[Author’s note: this is a revisiting and reworking of an earlier musing for this parasha, first written in 2002, and entitled “They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta Be Kidding!”]
I think it was wishful thinking by the author(s) of Torah. After all, these are the tribes of Israel. These are human beings. How likely is it that these are accurate descriptions of what happened?
וַֽיַּֽעֲשׂוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָֹה אֶת־מֹשֶׁה כֵּן עָשֽׂוּ
וַֽיַּֽעֲשׂוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה יְהֹוָה אֶת־מֹשֶׁה כֵּן־חָנוּ לְדִגְלֵיהֶם וְכֵן נָסָעוּ אִישׁ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָיו עַל־בֵּית אֲבֹתָֽיו
The Israelites did accordingly; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did. (Nu 1:54)
The Israelites did accordingly; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they camped by their standards, and so they marched, each with his clan according to his ancestral house. (Nu 2:34)
Really? No arguing? No in-fighting? No jealousy? No complaining? No whining? In what universe is it even possible it happened that way? I think of all the times I have tried to organize groups of people (of any age.) There is always someone who doesn’t like the plan, the arrangement, etc. This happens to me on a daily, hourly, sometimes even every 60-second basis in classes and other settings. Now, I’ll be first to admit that, because I am a teacher who encourages my students to question authority, I’m probably exacerbating the situation for myself. Nevertheless I know teachers, masters of classroom management, who still sometimes experience what it’s like to be herding cats, as they say. It’s in our nature.
(Over the years, perhaps some of us have become “domesticated,” become, as they call them, “sheeple.” Social scientists also tell us that there are situations in which people can become less individually assertive. There are “pied pipers” among us, and there have been throughout history. I’ll just bet, however, that some kid in Hamelin stubbornly refused to dance to the piper’s tune. They just wrote him or her out of the story.)
Back in 2002, I related this teaching experience:
It was a few years ago, around this same time of the year.
“OK, yeladim. When we go into the sanctuary today we’ll have assigned seats. Each group will have its own section, marked by a banner. Be sure to sit in the section for your group. It’s really important that everyone be with their group so we can count everybody before we take off on our journey. Any questions?”
“What if I want to sit with my friends and they’re not in my group?”
“What if my group’s section is way in back, and I want to be closer?”
“I don’t want to have to sit in the front where everybody can see me!”
“Ploni is in my group and I’m not going to sit next to him no matter what!”
“What if I have to go to the bathroom?”
“My mommy said I’m not supposed to be with Plonit, and she’s in my group!”
“My, my, such a fuss. Maybe Moshe was right.”
“Right about what?”
“The midrash tell us that when G”d told Moshe to put the tribes in a specific order of surrounding the Mishkan, Moshe complained to G”d that now all the tribes were going to fight about who goes in front, who goes in back, and so on. And you are all doing exactly what Moshe thought would happen!”
“But, Mr. D., the tribes didn’t fight!”
“No, they didn’t. In fact, the Torah says something else. Who knows what it says?”
“It says they did exactly what they were told, just as G”d had told Moshe to tell them.”
“I’m impressed, Ploni. You’ve really been studying your parasha.”
“It was simple, Mr. D. This parasha was so full of all these boring numbers that it was easy to remember that there was finally something different at the end of the list.”
“How many lists were there, yeladim?”
”Anyone other than Ploni?”
”No? Ok, tell us, Ploni.”
“A whole bunch of them, Mr. D. All these names and numbers. It was really boring reading.”
“Yes, yeladim, there are quite a few lists in this parasha. Does anybody know how many of them were lists of numbers?”
“Two is right, Plonit! Now let’s see how smart your friend Ploni is. Is there something special about both those lists, Ploni?”
“Well, er, one is just a list of how may people are in each tribe…”
“The other is a list of where each tribe was, and how many were in it.”
“And what does it say at the end of each list?”
“Oh, I see what you’re getting at, Mr. D. Each list ends with it saying that the people did just as they were told to do.”
“Brilliant, Ploni. That’s exactly right. So we have two lists, one just of numbers, and one with places and numbers. And each one ends with the words that the Israelites did just as G”d commanded them to do through Moshe.”
“And when something appears in the Torah more than once…”
“OK, so what are we all going to do when we go into the sanctuary? Are we going to fight and argue about where to sit, or are we all going to be like our ancestors?”
“But you’re not Moses…or G”d, either, Mr. D!”
