Parashat B'midbar

May 19, 2023Deb Radin, Temple Beth Am Los Altos Hills, CA

Now that the basic laws have been revealed to the Israelites, and further instructions on the laws of sacrifice, purity, and ethics have been shared, Parashat B’midbar chronicles Israel’s journey from Sinai to the Jordan River, the edge of its Promised Land, where it will live out these laws. Known in English as “Numbers,” Parshat B’midbar begins with a census (a counting) of the Israelites. But in Hebrew, this book is known for the first phrase of the portion – “In the Wilderness.” It begins with “Vay’daber Adonai el Moshe B’midbar Sinai” – “God spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai.” The description is of a people wandering through a spiritual and geographic wilderness. 

Rachel Havrelock notes in her commentary on B’midbar in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Although the scrupulous detail of this parashah and other parts of the book may not immediately grip the reader, the underlying idea is that the ordering of the community — and by extension, one’s life — creates the space for encounters with the Divine. From the uncertainty and vast expanses of the wilderness to the order and containment of a census.” 

Rather than two conflicting translations of this parashah, perhaps the juxtaposition is intentional. Both the non-linear view, looking towards an out-of-focus line on the horizon, and the narrow view, linear and precise, are necessary and, in fact, balance each other. By doing so, Parashat B’midbar supports Israel in attaining the ultimate goal — hearing God’s voice and internalizing the laws being imparted so that each Israelite may hold the tools inside of themselves to live a fulfilled life of meaning.

Speaking during his podcast, “The Huberman Lab,” Dr. Andrew Huberman describes the power of meditation. He explains that our default is “stimulus-independent thought” (streams of thoughts and images unrelated to immediate sensory input), sharing that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The mismatch of thinking of something other than what you’re doing lends itself to unhappiness. Conversely, the ability to be fully engaged in what you’re doing is the strongest indicator of happiness. For example, mind-wandering after a long day at work means I miss out on the stories my husband shares about his own day, missing an opportunity to connect and deepen our relationship. Dr. Huberman describes that, as thinkers, we think both interoceptively and exteroceptively. At its most basic level, interoception can be defined as the sense that allows us to answer the question, “How do I feel?” at any given moment. Exteroception is the perception of environmental stimuli outside the body, such as the weather or how those around us act or feel. We need both ways of thinking. A meditation practice helps with both the awareness and practice of the adaptive and emotionally-healthy mechanism of sliding along the continuum of interoceptive and exteroceptive thinking. Inevitably we get yanked around by life's stressors, but while it’s happening, the ability to focus on how those stressors make us feel enables us to have agency over our own reactions, and consequently enhance our sense of well-being and happiness.

Similarly, Parashat B’midbar highlights how precious the center of our being is, while simultaneously illustrating the importance of being aware of what is happening around us. Israel has been given the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary constructed by Moses as a place of worship for the Hebrew tribes during the period of wandering that preceded their arrival in the Promised Land, and the earthly dwelling place of God — and ordered them to surround it and keep it safe. God also determines the positioning of each tribe around the Tabernacle. The tribe of Levi is appointed to attend to the Tabernacle and to aid the Kohanim. God charges the Levites with protecting that which is holiest and accepts the Levites from participation in the census. Very specifically, the various other tribes are to be encamped surrounding the Tabernacle during their sojourn throughout the wilderness of Sinai, and the census taken of the Israelites is limited to the men of the tribes of Israel of the age of twenty and up who can be counted on to constitute the army upon entering the Promised Land. The Levites, already acting with a clarity of purpose, do not require the structure and ordering that the census provides. 

In contrast, the other tribes, numerous and disordered, focus on sustaining their people in the wilderness. Naturally, they are looking towards an at times frightening, overwhelming, and vast unknown, and need to be reminded of their purpose and their place in the world that God is showing them. The census, for them, is the ideal tool to provide this perspective.

A mindfulness meditation practice focuses on stillness and quiet. The natural inclination of our attention tends to be more like the tribes of Israel — scattered and dull, so the practice of paying attention to a single point of focus in the body, such as the current of the breath, allows the mind to become more calm, focused, vivid and serviceable. “Truly, you are where your mind is,” taught the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. If I am at dinner with my husband, and my mind remains in the conference room with my difficult client, then I am missing the opportunity to connect with someone who loves me and to show up as the person I wish to be.

This parashah reminds us that each of us holds a Tabernacle inside us. Our interoceptive thoughts protect this holy vessel, like the Levites, keeping our most precious feelings safe and available to us when needed. Our exteroceptive thoughts, like the vast tribes of Israel, keep us rooted in our world, striving for a better future. We are not always organized or aware as we toil each day, plunging towards a vista we can’t quite make out, so reminders of taking a census of ourselves and reflecting on our strengths, challenges, and opportunities are vital. 

Parashat B’midbar is symbolic of our life journey. We need both order, containment and narrow focus, and grand vision, as we forge ahead.

Related Posts

Parashat Yom Rishon shel Rosh HaShanah

During the High Holidays, my thoughts turn to the special blessings, prayers, and melodies that shape our journey from Selichot to Rosh HaShanah to the final shofar blast on Yom Kippur. Many of our prayers in the High Holiday liturgy are written in the plural.