This week we end the Book of Numbers (Sefer Bamidbar). This section of our Torah chronicles almost the entire wandering of the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sinai, hence its name in Hebrew, Bamidbar (in the wilderness). The generation that experienced slavery and liberation has died off and a new generation of free people, whose life experience was forged in the desert, has replaced them. Their task will be to conquer the Land of Canaan and establish the ideal, model society that God has imagined for them. What is that society like?
This week’s Torah portion gives us a few clues. It is a society where vows are sacred and promises made must be kept. (Numbers 30:2-17) It is a society where the need for justice is tempered with mercy. Murder will be punished, but cities of refuge are also established. (Numbers 35:1-34) Where Israelites living in the Land of Israel and outside the Land of Israel, will be responsible for each other. (Numbers 30:1-33)
The Book of Numbers is an apt metaphor for the human experience. We are always wandering in the desert. Older generations pass away and new generations replace them. We work to create the ideal society God has imagined for us. Old ideas that were once acceptable, like slavery, racism, sexism, the explotation of other human beings and the exploitation of the Earth begin to fade away.
None of this happens without a struggle, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently. Change happens ultimately, because we work to make change, to create a world where all human beings, women and men, all races, religions and ethnicities, can live lives of dignity and worth. As Rabbi Tarfon said: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16)
The Book of Numbers reminds us that we are like the Israelites in the wilderness: still wandering, still struggling to create a world that will live up to God’s vision.
~Rabbi Dean Kertesz