I'm pleased to share with you this thoughtful and important D'var Torah offered by WRT congregant Sarah Weingarten who is studying Economics and English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
I have been living in a foreign country for a few years now with a literal ocean of distance between my life in the U.K. and my Jewish roots at WRT, but when Rabbi Blake asked me to write a piece about this week’s portion, I connected with the Torah as one connects with an old friend, and was immediately (and once again) struck by the relevance of its wisdom to the modern causes in my life, and our shared lives alike.
This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, is the first in the Book of Numbers, and takes place as the Jewish people are wandering in the wilderness over a year after their Exodus from Egypt. God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelite population by recording the number of males over twenty years of age from each ancestral tribe, and eleven houses of Israel are thus accounted for. The Levites, however, are not counted – God instead commands Moses to distinguish them from the rest of the Israelites as the caretakers and guards of the Tabernacle of the Pact, in which the Ark and its Tablets are kept.
The Israelites are commanded to camp around the Levites in their family groups, both to protect and remain separated from the Tabernacle. It is only after the Levites are consecrated to God that they, too, are counted, and each group is given its own sacred responsibilities. However, despite the stratification of the Israelite population both within the tribal groups and as a whole, the numbers are all added up throughout to represent one unified people, and the entire population marches as one formation.
I was very affected by this portion about ancient hierarchies and biblical rites because it carries so much meaning for the principle of social action that we, as WRT congregants, exemplify every day. This summer, I will be working for Let’s Get Ready, a non-profit company that employs college student volunteers to provide free SAT coaching and college application assistance to underprivileged youth throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic. I have been involved with Let’s Get Ready for two years - by mentoring high school students of lower-income backgrounds who lack the financial resources and the self-confidence to pursue their dreams of attending college - and I have seen the program work dozens of times. Now, I am co-directing the White Plains site, and I am keenly aware of how easy and rewarding it can be for college students to make a real impact not only on their students’ lives, but also on the socioeconomic barriers that prevent many wonderful high-schoolers from attending our nation’s top colleges.
To me, the most obvious feature of Bemidbar was, aptly, its focus on numbers – the counting and recording of family groups and amounts of money, and the hierarchy in the Israelite population that results. I read in the Plaut Commentary that, in fact, there has historically been an ambivalence in Judaism toward counting people and recording their ages because “there was a feeling that knowing a person’s ‘number’ was equivalent to knowing his essence,” an awareness that should not belong to men, but to God. Moreover, numbering appears to “[set] a limit” where physical and spiritual growth should instead appear to be limitless.
As I read this commentary on the content of Bemidbar, I could not help but think of my students at Let’s Get Ready, who are initially fearful that, in the college application process, they will merely get tagged with a “number” – their SAT score – without getting a chance to express their “essence” as they attempt to improve their lives. They often underestimate themselves and, in perceiving themselves to be counted out because of their socioeconomic background, effectively count themselves out.
What we do at Let’s Get Ready, however, is more than just improving the ‘number’ that will, to some extent, define the students to college admissions boards. We also get to know them as individuals over the course of seven weeks, and we teach them how to express their essence with pride, strength, and hope as they undertake the difficult and potentially life-changing college application process. We do not set limits; rather, in a way similar to the spiritual ideal identified in the commentary above, our students’ horizons become limitless.
How, then, to reconcile my work with Bemidbar, a chapter in our biblical history that uses finite numbers above all else to qualify the various groups within the Israelite population? I began to look at the portion with a wider lens and to consider the significance of its setting in the desert wilderness. It seems that many commentators have explored the idea of the desert and why the Israelites were given the Torah and many sacred rites there. One passage from the Midrash suggests that it is because those who preserve the Torah “make [themselves] like the desert: set apart from the world.” Given my work this summer and the drive toward social action that WRT has instilled in me, however, I cannot agree that holiness can arise from detachment.
I am more drawn to another passage from the Midrash, which explains that the Torah and its accompanying sacred responsibilities were given in the wilderness because the desert “is open and accessible to all mankind.” This has resonated with me beyond all else as I devote myself to Let’s Get Ready, especially since it is slowly becoming more widely acknowledged by academics and policymakers that the socioeconomic divide in our country makes for a higher education environment that is often not the meritocracy we would like it to be. Many competitive colleges and universities are attended by disproportionally large numbers of high-income students, while low- and middle-income students of equal caliber are shut out because they do not have access to the financial resources that would allow them to adequately prepare and ultimately pay for their education. Ideally, our collective educational institutions should emulate the desert [Hebrew, "midbar"] of Bemidbar, in which, led spiritually by the Levites, everyone is counted equally, and all tribes, despite their size, are given the same claim to the teachings of the Torah.
Ultimately, therefore, Bemidbar projects a spirit of unity and spiritual equality that, in conjunction with its focus on numbers, suggests that there is holiness in both the individual and the group. Each family is proudly identified and counted separately, but the numbers are added up to form the Israelite population as a whole, and it is because the wilderness is an even playing field that their spiritual cohesion is possible. I hope to take this idea with me into my work this summer with Let’s Get Ready – when it comes to social action, there is just as much holiness in the ability of one person to impact the life of another person, as there is in a collective group effort in pursuit of the common good. If everyone has an equal voice and an equal chance, there will be no limits to what humanity can accomplish.
Let’s Get Ready is looking for motivated, dependable, and enthusiastic college students to join our White Plains program by becoming volunteer coaches one evening a week from mid-June to mid-August. Interested students should apply by Friday, June 10th at
or email Sarah Weingarten at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.