Forty Ninth Day of the Omer
Our calendar is arranged so that we almost always read the sidra Bemidbar on the shabbat before Shavuot. The wilderness – Bemidbar – is both the background setting and the active personality in the story of Jewish peoplehood. Four of the five books of Moses take place here, it is here we are formed as a people and here we form our relationship with God.
The book is sometimes called in rabbinic literature “sefer hapikudim” – the book of the counted.
Sefer Bemidbar is where we see a real change in the people and in their own agency. Much of their time in the wilderness takes place in this book – it covers thirty eight of the forty years of wandering. Unlike Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the book does not particularly focus on laws, but instead gives us a clear sense of the direction of travel of the people from slavery to the point of reaching their own land, from a people who are the objects of God’s miraculous interventions to becoming a normal people who will live ordinary lives and make their own decisions. Grown ups.
The Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) notices that by the end of the book of Numbers, the people are quite different. They no longer rely on God and on miracles in order to fight wars. Now they are to count men of military age to create their own army and fight their own fights.
The two censuses – which some say the book is named for – mark the staging posts in the journey to becoming a people who must use their own agency, just as other peoples do. The Netziv teaches that sefer Bemidbar can be broken into three smaller “books,”. In the sefer torah there is a curious scribal tradition to place two upside-down letters (‘nuns’ )(Bemidbar 10:35-37) enclosing three verses. Tradition teaches that those three verses are an entire book of the bible, absorbed into Sefer Bemidbar. The text before these letter “nuns” is said to be one entire book, a book which describes the period immediately after the Egyptian experience. A time of supernatural support and very little agency. A childhood. Then comes the “book” within the letters. And after them comes the third book, which takes as its theme the planning and the focus on the Land of Israel – a book of human and adult activity.
So the book Bemidbar is dynamic and directional. And we read it just before re-enacting revelation at Sinai. It is almost as if it is saying – “Don’t stay at Sinai. Don’t rely on miracles or the supernatural! Create for yourselves a new world, a new way of being – based on Torah but always looking forward into the lives you live now and the lives you want to be living.
We can read the name “sefer hapikudim” as being the book of those who are counted in the census for logistical reasons, or as being the book of those who make sure they live lives that are counted and that have meaning. The book of those who make sure their existence counts.
As we prepare once more to re-enact Sinai, we are reminded that we can either stay in the protective bubble – almost like the garden of Eden – and expect God to function as some kind of supernatural parent, or we can take from Sinai the courage, the faith, the revelation of God’s existence in our world and use that experience to build towards a future that will express our full human potential in the world.