Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
The sidra deals with the census of the Children of Israel in the wilderness.
From the human point of view the census has an obvious importance. We need to know how many people make up our population and whether our numbers are growing or declining. But it is God who commands the census, and He is all-knowing - so why does He needs the numerical information from the census?
Rashi explains that the census was a mark of God’s love. It wasn't for God Himself that the numbers had to be ascertained, but in order to teach His creatures a lesson. That lesson is that whichever place an individual occupies in the community list, God still loves him or her exactly the same as anyone else. A Jewish saying says that nine rabbis do not make up a minyan but ten cobblers do.
There are places where the shammas (sexton) stands outside the shul (synagogue) when they need a tenth man for minyan (quorum), and nobody complains if the tenth man he brings in is a High Court judge – or a street sweeper. God loves them all.
LIFE IN THE DESERT
The root of the name "Bamidbar" can range through a whole spectrum of suggestions. It might be from a Semitic source that means "back" or "behind", hence the word "d’vir" in the Amidah. Australian slang calls the desert "the back of beyond".
On the other hand the origin of "midbar" is explained by some as linked with the root "dibber", to speak, and hence "davar", a word. At first sight one is tempted to dismiss this second view as hopelessly impossible, but if so why does the Tanach say "yesusum midbar v’tzi’ah v’tagel ha’aravah", "Let the wilderness and the parched earth be glad, and the desert rejoice" (Isa. 35:1; cf. Hos. 2:5)?
The prophet is of course predicting that in the time to come all the deserts will become oases and the weeds will be roses, but even before this messianic fulfilment comes about, the populated and the desolate parts of the universe all have a voice and a message if only we listen carefully.
There is a dynamic in the desert as well as the city. Things happen even in what appears to be God-forsaken territory. The High Holyday services tell us "V’chol Ma’aminim", which many translators render "And All Believe" – but maybe the real truth is that the words say, "Everything pays homage to the Creator" – even the wilderness.
From the Jewish point of view we have to remember that the Torah was given in no-man’s-land, which reminds us that the Divine Word is addressed to all mankind wherever they are. And of course Moses encountered God in the Burning Bush in the wilderness, again showing that there is no part of Creation which is without God.
True, there are countries where deserts seem to be useless, but not Israel. David Ben Gurion remarked in Southern California in 1951, “I envy you your deserts – not just because they are deserts, but because you can afford t keep them deserts...”
HISTRIONICS OR HOLINESS?
In the Haftarah, the prophet Hosea arraigns Israel for faithlessness to God and warns that the people will first have to be punished before God’s blessing is restored to them.
The punishment includes laying waste the vines and fig trees. But there is another deprivation: “I will cause all her (the nation’s) joy to cease: her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed seasons” (Hosea 2:13). The people will suffer materially, but spiritually and emotionally too. God’s gift of Shabbat and the festivals will be withdrawn, and their lives will be drab and empty.
We modern Jews might also have caused Hosea anguish. Not because God has withdrawn Shabbat from us, but because in so many cases we have withdrawn ourselves from Shabbat. We think we can manage quite well without the weekly day of holiness, and we do not realise how much we are missing. Life works so much better if you have a Shabbat. If you change into the Shabbat mode, calm your spirits, enjoy family, friends, Judaism, and just being alive - what a blessing it is!
It’s also a blessing to have a shul to come to on Shabbat, not only for the sake of the service, but also because of the warm feeling of being part of the Jewish people, and for the opportunity of sitting quietly and finding peace. There are those who say that what will bring Jews back to the synagogue is more exciting services, and though it is true that in some shuls the service really is a mess, that is not the only consideration. What we don’t need is illustrated by Rabbi Stephen Wise’s Friday evening services at Carnegie Hall, New York:
“That Friday evening service was as much a theatrical revue as a prayer meeting. The dramatic lighting up of the pulpit, which was in fact a stage; the soldier-like arrangement of the mixed choir which carried out evolutions to suit each part of the service; the studied raising and lowering of the voices of the choristers, the sound of the organ and Wise’s own oration all these imparted a curious artificiality to the proceedings…” (A. Abrahams, South African Jewish Herald, 20 July, 1951).
There is a place for histrionics, but not necessarily in the synagogue. (As a student I went to hear one of the great Christian preachers in London, and the sheer theatrics sent a thrill through me - but that’s not what the synagogue should be on Shabbat.) Jews need Shabbat, and they need the synagogue: but what should bring them there is not theatrics but the search for holiness.