The book of Bamidbar (Numbers) documents the travels of the Israelites during their years of wandering in the desert. The opening parshah, in turn, elaborates on the preparations for this journey, moving from the established camp at Sinai to relatively frequent relocations. There are three primary areas that the text lists in terms of preparations. The first is taking a census of the Israelite men of fighting age. The second is enumerating the responsibilities of the families from the tribe of Levi in terms of managing the transport of the mishkan (tabernacle) and its accoutrements. The final topic is the arrangement of the tribes around the mishkan when they are encamped.
Certainly there are lessons we can learn about how to undertake any venture of this enormous scale. It is important to know who is participating and to assign roles in a coordinated fashion. Everyone needs to be on the same page, so to speak, so that the operation proceeds smoothly without chaos. For Moses to manage the travels of this multitude, he needs to give assignments so that he doesn’t get overwhelmed by the details of each task.
From a modern lens, I find the questions raised by the text of the Torah more instructive (and more relevant) than the answers. In the Torah, only the Israelite men are counted. We can estimate the numbers of women and children, but are less able to do so regarding the “mixed multitude” who accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. In recent years, there has been much discussion, if not controversy, regarding the United States census and its implications (such as allocation of congressional districts). Who do we count? What information do we gather about each person? Who makes the rules regarding the process of conducting the census?
Similarly, we can ask questions about who can fill which roles, and how hierarchy affects how the work is done. In the Torah, there is a strict hierarchy of priests, Levites, and Israelites, with defined roles and privileges. A hundred years ago, our ideas about gender roles (and indeed about gender) were very different than they are today. What jobs were appropriate or not appropriate for men and women? What were the roles of men and women in the household? How do we think about these questions today, and how will we continue to advance in our thinking in the future?
The question of hierarchy is of particular interest to any community. Who is in charge, and how independent or inclusive is that leadership? While many if not most congregations have assigned roles (rabbi, board members, officers, etc.), there is an imperative to make sure that the needs of the members of the community are being met. The risk of a traditional hierarchy is that those who are disaffected may search elsewhere for community rather than engaging with the leadership. So the final question I will pose is this: How can we break down the hierarchies to which we have become accustomed, to give up some of the privilege we have grown to enjoy, in order to build communities that more fully engage their members in creating a shared vision that is meaningful to all?
Shabbat shalom. PJC
Rabbi Howie Stein is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.