I am a fan of baseball. Not just of one team – although my heart breaks for the Nationals on an almost daily basis – I am a fan of the game. In high school, I had the responsibility to keep the official book (that’s the big ledger on which you record the game in minute detail – and it is an art in and of itself).
I love baseball because it is complex and cerebral, and athletic. The many intricacies, strategic options, and debatable scoring make for fascinating watching. When my kids were younger I taught them how to score the game – and we all realized that to truly follow a game you need to pay attention, all the time. You need to know the roles of the players, where they stand on the field, what their duties are, who’s who in the decision-making tree, and a whole lot of other details.
I know that many people find baseball boring, but I find that the more you know, the less boring it is. And this is why Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20) is one of my favorite parashot*.
Bit of an abrupt transition there, no?
Bear with me. This will make sense.
Bamidbar is fairly dry parasha, with no miracles, no stories, no drama. But…..
Bamidbar highlights the enduring power of the Torah, not because of the stories, not because of the miracles, not because of the laws, but because it teaches practical ways of organizing a society. Practical things like knowing who the players, I mean tribes, are what positions they play, I mean, where they should camp and what duties they have, who’s in charge of what, and so forth. So, let’s dig into Bamidbar’s playbook.
The parasha begins with a census.
The Torah has many incidences of census taking, in this one, it is for military duty, and that excludes women, children, and the elderly. In fact, the count starts at 20 years old–think of it, in ancient times they considered 20 to be fighting age, the minimum age for wielding a weapon–make of that what you will.
Anyway, modern society also takes censuses and keeps track of people (and animals, insects, plants, and Carbon emissions….) These counts determine taxes, benefits, political representation, and more. The census did then, as well. Censuses are double-edged swords. Every time we count something, we leave something out. So, paying attention to what/who wasn’t counted is important. In this case, in addition to not counting women, children, and the elderly, there is an obvious omission as noted in the parasha itself. The Levites are not counted as part of the Israelite army – they were exempt from army service. They were counted in a separate census and their lot was to care for and transport the Mishkan (the Tabernacle).
Censuses also manage to emphasize both individuality and conformity. The Chassidic masters put it like this:
A census expresses two paradoxical truths. On the one hand, it implies that each individual is significant. On the other hand, a headcount is the ultimate equalizer: each member of the community, from the greatest to the lowliest, counts for no less and no more than “one.”
Here’s a question for you all to think about: By excluding the Levites from the military census is the Torah implying that they count differently, that they fall out of this great equalizing equation? And, if they are not equal, what are they?
After the census part of Bamidbar, Moses instructs each tribe on where and how to set up their camps. There are a great many practical and logistical reasons to have a standardized camp layout. It makes for easier setup and take down, it diminishes arguments, and it is vital for health and sanitation (don’t forget water access and waste disposal are hugely important for a nomadic society). It helps people know where the important people/places are, and it ensures that each tribe is set up more or less equally.
These days there are graduate programs in city planning, civil engineering, public policy, and more. How prosaic of the Torah to share this with us. Nope. How absolutely wonderful! Our holy book teaches that community organization is essential to having a well-functioning society. That practical day-to-day matters are as holy as the Torah itself.
Another question to ruminate on: There is a downside to organizing a camp. Let’s see if you can find it. If someone is restricted to where they can pitch their tent, or where they can live, is that zoning? Is that discrimination? What impact does it have in the short term and in the long term?
The parasha also tells us that each tribe had its own leader, flag, and emblem. I don’t know about you, but that screams team colors, logos, and mascots, to me. These were as important then as they are now. Human nature ascribes meaning to things –it’s what we do. A flag represents history, loyalty, and membership. Being a part of the team is an empowering feeling, and even if ultimate loyalty is to a greater entity, the more immediate loyalty builds an emotional connection.
Moses was building an army, and by establishing a hierarchy of loyalty, the army could respond to orders more quickly, and also improve its morale. This is so commonplace today that we barely notice it. An easy example is one that most students can identify with: 1) be proud of your school, 2) be proud of your grade, and 3) be proud of your class, club, or team.
So as you see, studying parasha Bamidbar is a window into human nature, into the aspects that really haven’t changed over time. We may disagree as to how the census was conducted, who was counted and who wasn’t, but we can’t ignore the basic truth that knowing who’s in your community is essential to societal functioning. We may disagree about how equal or unequal the tribes’ placement in the camp was, but it is true that organized societies are better equipped to handle…well… life. And, we may each have our own team loyalties, but that team loyalty should not supplant the love of the game.
Here’s the take-home lesson: Never forget that the Torah’s enduring value is not merely the teaching of monotheism, the teaching of morals, and the awesomeness of God’s power. It is a “how-to” manual. The more you know, the more interesting it is.
Just like baseball.
*parasha/parashot refers to the section of the 5 books of Moses that is ready weekly in synagogues and Jewish services.