By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Bamidbar — Numbers 1.1-4.20
“…when they draw near to the Holy of Holies (Numbers 4.19).”
Aside for modern academicians, specializing in the early Second Temple period of our history, is there any value the average worshipper or student of Torah can find in the opening chapters of Bamidbar/the Book of Numbers?
For the most part, these chapters describe a census purportedly taken during the journey of our ancestors toward the Promised Land. There chapters are loaded with individual names, numbers, genealogies and, finally, with a detailed description of the function of the various clans of Levites in relation to one another and to the priesthood, in regard to the sacred space of the Sanctuary.
The average reader might be content to skip these seemingly esoteric details and move on to remarkable events during the journey to the Holy Land.
So aside from an earnest search in these chapters for a verse here and there which might provide a useful homiletic nugget, our rabbinic tradition often encourages us to appreciate these chapters as a pious reminiscence of ancient times and ancient worship.
But especially in our modern world, is there not an inherent surpassing value in the content of these chapters themselves, however detailed?
Our Time, after all, is dominated by a materialistic world view; a belief, that, ultimately the only thing real in existence is Matter and even that there is no Spiritual Reality. If, according to this view in Modernity, that there is no spiritual dimension that is real, then there is nothing that we can call “Sacred,” and if there is nothing we can call “Sacred” no space, no time, no relationships, then we cannot speak of the sanctity of life itself, as real, as fundamental that must not be transgressed.
Even in the vulgar sense of materialism, as when we call someone “materialistic” by which we designate those that for whom only “stuff” has any value, then there is a diminution of anything else in life that is of value except material gain in the material possessions and consumerism.
Some say, indeed, that consumerism is the real religion of the western world.
But human beings live in three dimensions: In the dimension of Time, in the dimension of Space and, from the moment we are born, in the dimension of Relationship. Without the sense of the Sacred in Time, in Space and in Relationship, we cannot call anything in our lives as “sacred;” either the relationship between husband and wife or between partners or in the relationship between parents and children or between ourselves and teachers and mentors, then there is a diminishment of any real substance in life itself. So we set aside certain times, spaces and relationships as “Preserves” of the Sacred so that we will not lose even the sense of something sacred. This helps us to protect human life and community.
And this is just the point of the first chapters of Bamidbar/Numbers. We find in these chapters a complex system whose function ultimately is not only a system of worship but it is a system which, undergirding everything else, provides us with an affirmation of the sacred in Space in Time and in Relationship, which preserves a quality of life without which all of us would be lost, without which we cannot be sure that life itself can continue.
Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).