Sermon at Lev Chadash: parashat bemidbar and hachnasat sefer torah May 2023

Bemidbar Lev Chadash May 2023

Sefer Bemidbar begins with a strangely precise location in time and place:

  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:  בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–לֵאמֹר.

1 And the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:

The effect is rather like the first lines of a ketubah, a marriage contract, which details the date and the place of marriage very precisely, before going on to record the terms of the agreement between the two parties, something which the mystical tradition develops, seeing Shavuot as the wedding between God and Israel, where the Torah is the ketubah – the covenantal document.

And yet this precision masks something else – we simply don’t know where the conversation took place exactly – Midbar Sinai, the wilderness of Sinai – is by definition uncharted land.

The book is called  the book of Numbers – to reflect the two censuses of men of military age that take place within it, a title given in the Greek translation (Septuagint) and carried over into other biblical translations, but its Hebrew name gives us a different perspective which Jewish tradition finds to be the most important way of seeing the narrative – BaMidbar – in the wilderness.

Wilderness – it conjures images of deserted wasteland, a place of emptiness and of silence. And yet the word Midbar conjures the opposite. Derived from the verbal root “Daled, Veit, Reish” , its “sister” words from the same root include “diber”– to speak, tell, or promise,  Davar – a matter or a thing, and also – though less frequently – to arrange, to command, to appoint, to commune, to guide….

Lots goes on in the Midbar, it is a multi-vocal sort of place, brimming with possibilities and with material realities – not really a wilderness at all.

There is much rabbinic material that speaks to the Torah being given in midbar – in territory that belongs to no one and to everyone. Midbar is universal space, so the giving of Torah within it is a reminder that God’s word is universal.

Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel?  In order that the nations of the world shall not say: “Because it was given in Israel’s land, we do not accept it.”  And lest others say: “In my territory, the Torah was given and so only belongs to me.”  ….“Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one.

To three things the Torah is likened: to the desert, to fire, and to water. This is to tell you that just as these three things are free to all who come into the world, so also are the words of the Torah free to all who come into the world” (Mekhilta B’Chodesh 5).

We were formed as a people in the desert. The torah documents the process from Egypt to the borders of Israel: the sloughing off of slavery, the evolving of structures such as the priesthood to give us focus and religious leadership, the development of social codes enabling us to form a coherent community with shared values and shared focus.  And most importantly our desert formation gave us a particular framework through which to live – in the desert there is no need for the accumulation of material goods, “it is the place of nomads who have that which they need, and all they need is the essentials and not the extra belongings…life in the desert is preparation for a life of freedom” (Erich Fromm). And instead of attending to the acquisition of material goods, something else becomes our treasured possession – the Torah. 

The midrash gives us the reason that God led us in the desert for forty years “Said the Blessed Holy One, “if I lead them directly, then every person will take possession of their field and their vineyard and will work in them, and not engage in Torah. Instead I will lead them through the midbar, where they will eat the manna, and drink the water of the wells (of Miriam) and the Torah will embed into their bodies” (Midrash Tanchuma, Beshallach)

In the Midbar we were given Torah, we received Torah, we absorbed Torah. We became a people of Torah. The name of this book reminds us of our desert formation, nomadic and without possessions, we created ourselves through Torah.

Later in the book we read about part of the journey the people went on to take

וּמִשָּׁ֖ם בְּאֵ֑רָה הִ֣וא הַבְּאֵ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱסֹף֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם מָֽיִם׃ {ס}         אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ׃

…….וּמִמִּדְבָּ֖ר מַתָּנָֽה׃    וּמִמַּתָּנָ֖ה נַחֲלִיאֵ֑ל וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵ֖ל בָּמֽוֹת׃

And from there [they went ] to Be er, which is the well where God said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it— …..And from Midbar to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamot…. (Num 21)

This text frames our relationship with Torah. Mattanah is a place name, but it also means “a gift”. Nahaliel means a “wadi of God” – a valley through which water flows, but the root of the word can also mean an inheritance;  and Bamot means high places.

