Parashat Bamidbar - Numbers 1:1-4:20

The Big Picture

There is a distinct way of reading the Scriptures that is evident when we begin to peel back the layers of religious and cultural sediment that has accumulated in our minds. One of the ways to do this is by returning to the original language of the Torah. A prime example of this is found in the book of Numbers. In Christian tradition, the book of Numbers is so named because of the first four chapters which seems to be written by the Israelite Census Bureau. It appears to be entirely preoccupied by the numbers of the various tribes and subgroups within the Children of Israel. From the opening lines of, "Take a census of all of the congregation of the people of Israel by clans..." (1:2) until the end of chapter four, it appears that the Torah has little to offer us other than its obsession with the number of people in the various camps within Israel. But are numbers the only thing the Torah is trying to communicate to us in this parashah? 

There's a vast difference in how the Torah is read, depending on your perspective. For the casual reader, making it through the first four chapters of the book of Bamidbar is nothing less than an endurance test. If we are oblivious to the big picture whose details are now being offered by the Torah, our current reading can seem like a waste of time. However, if we can zoom out and see the bigger picture that the Torah is trying to paint for us, then everything begins to come into focus. Let's briefly zoom out to take a look at one perspective of this.

The name of our parashah is Bamidbar. It is also the Hebrew name of the book of Numbers. But interestingly, the word bamidbar doesn't mean "numbers." The word bamidbar means "in the wilderness," from the word midbar, meaning "wilderness." It is taken from the first verse in our reading, "The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness [bamidbar] of Sinai..." From the onset of this new book of the Torah, we are given a reminder of the context of what we are about to read. The Children of Israel are no longer slaves in the land of Egypt, nor have they reached the Land of Promise. They are still in the wilderness on their way to Canaan-the land that they will one day call home. Although they are not yet in a time of war, the Lord is having them take a census in preparation for the many battles that lay ahead of them. Entering into the land will not be a waltz in the park; it will require a huge effort on their part. Now is their time of preparation. Now is their time for self-assessment. Now is their time to fine-tune their listening skills so that they can hear their Commander-in-Chief.

Sometimes we feel we are lost in the wilderness. Sometimes we can't see the forest because of the trees. Sometimes the big picture gets lost in the details of every day life. But if we realize that our Creator has an ultimate game plan, and that our lives are a thread in the tapestry of the Kingdom, we might just be able to zoom out and see the beauty of what He is creating. Just as a tapestry is made up of thousands (if not millions) of individual threads, so too is the tapestry of the Kingdom made up of billions of individuals working towards the purpose of our Creator. It's easy to get frustrated with thread number 3,986,105 and lose sight of the ornate beauty on the other side of the cloth. Are we looking at our lives as merely Numbers in a list or as a Midbar of preparation for our task that is in front of us? Parashat Bamidbar may help us to shift our perspective towards the proper direction if we take it to heart.

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