This week we begin reading from the fourth book of the Torah, known in Hebrew asBemidbar, and in English as Numbers. Both titles are fitting descriptions asBemidbar, which means “in the wilderness,” details the Israelites’ wilderness journeys and concludes with them standing on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the Promised Land. Numbers is also an appropriate title because in many places, this week’s parashah included, the Torah records a census of the Israelites, counting each man, aged twenty and above, according to his ancestral tribe.
Following the details of the first census in Numbers 1, we read, “The Israelites shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignia of their fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.” [Numbers 2:1] Rather than having millions of Israelites crowd around the Tent of Meeting, it makes logical sense for the Israelites to encamp at a distance.
Eleventh century commentator Rashi offers a creative interpretation about this “distance.” He says that the approximate distance was no more than 2000 cubits (a little more than 900 metres) so that the Israelites would be permitted to walk to the Tent of Meeting on Shabbat in order to pray at the Tabernacle and hear the teachings of Moses and Aaron. [Rashi on Numbers 2:1]
While Rashi’s interpretation integrates rabbinic sensibility into the customs and lawsof Torah, his classification of the distance between encampment and Tabernacle is worthy of further consideration. 900 metres is not much of a distance at all—less than a fifteen-minute walk for most people. Although the Israelites were encamped at a distance from the Tabernacle (their shul, if you will), they were not at all distant from the Tabernacle.
This particular verse of the Torah highlights the contemporary circumstances in which we find ourselves. First, we live in an era of urban sprawl. If we are fortunate, we live in close proximity to places where we can easily walk. But for most of us, the distances we need to traverse to work or school (or shul for that matter) require cars or public transportation. Second, we live in an era of increasing distance from religion and religious institutions.
In a time where we seem to be moving further away from one another and further away from our religious identity, Parashat Bemidbar reminds us to consider the different circumstances of our ancestors. Our forebears lived in a time where the Tabernacle occupied a central place in the Israelite community, and was central to the Israelites’ lives. As we prepare for our festival of Shavuot next week, the festival when we celebrate the sacred gift of Torah, we might also ask ourselves: How might we close the distance between ourselves and our sacred religious heritage?