In Talmud we read a homily using this sequencing:

Rava said: Once a person renders himself like a wilderness, deserted before all, the Torah is given to him as a gift [Mattanah], as it is stated: “And from the wilderness Mattanah.” And once it is given to him as a gift, God bequeaths [naḥalo] it to him, as it is stated: “And from Mattanah [to] Nahaliel.” And once God bequeaths it to him, he rises to greatness, as it is stated: And from Nahaliel, Bamot, which are elevated places. And if he elevates himself and is arrogant about his Torah, the Holy One, Blessed be God, degrades him, as it is stated: “And from Bamot the valley” (Numbers 21:20). And not only that, but one lowers him into the ground, as it is stated: “And looking over [nishkafa] the face of the wasteland” (Numbers 21:20), like a threshold [iskopa] that is sunken into the ground. But if he reverses his arrogance and becomes humble, the Holy One, Blessed be God, elevates him,  (BT Nedarim 55a)

Unpacking the text is a joy – Rava, a fourth generation Babylonian teacher (amora) is one of the most frequent of teachers in the Talmud. Here he is using these verses to remind his audience of how Torah impacts us and develops and grows us both as individuals and as a people. To be able to absorb Torah deeply we have to make ourselves ready, to be open to everyone and everything, and to have no preconceptions or prejudices. Once we have made ourselves “like a wilderness”, then Torah is given to us like a gift. A gift moreover that comes from God as an inheritance, a family treasure. And this gift, if received in a state of humility and openness, will enable us to become greater, will develop and evolve our understanding of our world. But if we should become arrogant, then the opposite will happen and we will be forced into humility, alone in an abandoned wasteland. Yet there is always the possibility of redemption – should we recognise that we have become removed from others, arrogant and self-important, and make an effort to cast off that unwarranted superiority, once more the offer of Torah and its “living waters” is available to us.

One of my favourite ideas about the encounter with God in the wilderness of Sinai is that “the people only heard the first letter of the word “Anochi” “I am”. That letter, an alef, is a silent letter.  But that silent letter in that Midbar place was all that was necessary for God and the Jewish people to have a conversation (R.Menachem Mendel Torum of Rymanov, quoted in  Zera Kodesh (2.40) by his student Naftali Horowitz)

Why a silent letter in a place belonging to no-one? The Alef, being the first letter of the alphabet stands for the number ONE – the unity and uniqueness of God.

But there is more. The Alef is written in Torah as a vav surrounded by two yods – whose gematria adds up to 26 – the same as the gematria for the tetragrammaton yod heh vav heh. So what the people perceived in hearing that silent letter was the absolute presence of God.

And there is more. The Alef can be read as being a face, with two eyes (the yods) and a nose (the vav). So when we see another human being, we can see an Alef – we can see the image of God within them.  When Torah was given to us, the most important gift was to see God in ourselves and others.

All of which is a long way of saying that we encounter God when we truly see and engage with each other. We truly belong to Torah – and it to us – when we make ourselves open and without prejudice, when we exercise our curiosity without judgment – when we become Midbar and celebrate the potential within us.

The Midbar formed us as a people and it is as a people that we have sustained ourselves and thrived where so many other peoples have passed into history. And the Torah gave our peoplehood meaning – as Leo Baeck wrote “

The Torah, which is, as a whole, roughhewn, unfinished, and unsystematic leaves many things open. It is full of questions. [And so]…The Torah is the most stable element of Judaism and at the same time its most dynamic force”

 It is as a people of Torah that we are meeting today – from Pittsburgh to Milan, and with roots that go back to Israel, to north Africa, to Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Italkit and Mizrachi ancestors. We were all at Sinai says our tradition, we all heard that alef, we all experienced Midbar.

And just like at Sinai, we are enacting the giving of Torah – maybe not exactly as Moses experienced it, but giving and receiving just the same, and it is surely no accident that you have come to us from Temple Sinai so that we are indeed receiving Torah miSinai!

