With our double Torah portion this week we conclude the book of Bamidbar, the book of Numbers which details the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the desert. It recounts the tales of their challenges and their triumphs, their struggles and their joys. It is a snapshot of life on the road. Amy Scheinerman says that most of this book is the story of Moses’ struggle to keep this Israelites together, to create a community out of a disparate bunch of former slaves. Alan Cook notes that while this portion is called matot, tribes, referring to the 12 tribes into which the Israelites were divided, there is no portion called B’nai Israel, the children of Israel, no portion which identifies the unity of the people. The individual nature of the tribes is celebrated, they stand apart from the other tribes, often only coming together to fight a common enemy and in this portion, we read about the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Menasseh who ask not to settle in the Promised Land but instead to be allowed to remain outside in land which is more suitable for their cattle. As much as Moses has tried, it has been an uphill battle to bring the groups together, to create community, to show the value of joining together rather than walking the journey alone.
It is a lesson we still need to learn today. Robert Bellah wrote in “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” :
“American cultural traditions define personality, achievement and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious but terrifying isolation.”
(As found in Amy Sheinerman, Voices of Torah)
Bellah’s book was penned in 2007, how much more is that true of our lives today. We celebrate individuality, we strive to stand out, to be unique and to be noticed. In a shocking study where children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up a large number responded “famous.” What does that say about the world we are creating and what we value? Have we lost our way? Lost our sense of community?
Like the Israelites in the desert, we too need to understand the significance and importance of community. At the beginning of the second portion of this week’s Torah, Masei, it says “eleh masei b’nei Yisrael” “these are the marches of the Children of Israel.” At the end of the marches, they have become the Children of Israel. No longer the tribes, they are now one, united, a community working together, leaning on one another, supporting, nurturing and caring for each other. Through the desert wanderings they have learned that community is important, that being on a shared journey is significant and can bring richness to life which did not exist before.
In the portion we are commanded to set aside six cities of refuge. The rabbis note that six is the number of words in the shema, the prayer which speaks of the unity of God, and the oneness of creation and humanity. This suggests that when we connect with the unity that is God, we can draw from that well of strength to join together as one community. It is the embracing of the oneness of the Divine and the oneness of humanity which will provide an antidote to the loneliness and isolation of our world and connect us to something greater than ourselves.