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Parashat Bamidbar 5780 — 05/23/2020

Parashat Bamidbar 5780 — 05/23/2020

Bamidbar 1:1-4:20
They [Moshe and Aharon] gathered the whole assembly on the first day of the second month, and they established their lineages by families, according to their patrilineal descent, according to the number of their names, from twenty years of age and up, according to their head-count. (1:18)
We see, then, that Hashem is particular about lineage, and that anyone who does not have a “book of lineage” is considered of lower stature. Therefore, when it came time for Hashem to command Moshe to count the Jewish people, He first said “lift up” (se’u) – a word that denotes being lifted up and exalted – each person (first) had to find his “book of lineage.” (Or haChaim to verse 3)
The verse (18) informs us that the Jews gathered for this matter on the very day (that they were told about the count). This tells us that everyone had in their possession (documentary evidence of) their lineage, and on that very day all the “books of lineage” were verified and accepted.

Why is lineage so important? And lest you think this is a relic of some olden times when they had quaint notions about marriage and family, a glance around the Orthodox Jewish press will convince you otherwise, such is the wailing and crying about boys who can’t find wives because they didn’t go to the very best yeshiva, or girls who can’t find husbands because their fathers aren’t great scholars. To a certain extent it enforces a kind of caste system where the elites shut out the rest of the community from their inner circle. It’s not based entirely on birth, as a very brilliant scholar, even of humble birth, can break into the elite ranks, but yichus (lineage) is an important factor nonetheless.

But to repeat the main question, why is lineage so important? I think the answer has to do with the concept of a tafkid – the specific task that we are appointed to do on earth. Tafkid has many levels – we have our tasks as individuals of course, tasks for which we have been given the tools, material and spiritual, to carry out. But there is tafkid on the level of family, community, nation and world as well. Just as the collective consciousness of a family, for example, is made up of the individual consciousness of the members and the interactions between them, so the tafkid of the family is made up of the individual contributions of the members of the family, and the synergy that gets created as they work together. And it is similar on all levels. Each level of collective consciousness has its own level of tafkid to which the lower levels all contribute. And the whole is always more than the sum of the parts, due to the synergistic interaction between the parts.

Now lineage has to do with two things. The first is DNA, the physical aspect that is passed down from parents to children, and which is shared, to greater or lesser degree, by all blood relatives, depending on their degree of consanguinity. The other thing that is passed down is family traditions – culture, ways of speaking, thinking and acting. This is a non-physical, or spiritual legacy that is passed down from parents to children. There is actually a third thing that is passed down, and that is the material assets of the family, which are passed, according to Torah law, from father to sons, or if there are no sons, to daughters, or if there are no children to father’s brothers, etc. These assets are the tools and resources necessary to carry on the family’s tafkid, hence, they are inherited by those best placed to carry on that tafkid.

Now we can see what a wonderful effect lineage can have – just as the tafkid of a particular family remains with that family, so the resources to carry out that tafkid are passed on from generation to generation. If the son of a carpenter becomes a carpenter, he as if inherits the skills and the art of carpentry from his father, his grandfather, back through the generations, and passes it on to future generations. He is suited to it by the knowledge he gains from watching his father, learning from his father, from the DNA he gets from his father, even the tools and workshop that he will inherit from his father. He can ply the trade of a carpenter easily, comfortably, without strain, like speaking his native language. If, for whatever reason, he decides to go off and become a lawyer, he may well succeed, but he will not have the same fluency and comfort, and his life will naturally be more of a strain (leaving aside the stress that is inherent in much legal work).

Naturally, the tapestry of tafkid is much richer and more variegated than what I have laid out. A man may have more than one son, and they may not all go into the same business. When a man and a woman marry, there are two families involved (one never marries a person, one marries into a family – as Meghan Markle apparently discovered), and the two tafkids get intertwined. There is a constant raveling and weaving of individual threads of tafkid, linking families into communities and communities into nations. This weaving cannot be haphazard, and this is why traditional societies favor arranged marriages, not leaving the process of joining families to the vagaries of circumstance and chemistry. As Tevye and Golda found out, real love and bonding can grow in an environment where people are working together, and serving and supporting one another through a lifetime. What often passes for love in our society is simply infatuation, and the result is a soaring divorce rate.