It is a singular mitzvah to be part of hachnasat Sefer Torah – the welcoming of a sefer torah into its new community. Today’s welcoming is the end of a long process of planning, and I hope the beginning – or at least the Sinaitic staging post – of a longer journey together.

We stand together and see in each other’s faces the Alef that reminds us that God is in each one of us; we hear together the silent Alef of God’s presence that is symbolised by the Torah – the ketubah text of our symbolic marriage that will we will celebrate again next week at Shavuot.

I think all of us present today will remember this moment – this echo of Sinai, this enactment of peoplehood, this generous gift from another part of the Jewish world that will help Italian Progressive Judaism to continue to grow, and that will remind us that we are not only a people – Am Yisrael – but also a large and extended family –  Mishpacha. 

We are at our best when we are Midbar. When we are open and free from material desires and preconceptions, when we are humble and curious about each other. Abraham’s tent was famously open on all sides – the paradigm of Midbar.  As Abraham shows, the outstanding mitzvah in Midbar is hospitality to the passing stranger who is reliant on the care of the more established residents.  When we are Midbar we see the Alef on every face – the image of God in every human being and we understand the importance of sustaining each other.

This weekend we are all Midbar, welcoming of each other, sharing our stories, eating together, travelling together, praying together, giving and receiving Torah. The distance from Pittsburgh to Milan may be nearly seven thousand kilometres but does not need a 40 year journey – we stand together once more as at Sinai, we confirm our peoplehood and our commitment to Torah.

May our journey continue together and may we build ever closer links.

Bemidbar: Counting individual human beings or counting potential soldiers – how the text slides and why it should not

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר: ב שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם: ג מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַֽהֲרֹֽן: ד וְאִתְּכֶ֣ם יִֽהְי֔וּ אִ֥ישׁ אִ֖ישׁ לַמַּטֶּ֑ה אִ֛ישׁ רֹ֥אשׁ לְבֵית־אֲבֹתָ֖יו הֽוּא:

And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt saying: “Lift the heads of [count] all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their ancestral houses, in the numbering of the names, every male, by their heads.  From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go out to war for Israel. You will account them by their hosts, you and Aaron. And with you there will be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house”

So begins the book of Numbers, named in English for the two censuses that occur within it, but called in Hebrew “BeMidbar”, “in the Wilderness” We are only one year in to the exodus here, the people are expecting to enter their promised land shortly – this is before the rebellions and the refusals that led this generation (bar Joshua and Caleb) to end their days in the desert.

The narrative gives us detail as to place and time. God speaks to Moses and gives him an instruction that is equally detailed – “lift up the head of every one of the community of the children of Israel, according to their families and according to their ancestral house, in the numbering of their names, every male according to his skull.” The repetition of the head/skull of each person to be numbered, the fact that they are to be counted both according to their family membership and tribal ancestry makes us feel that every single individual is to be noticed and each one carefully recorded in a number of different and personal dimensions. That their heads are lifted means that the face of each individual is seen, this is not the estimation of a crowd but the naming and numbering of every human being.  The phrase “col adat b’nei Yisrael” adds to this reading – not just the children of Israel, a phrase which would have sufficed, but col – every, and adat – witnessing member. And even their names are to be accounted; the uniqueness of each individual clearly matters here.


The introduction leads us to the idea that every single person of that mixed group of ex slaves and accompanying rabble is an individual, each one joins and combine with all the others to create the whole people who will become known as “b’nei Yisrael”

So it is a little disconcerting to suddenly find the focus narrowing down, first to males, then to people over the age of twenty who are fit for army service. And the accounting is now to be done not according to families and ancestral roots, but according to ‘tzivotam’ – their groupings or regiments within the army.

