The Israelites’ trek through the Wilderness is like an extended camping trip. They don’t travel light. Parshat Naso describes in minute detail how the Mishkan is disassembled and carried along the journey.
A week after my husband and I arrived in Israel for our senior year of college, we set out to go camping in Ashkelon, equipped with a tent, two sleeping bags, and very little food. We planned to buy food when we arrived, but the shuk had closed up and the supermarket was closed due to a strike. We set up our tent amidst a sea of large, olive drab, flat-topped canvas tents (some with several rooms!) inhabited by families that moved in for the summer. We soon found ourselves surrounded by Israelis who were fascinated by our tiny, blue nylon wonder. People exclaimed over it. Several offered to buy it on the spot. The tent looked something like this:
As the sun dipped below the horizon, one family took special notice of us. In those days, people brought low-wattage bulbs to the campground and plugged them into outlets secured to the trees. They rented one for us so we would be able to read at night. When dinnertime arrived and they saw us eating food from a can, they invited us to eat with them. The following day, they fed us breakfast and lunch, and in the afternoon took us for a tour of Ashkelon, including a visit to Yad Mordecai.)
Another family told me: They always take care of people, but if they hadn’t, we would have taken care of you. What began as a misadventure (an entire weekend without food) turned into a marvelous experience.
(As an aside: Our host family came from Romania. They had arrived in Israel in the 1950’s, but more than that they refused to discuss. It was years later that the story of the rescue of Romanian Jews by Israel was told. Israel paid $1000 to $3000 per person in the 50s and 60s, as much as $50,000 in the 70s, and sometimes in livestock and even one factory to bring them to freedom. You can read about it here and here and here.
As we open the Torah to parshat Naso this week, we find the Israelites engaged in the monumental task of creating a cohesive, caring, and moral community in the Wilderness. They do not wait until conditions are optimal: a time in the distant future when they will have their own land and establish themselves as a nation among nations. They begin immediately.
These are the steps recounted in parshat Naso, and my interpretation for our efforts to create -- and sometimes rebuild -- genuine community in our congregations and institutions:
- First, a census is taken of the levitical clans (Numbers, chapter 4). Each is assigned responsibilities related to the Tabernacle: dissembling for, and guarding during, travel, as well as assembling when the Israelites make camp. The very act of taking a census is a public effort to count everyone because everyone counts. The assignment of duties reminds us that everyone has a contribution to make and we should welcome and value their gifts. In fact, we should seek them out. Recognizing people’s talents and skills draws them closer.
- Next, ritual purity precautions are established to protect the community from those who might “defile the camp” (Numbers 5:1-4). While the ancient concerns about ritual purity no longer pertain as they did for our ancestors, I am reminded that there are people who “defile” our “camps” -- those who are undermining, toxic, and hurtful, those whose narcissistic tendencies wreak havoc. It is difficult to deal with such people in the context of a volunteer organization or a community, but far too often they are permitted to “remain in the camp” (in positions of authority) and do great damage. That should not be.
- We are next told that those who wrong others also wrong God, and must make restitution (Numbers 5:5-10). This law underscores the premium placed on personal responsibility, respect for others, and the rights of people. For a community to thrive, personal relationships of those involved must be civil and respectful. From my experience, this happens best when the standards for interaction are articulated clearly and often.
- We next learn the ritual of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress (Numbers 5:11-31). In the absence of police and jails in the Wilderness, the ritual of the Sotah offered a measure of protection to women whose husbands flew into potentially violent rages of jealousy. (Perhaps a better solution could have been found; this one comes at the cost of the woman’s dignity.) The ritual of the Sotah reminds us that jealousy is a dangerous emotion and can lead to violence. Jealousy is often at the root of community problems. We need to learn to recognize it, and like our ancestors, address it. We need to learn how to discern what people’s underlying motives and agendas are, especially when they derive from envy.
- Torah then proceeds to speak about a special case in the community: Nazirites, who made special vows over and above what Torah requires (Numbers 6:1-21). You’d think that Torah imposes a sufficient number of obligations, but Nazirites sought more. Every community has people with different perspectives and different needs. We need to recognize their individuality and address their needs as best we can. This brings us full circle: the census reminds us to count everyone.
The Israelites began shaping a functional, civil community in the wild and uncivil Wilderness. Community begins with people, not place. I saw that creation of community at a campground in Ashkelon. In the two years I lived in Israel, I camped in many places, all nice, but everyone in those days knew that Ashkelon was the best because the culture created by the people who camped there every summer was uniquely warm, welcoming, and caring.
Aaron and his sons are instructed to bless the people with a blessing we still cherish and use to this day:
May God bless you and protect you.
May God deal kindly and graciously with you.
May God bestow divine favor upon you and grant you peace.
Shalom (peace) means wholeness, completeness. This blessing, Torah tells us, will link God’s name -- God’s identity, values, holiness -- with the people of Israel. If we want that peace, we need to strive for shalom (wholeness) for everyone. We can do that by starting here and now -- not waiting until conditions are optimal -- just as people did in a campground in Ashkelon, as our ancestors did in the Wilderness.