September 23, 2019

7 haiku for parsha Bamidbar by Rick Lupert (in which everyone counts and is counted)

I
Four books in and we’re
counting everyone because
everyone does count

II
The biggest desert
festival – God headlines for
six hundred thousand

III
We hope you like the
direction you’ve been given –
yours for forty years

IV
Tabernacle chores
given to post golden-calf
Levites – Second chance

V
You’ve made the inner
circle Levites! North, south, east
west. Holy roadies.

VI
Attention newborns
You need not apply – Counting
just one month and up

VII
It takes a skilled son
of Kohath to properly
wrap up this Holy

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Bamidbar with Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Our guest this week is Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Senior Rabbi of the Kehillat Israel congregation in Pacific Palisades. An Atlanta native, Rabbi Bernstein has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Cultural Anthropology from Northwestern University, where she also earned a certificate in Women’s Studies. She is also an alumna of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Before coming to KI, Rabbi Bernstein was the rabbi of Temple Israel in Duluth, Minnesota for 14 years. She served two terms as president of the Arrowhead Interfaith Council and six years on the Board of Trustees of the College of St. Scholastica, where she was also on the founding board of the Oreck/Alpern Inter-religious Forum. She was a scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Chautauqua Society and lectured widely throughout the Northland. Outside of her rabbinical work, Rabbi Bernstein performs as a member of Three Altos, a vocal trio.

This Week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20) – is the first portion read from the book of Numbers. The Parasha tells us about an elaborate census of the tribes of Israel conducted by Moses in the desert and continues to discuss the priests’ ceremonial duties. Our discussion focuses on the meaning behind the counting of the people of Israel and on their long, gruelling transformation from slaves to a nation of priests.

Burden of Change

We are taught that each change we encounter in life results in an experience of loss. Our transitions are stored in our beings. They are what make us human and blessedly unique.

Our lifetime of experiences with change link us to our ancestors. Besides tired bodies and tested faith, we can also imagine the accumulated feelings of loss that the 40 years of wandering inflicted upon the desert generation of Israelites. Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for our ancestors to settle down, build their homes (tents), organize their community and put down roots, only to have to tear down all that was built and move on. Not once, but again and again and again. What disruption and feelings of loss they must have known.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bamidbar, amid the careful detailing of census takings, we are given a snapshot of the immense psychological toll the Israelites’ wanderings had on them. Take, for example, the tribe of Levi, which was set apart from the rest of the tribes. Exempted from military service, the Levites were tasked with guarding and tending the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle). They were also tasked with its dismantling, safe transportation and reconstruction. While constructing a dwelling place for God might have been a spiritually fulfilling task, dismantling the Mishkan again and again must have taken a psychological toll on the Levites.

The Torah is adamant about the separation of the transportation duties. While Aaron and his sons were tasked with the packing up of the Mishkan’s sacred objects, the Kohathites, one of the Levitical clans, were assigned the specific duty of transporting the Tabernacle’s sacred objects from place to place. In the final verse of the portion, we learn, “But they [the Kohathites] shall not go inside and see when the sacred objects are covered, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20). The Kohathites could carry the sacred objects, but they were threatened with death if they watched them being packed.

Why such an extreme consequence for such a seemingly small infraction? Opinions differ — from a fear that the Kohathites would become mesmerized by the holy objects (Abravanel) to a fear that they would become desensitized to their holiness (Hirsch). But, I sense a simpler truth in the admonition: Seeing the sacred objects taken apart and put away would have been just too much for the Kohathites to bear.

The Kohathites’ role was to shoulder the physical burden of the community’s constant change. While members of other clans and ancestral houses carried loss, pain and grief within, the Kohathites, like beasts of burden, carried it on their backs. Through their sweat and brute strength, they safely transported the building blocks of the divine dwelling place from stop to stop. The physical toll on them must have been huge. The psychological toll must have been monumental. And so, it seems that the strict admonition for the Kohathites not to see the Mishkan’s dismantling was, in truth, an act of chesed, mercy and compassion. Requiring the Kohathites to carry the sacred objects was difficult enough; asking them to dismantle them, as well, would have been unreasonable and unkind.

Rambam teaches “One who stands to read Torah should begin with good and end with good” (Hilchot Tefillah 13:5), meaning every Torah portion should begin and end on a high note. And yet, as we read this week’s portion, we find the final verse’s warning against the Kohathites a profoundly negative one, “But they [the Kohathites] shall not go inside and see when the sacred objects are covered, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20). This closing seems to break the rule, by ending with death and not with good. What should we make of this?

We are reminded that when we act toward others with compassion, we begin and end with good. Just as our tradition cared so deeply for the Kohathites that they were protected from more loss than they could bear, so too are we called upon to care for the “Kohathites” among us today.

As you journey through your days, look for the spiritual Kohathites around you. Who in your community is carrying a burden that threatens to overwhelm them? (It may be you.) Who among your family, friends and colleagues has been tasked with more than they can bear?

Perhaps this week we can take up Torah’s call to ease the burden of others. Perhaps this week we can seek out opportunities to lighten someone’s spirit, shoulder someone’s pack or simply accompany someone on their journey. Perhaps this week it will be our collective actions that conclude our parasha with good.

Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator and religious school director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.