War is traditionally seen as a masculine activity, although there is some evidence in the ancient world of female warrior deities, and we know for example of Ahhotep I the 16th Century BCE Egyptian queen who rallied the troops and preserved Egypt; 15th Century BCE Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut was also a warrior who led her troops in war, but these are rarities. As Margaret Mead noted, war is a male pursuit, culturally gendered, and emerges from a climate where young males need to validate their strength and courage. Their interests dominate society and obscure the interests of women, who become marginalised and expected to help behind the scenes in supporting the war effort. Ten years ago it was reckoned that 97% of the world’s uniformed soldiers were male, and in only six national armies do women constitute even 5% of the force.

So as soon as the census narrows down to focus on the young male resources towards the war, all of the other factors, the individuality, the names and family names and ancestral connections, those younger than 20 years of age, those too old to fight, and critically those of the female gender become irrelevant,

Reading the first few lines of this book, it seems that God is interested in knowing each and every participant in the exodus from Egypt by name, interested in Moses and Aaron encountering the humanity and individuality of the people they are leading. The language being used is different from previous times that the people were counted – we have been given a number of the people who left Egypt (Ch. 12) – “about six hundred thousand men as well as women and children”. Later in the book of Exodus  (Ch. 38) we find that there are “six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men”, over the age of 20, counted by their each giving a half shekel to the building of the mishkan. The language is terse and interested only in the numbers. Yet here in the beginning of Bemidbar there is detail and humanity in the way people are to be seen.

There are a number of words in Hebrew that could be used in order to count a group or calculate a number. The verbal roots:

מ.נ.ה.      ס.פ.ר.    ח.ש.ב.     פ.ק.ד.


would all be more normal than to say “lift up the head.  To lift up someone’s head requires paying attention to that person. The only way to physically do it is to approach them face on and to look into their eyes as you raise their heads.  This may be the reason why Rashi comments that “Because they [the children of Israel] are dear to God, God counts them often. God counted them when they were about to leave Egypt. God counted them after the event of the Golden Calf in order to establish how many remained. And now God was about to cause the divine presence to rest on them God counted them again. (Rashi ad loc)

If the numbering at the beginning of the book was in order to express God’s love for the people, and engender loving respect from the leadership for them, then the elision towards counting young men for warfare is tragic, made the more so because of the people now made irrelevant to the narrative, side-lined from the warmth of divine love into becoming people whose contribution is valued as ‘less-than’ the warriors’ is.  When we see that the people so displaced and demoted are the women, the children, the elderly, we can only weep for how the society has diminished and disregarded the people. Yet again the women have been erased from the narrative because it focuses on military might – even though arguably our best biblical general was Deborah. And people at either end of the age spectrum are also devalued, precisely at the time one might argue an awareness of their humanity is most critical.

Margaret Mead argued that “warfare is only an invention” and a bad one at that, and she suggested that it is time we changed our social systems which nurture all the criteria that bring about war. That may be an impossible ask, but it must surely be possible to return to the first few words of God’s instructions to Moses – “raise everyone’s head”. To extend the comment by Rashi, “look into every person’s eyes, see the uniqueness of each person’s humanity, and then, rather than selecting for military power, simply encounter the other person exactly as they are”.

As military might is elevated above humanity and vulnerability;  As the power to fight is valued more than empathy or nurturing or the emotional and mental work needed to keep families or households going, we will always find that some people are marginalised either because of their gender or because of their age. There is a dislocation in the text at the very beginning of the book of being in the wilderness, a choice that wasn’t made or that was made without deep reflection, and the result was forty years in the wilderness for that generation who relied on a model of military might, and yet were anxious it was not going to be enough when it came to the crunch.

In the tiny, almost imperceptible dislocation in the text, from raising the head of each individual and knowing them, their families, their roots to seeing only those who could contribute to the military prowess of the group, a tragedy is seeded, one which resonates with us to this day. And now the wilderness beckons, the place to reflect on the choices made. Maybe one day we will be confident to make the choice of knowing each other’s humanity, and journey together to our promised destination.

