This Shabbat we open the fourth book of the Torah, BeMidbar, “in the wilderness.” (Its English name “Numbers” is taken from the census of the people with which it opens.) BeMidbar presents two contradictory positions about our people and our relationship with God. After reading the detailed laws of the book of Leviticus, we return to the narrative that we left off in Exodus – it is the second year since we have left Egypt, and are in the Sinai, preparing for our journey to the Land of Israel. The opening of the book presents the ideal picture: the people have built the Tabernacle according to the instructions that Moses has received from God, the priests have been ordained for its service, and the people encamp around the Tabernacle in harmonious order. Within a few chapters, dissension has broken out as Moses contends with a series of rebellions that climax in the scouts returning from the land with a report that stirs fear among the people and the ultimate punishment of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Harmony and dissent, relationships whole and broken, are the themes of this book.
The prophecy from Hosea that always accompanies this parashah reinforces this tension. For the Torah, the greatest bond is that between God and the people of Israel – this is the eternal covenant or Brit. The people’s apostasy is met with God’s rejection; however, there is always the possibility of healing. “Assuredly I will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness and speak to her tenderly…. there she will respond as in the days of her youth.” The ideal of the people united with God as at Mt. Sinai, the event we celebrate as Shabbat comes out with the festival of Shavuot, is evoked as something that can be reclaimed. Imagining the relationship as a marriage, Hosea’s prophecy concludes with the words recited as we put on tefillin, proclaiming the steadfastness of the relationship and its core values: “And I will espouse you forever; and I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness and you shall know God.”
These images can guide us through all our relationships – whether of two individuals, or two groups of people. Communications can break down, tensions arise, but healing is always possible. However, it is more difficult to achieve reconciliation when the two groups or individuals have begun their relationship with antagonism. More difficult, but not impossible.