This dvar torah was originally published in May 19, 2014 edition of The Pluralist, the weekly newsletter of the Israel Religious Action Center.
This week’s parsha begins the fourth Book of the Torah, called Bamidbar, meaning “in the wilderness.” The English name is “Numbers.” First G-o-d instructs the Israelites to take a census and then G-o-d describes how the tribes should arrange themselves as they camp and wander in the wilderness.
G-o-d tells Moses, “Take a head count of the entire community of Israel, by families according to the house of their fathers, count by name all the males according to their incarnation.” Mysteriously, the number of adult male Israelites turns out to be the same as the number of letters in the written Torah.
After the census, G-o-d instructs the tribes to camp with the mishkan (portable sanctuary) in the middle, the Levites surrounding the mishkan and the other tribes forming a square around the Levites. The Israelites are also told to walk in this order as they wander through the wilderness.
On the east side of the camp, and walking immediately after the Levites, were the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, whose patriarchs were the sons of Leah and Jacob. On the south side, and walking next, were the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad. Reuben and Simeon were the sons of Leah and Jacob. Gad was the son of Jacob and Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah. On the west, and walking next, were the tribes of Ephraim, Menasseh and Benjamin. Benjamin was the son of Rachel and Jacob. Ephraim and Menasseh were the grandsons of Rachel and Jacob through their son Joseph. On the north side and walking last were the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naftali. Dan and Naftali were the sons of Jacob and Rachel’s handmaiden Bilhah. Asher is the son of Jacob and Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichiv says that the peoples of the world recount their lineage through their mother and that is why they are called le’umeem (peoples) from the Hebrew root, meaning “mother.” We also see this reflected in the expression “mother tongue” (sefat eim).
According to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, after the Israelites received the Torah and made the mishkan (portable sanctuary) and its furnishings, they merited to recount their lineage through their fathers. We see this in the fact that we are called B’nei Yisrael, Children of Israel, with “Israel” being the spiritual name of our father Jacob. We also see it in the assigning of portions of land to each tribe after they completed the forty years of wandering and went to live in the Land of Promise. Some of us continue to track who is the son or daughter of a Levite and who is the son or daughter of a kohen (a priest who hails from the Levite tribe through Aaron, the brother of Moses and Miriam).
Because of this way of relating to our ancestors, we Jews have traditionally acknowledged our faith through our mother and our tribe through our father.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak says that most Jewish men are symbolic representations of the light of the written Torah; in other words the Torah written on parchment and rolled on wooden handles. Levites (including kohanim) are symbolic representations of the oral Torah such as the Talmud and the other writings and teachings of the rabbis and sages. And what of the women? I want to postulate that women are symbolic representations of the light of future Torah and mystical Torah, the Torah that we will read and understand at the end of time when all is said and done and there is peace in the world and everyone has faith in the Holy One and in one another.
And what of children? Children are the lights of potential, potential written Torah, potential oral Torah, potential future and mystical Torah that reaches to the ends of time and space.
Imagine a world where everyone is valued for who they are and who they are becoming. Imagine a Jewish state where there is room for all of our modern Jewish tribes—Reform, Conservative, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Haredi, Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi.
It is traditional to count the days from the second day of Passover until Shavuot, from becoming free of our personal enslavement to receiving our personal Torah for the coming year. Imagine that Israel’s modern Jewish tribes would see the light of holiness in one another and in all the peoples living in the Land of Israel—the African asylum seekers, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Druze, everyone; and imagine that we would say to ourselves and one another, “these too are the children of the living G-o-d” through our father Adam and our mother Eve. Bimheyrah b’yameinu, may it happen soon, even in our time!
Rabbi Pamela Frydman was the founding rabbi of Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco and she served as Director of the Holocaust Education Project for the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. She serves as International Co-Chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall and she co-chaired one of the many campaigns to free Gilad Shalit. She was a founding leader in Shalom Bayit, Jewish Women Working to End Domestic Violence and she continues to serve on Shalom Bayit’s Rabbinic Advisory Council. She serves on the organizing committee of Beyond Silence, a Jewish campaign in the Northern California to raise consciousness about abuse. She is also the author of Calling on God, Sacred Jewish Teachings for Seekers of All Faiths and Reflections: A High Holy Day Machzor.