Parashat Bemidbar:counting a community not calculating for the individual


We are in the time of the counting the omer – the days between Pesach and Shavuot – which give an awareness of, and a prominence to the link between Freedom (Pesach) and Responsibility (Shavuot).

Counting is something that has long roots in Jewish tradition- we count days and weeks of the omer, we count the days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we count the years for the shemittah year and we count the multiples of shemittah years for the Jubilee year. The scribe will count the letters written in a Torah scroll in order to check that there are none added and none removed accidentally.  We even count the days till brit and the “white days” in the menstrual cycle.  But counting people has always been a problem in Jewish tradition – it is forbidden to take a direct numbering of the people of Israel and plague was often the result for those who tried. The Talmud tells us “Rabbi Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” [Hosea]. R. Nachman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: ‘Which cannot be measured or numbered’.

Counting people can be said to take away the uniqueness of the individual, turning them simply into a number, dehumanizing the person. At the same time one could argue that as every number is different, the person is stripped not so much of individuality as of community. Yet community power resides within numbers. The development of the three patriarchs to the seventy souls who went down with Jacob to Egypt, to the over six hundred thousand at Sinai show how the community, the peoplehood, grew.  We still understand a community to be the number we can count on the fingers of two hands – a minyan is ten people. Numbers bind us into community and they bind us to our roots. The traditional way of counting a minyan is to recite verse 9 of psalm 28 – the ten words of which being “hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha ur’eim venasseim ad ha’olam – Save Your people, and bless Your inheritance and tend them, and carry them for ever. Another traditional way is to say “not one, not two, not three etc”

The fear of counting people and thus separating them from the community and possibly from their own humanity has long roots in Judaism – only God is really allowed to count us, only God is seen as having the ability to count without discounting so to speak. Yet the need to understand the community and to be able to count people into the community continues.  And the way that bible recommends is that we ask for a contribution from people and each contribution is counted.

It isn’t so odd as it sounds. Effectively the half shekel poll tax in order to support the Temple was both a fundraising activity and a way of measuring the numerical strength of the community. But I particularly resonate to the requirement that asks of people that in order for their presence to be recognised, they should offer some basic support to the community, and with this support they will be counted in.

The idea of being in a community by virtue of what you are offering to that community – not life changing amounts of money per se as the half shekel was a deliberately small amount designed to be possible for everyone to give, but a contribution nevertheless is the expression of an ancient idea that you are part of the community if you choose to offer something of yourself to it, if you partake of it, if you participate within it. You are part of the community if the community can count on you.

Listening to the emotive and emotional arguments about the wider community issue on the agenda today – the arguments about whether we should remain in the European Union or leave it and forge a new path– we hear a lot of words but can discern very little useful information to help frame our thoughts. One recent analysis of the words used most by the two campaigns show that Remain repeatedly use the three words “Jobs”, “Trade”, Businesses”, while the Leave campaign use “controlled” “NHS” and “Money”. It seems clear that the argument for economic stability sits with the Remain campaign, the argument for autonomy with the Leave. But as we move from Pesach to Shavuot, from Freedom to Responsibility, and into the book of Bemidbar, of the transitional neither-here-nor-there liminal space of the wilderness on whose other side will be the border with the promised land I find myself more and more cross that the language being used is of self-interest and self-regard, of “what can I not give to the community” and “what can I get from the community”.

Where is the rhetoric of commonality or of shared aims and aspirations? Where is the language of supporting each other, of helping each other to make a better world?

All I hear is calculation, and I am reminded of a quotation attributed to the architect Daniel Libeskind that “Life it is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.”

Life is best lived in relationship, in community with others, sometimes taking and sometimes giving but always associating with the other. The more I think of how we count a minyan – with the formula “not one, not two, not three”, the more I like the reminder that we are bound together, that while we may be individuals with our own self-interest and self-regard, what is most important about us is that we together can rise over our individualism in order to form something much bigger and much more nourishing for us all – we can  form community.