So yes, lineage is important. If one’s lineage is blemished, say by being the offspring of a forbidden relationship, there is a spiritual disability that is inherited, just as abnormal DNA leads to inherited physical disorders. Even if perfectly fine, but incompatible lineages join, the incompatibility can create strain and dysfunction. It behooves us all to refine our sensitivity to our tafkid and to how it meshes with the tafkid of others, so everyone will be able to function optimally, and we can all live in ideally functioning families, communities, nations and a world free from problems and conflicts.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Bamidbar: “In the Desert”

The desert symbolizes both barrenness and transcendence. Depending on our level of awareness we perceive it either as the opportunity of transcendence or the sorrow of barrenness. The relation between Gd and Israel, Gd and human, Wholeness and expression, is such that Gd more and more deeply unfolds the opportunities within the seeming barrenness, eventually revealing to each individual that Gd is all there is and each individual is an expression.

We have a saying, “Gd helps those who help themselves”, not selfishly but as members of a community dedicated to service of Gd, Full Restoration of Awareness. It is this transcending of our limited individual personality that allows us to transcend barrenness and to experience the Joy of Being a Community in Gd.

We have another saying “Gd is in the details” meaning: “Don’t just pray to Gd for help; pay attention to the details and act from our own side to fulfill our desires through the specific actions we take. Once we act, then Gd is more and more revealed as the Source of our desires and our actions and not only is our immediate desire fulfilled but the purpose of all life is fulfilled: return to experience of the Oneness which expresses Itself within Itself as Infinite Detail, Infinitely Harmonized.”

In this parshah, Gd commands a census – revealing the details of the population of the Children of Israel – at least, of the males of military age, and revealing the detailed opportunity to serve.

We also say, “You count!”  People can get the sad feeling that they don’t matter: they’re just one person in a crowd. With the census it becomes clear that everyone (at least, males of military age) counts, matters.

We also say, “Stand up and be counted!”: stand up for what you believe in. The census requires everyone to stand up and acknowledge they are not just individuals, they are part of the Children of Israel, the Nation of Israel, dedicated not just to their individuality but to Gd.

When Gd gives details or asks for details, He is showing us something of the Details of Himself — He is not just an abstract mass of Fullness, He has a Structure, just as do our bodies, our communities, our nations, planet, Universe. In this case, I could not think of any way the number “603,550” — the number of males of military age, excluding the Levites — connects to the Nature of Gd and I found only one source on the Internet that addresses the issue.

The source looks at the census from the point-of-view of Gematria, a traditional way of interpreting Torah from the standpoint of the symbolism intuited from comparing one word to another through the use of the numerical value that each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has.

The author looks at the earlier census Gd commanded and to this one, finds the number 1820 is significant in terms of one aspect of the difference between the censuses, and finds that this number is significant in terms of some of the Names of Gd and also the nature of Creation, of Amen, of the Messiah.

I mention this source, because from the standpoint that Gd is in the details, the author is attempting to attend to the detail of the census, to find meaning in it, and since every aspect of Torah is useful in our life, paying attention to its detail is an action that helps reveal to us the Nature of Gd as All-in-All, One that is All-in-All.

The parshah also describes the separate roles of the three Levite clans and also the spatial orientation of the different tribes in the encampment: Levites, including Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons, in the inner circle, the twelve tribes around that in the groups of three tribes for each direction.

Here we have a possible symbolism of Gd not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of space: not that Gd is limited to space that we can perceive with our senses but that Gd is Wholeness with a structure that we can perceive more and more as through our actions we attend to the details of Torah and of our lives as members of families, communities, planet, universe.

We have in Torah: “Gd created Man (Humanity) in His own Image” Genesis 1:27.

Torah is the Liveliness of Gd, One with Gd, and so to look at its structure and meaning helps us to find the way, the ways, in which we are Images of Gd, and to gradually find that we are not merely Images of Gd, but expressions of Gd, Gd fully acts through us.

Let us continue standing up, acting in the Service of HaShem so that we can continue growing together and Fully Remember and Experience our Oneness.

Baruch HaShem