I will admit, the first portion of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, is a little tough to sink one’s teeth into. In preparation for the journey into the wilderness, God asks Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites. Much of the portion is the census numbers of those who make up the community.
In the organization of the community, the Israelites are divided into tribes, each named for one of the sons of the patriarch Jacob. What was once a family is now a nation, but the local and familial associations are carried forward and retain meaning. Certain tribes are given specific roles in the community, the tribe of Levi most notably is charged with the sacred Tabernacle and leading the spiritual life of the people.
We are told in this week’s portion that not only are the people counted, and that they are organized by tribe, but that the tribes are all organized physically around the Tabernacle–each tribe is to be in a specific place whenever the people are encamped, and that place is to be marked. “The Israelites should make camp in divisions, each person under their banner.” (Numbers 1:52) Each tribe had a flag of some sort, just as nations, or states, or cities have today.
The Hasidic master Isaac Meir Rothenberg Alter, also known as the Chiddushei Ha’rim or the Gerer rebbe, notes that the Torah portion Bamidbar is always read just prior to the festival of Shavuot. Originally a harvest holiday, Shavuot is now associated with the story of the revelation at Sinai when the Israelites, having escaped Egyptian slavery, travelled to Mount Sinai in the desert to receive the gift of the Torah from God. Each year on Shavuot we mark this by affirming the role that Torah plays in the life of the Jewish people.
The Chiddushei Ha’rim writes,
Parashat Bamidbar is always read immediately preceding Shavuot. This is because we read in Bamidbar, “each person under their banner,” which is to say the each person will be in their proper place. And this is the reason for the commandment of setting bounds just prior to the giving of the Torah.
Here the rebbe is noting how in the Torah prior to the story of the revelation in the book of Exodus, the Israelites are told to create a boundary around the mountain. He connects this to the idea of the tribes being under their banner in the book of Numbers. Both imply people being in a specific place which, he notes, is necessary for the revelation of the Torah. In order for us to be receptive to the gift of the sacred, we need to be where we need to be.
So what does this mean? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky have a beautiful interpretation of this in their book Sparks Beneath the Surface. They write,
[Isaac Meir Rothenberg] reasons that we have to be standing where we are supposed to be before the Torah will be given to us. If we try to be somebody else (and therefore be someplace else), the truth of Torah will only elude us. The process of receiving Torah…is lifelong. In this sense, for the Gerer rebbe, the giving of Torah becomes the ultimate expression of knowing who we are. The minute we are who we are, we are able to be changed and grow. What keeps us from realizing ourselves is trying to be someone whom we are not.
In other words, the wisdom of Torah itself is knowing who we are, and not trying to be someone else.
This teaching is a gift and a challenge. Sometimes we feel that our true self eludes us, we put on masks of who we think we are supposed to be or what we are supposed to do. And sometimes those masks act as boundaries between us and others. But the more we are able to remove those masks and shed those illusions about who we think we ought to be, the more we are able to to express our true selves, our true interests, and our true desires, then we are able to live fully into our lives.
[It is particularly powerful to think about this during Pride month, when we celebrate those in the LGBTQ+ community and the ability to live into our true identities especially around sexual orientation and gender identity, while at the same time acknowledging there is much more to be done. Waving the rainbow flag as a sign of Pride gives new meaning to the verse in Numbers, “each person under their banner.”]
While the story of revelation of Torah in the book of Exodus describes an event, really the revelation of the Torah is a process. Its a continuous unfolding of wisdom and experience that changes for us over time, that is bringing us closer to the knowledge of our true self. May you have the clarity and power to raise up your banner and be who you are.
Thanks for continuing the conversation!