual crisis, I found comfort this week in some of my favorite poetry, and I want to share one particular poem with you tonight.
Modern Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, wrote this poem, called Jerusalem:
On a roof in the Old City
Laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
The white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
The towel of a man who is my enemy,
To wipe off the sweat of his brow.
In the sky of the Old City
At the other end of the string,
I can’t see
Because of the wall.
We have put up many flags,
They have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy.
To make them think that we’re happy.
Amichai captures so poignantly the complexity of Jerusalem. Like our ancestors in the wilderness, we imagine the flags, emblems of identity on display. The inherent tension of a kite, flying free but tethered to the earth. The human-made barriers that we make to separate ourselves from our neighbors.
Parashat B’midbar challenges us to reflect on our sense of spiritual direction. It’s an invitation to embrace the tension of Jewish living, exploring where we’ve been, where we’re trying to reach, and all the stops along the way. I want to bring one more teaching for Dr. Zornberg, who reflects on the challenges of the wilderness experience for the Israelites. She writes, “The real subject of this Book of the Wilderness… is the longing of the people of Israel to learn directly from God, by learning something new about the Torah, about the world and themselves. What they are developing in their skeptical discourse is a language of imaginative truth… The achievement of personal utterance, in a reality of bewilderment, is the contribution of Israel to the Torah. This book, unlike all other parts of the Torah, is made of the people’s utterances, its longing to converse, however obliquely, with God.”
Dr. Zornberg helps us to better understand what underlies the Israelite experience in wilderness: it is, at its core, a book about yearning to be close with God. When we consider the census that begins this week’s torah portion, only the males of military age were counted. While I love Rashi’s idea that it was because the Israelites were dear to God, so God counted them to be close to God’s community, today we change our focus. When we think about who counts, whose humanity we honor, it must be all of us, each of us, that count among God’s creation, no matter our sex or gender, our religion or ancestral or ethnic heritage. We still yearn for closeness with God.
I think back to those early days last summer as we explored Cleveland. The GPS was a great tool to help us learn the neighborhood, just as maps always have been. But it was the wandering, the meandering between neighborhoods, that helped us start to feel a sense of rootedness here. After all, we all want to feel safe, and at home, wherever we are.
As we wander through the midbar, the wilderness, with our ancestors over the coming weeks throughout the book of Numbers, I pray we find ways to make our own journeys meaningful. May all our paths be paths of peace. Ken yehi ratzon–may this be God’s will.
 Bewilderments, page 11
 Ibid. xii
 Tosefta 7:12
 Ibid. 28-29