“Well, that is true. But I am in charge of you! So you think that means you don’t have to do exactly what you’re told? Is this only about what G”d commands? We don’t have to do anything if it isn’t commanded by G”d? Are the lessons we learn from Torah not useful in our lives all the time?” I may not be your parent, but I am acting in the place of your parents at this moment, and you all know that the Torah says to honor your parents…”
“No, the Torah says to honor your father and your mother, Mr. D.”
“That’s true, Ploni. But even in ancient days, not everyone had a father and a mother. And in our world today, there are families of all kinds Should an orphan not honor those who care for them as if they were parents? Must we take everything the Torah says literally? I don’t see your parents throwing stones at you when you misbehave! So, will you all be good Israelites now, and honor me as your temporary parent, and do as your ancestors did and sit where you are told, without complaining?
Well, I’d like to imagine that from that point the children obediently went and took their places with their groups. It wasn’t quite the same scene as it was in the wilderness of Sinai, with the tribes obediently lined up according to the instructions given to them. And we are such a stiff-necked and obstinate people. The connected verses in the haftarah from Hosea make that abundantly clear! Yet in parashat Bamidbar, we did exactly as we were told. It’s amazing. And one wonders why, in this case, we were so obedient. What made this situation different? It seems contrary to our nature. That goes right back to Gan Eden, does it not? (Though yes, we can argue that it was a case of entrapment or lousy parenting by G”d. “Eat anything and all you want-except from that there tree…”)
Was it some sort of innate understanding that, about to embark on this journey, we needed to come together as a community, each in their own place? Is it the knowledge that they were about to come in harm’s way and it was necessary to allow some sort of military order and discipline to be imposed on them? (After all, that was the whole point of the census-to count all the eligible fighting men.) History is replete with examples of previously disorganized peoples coming together with organized military discipline when threatened.
The midrash teaches us that the tribes cooperated because this was the same order in which Jacob’s sons stood to carry Jacob’s coffin. A nice midrash, to be sure, but hardly satisfying. And one I doubt would have won over the students. No, there’s some lesson, some meaning inside this little bit of text aside from the p’shat (plain meaning.)
Reviewing my previous musings on this parasha, I came across one from 5759 (1999) in which I wrote about the haftarah from Hosea. I think the explanation and conclusion I came to in that could work for this musing as well:
It is here we encounter G”d’s promise to banish war, and then the well known “V’eirastikh Li” –G”d’s betrothal promise to us. Why is this connected to Bamidbar? Because it is a “why”, an answer to why the children of Israel do all these things-take a census, march together under the standards of their own tribes, through the Wilderness to an uncertain future. Because G”d will:
וְאֵֽרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם וְאֵֽרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַֽחֲמִֽים: וְאֵֽרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
…espouse you forever; I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy. And I will espouse you with faithfulness; then you shall be devoted to the L”rd. (Hosea 2:21-22-JPS)
When we do just as we are commanded, then we keep our end of the covenant, and then, only then, can we truly say that we shall “v’yada’at et Adnai” – we shall know G”d (the more literal translation of the end of Hosea 2:22.)
As the Shabbat Bride comes to your home, and the peace of Shabbat descends on you and yours, may you espouse her as G”d has espoused us.
That’s the somewhat cheesy way I wrapped up my thoughts in 2002. It’s the mystic in me coming out. If you have followed my musings over the years, you’ll see the needle shift back and forth between more pragmatic and more spiritual. At the moment, it’s more on the pragmatic side, so the ending from 2002 feels, somehow, not where I’m at.
Where I’m at is, if the people really did do as they were told, down to the last person, with no arguing, fighting, complaining, etc. then either the Torah is simply glossing over the realities for the overall effect, or deliberately misrepresenting the reality to make it seem as if everything went smoothly, according to plan. However, Torah does not seem to shy away from showing lots of reality, warts and all. So why do that here? Could this really be what happened? Could it be that some of the divisions between the Israelites that appear later in the story actually have their origins here (among other places?) Did some people just “suck it up” for the sake of peace and the communal good will? Perhaps it was the lingering effects of Sinai, that “naaseh v’nishma” spirit?
Whatever the case, it would take a miracle for this to happen, and even more so to happen twice in such close proximity. Here, buried at the end of two really boring lists, a miracle. Maybe the lesson is that sometimes it’s worth slogging through the boring stuff, because you might find a miracle at the end?.
Darn, I waxed spiritual again.
©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Bemidbar 5774 – Torah as Anecdote-It’s a Good Thing
Bemidbar 5773 – Who Really Provides?
Bemdibar 5771 – Moving Treasures
Bemidbar 5770 – Sense Us
Bemidbar 5769 – That V’eirastikh Li Feeling
Bamidbar 5767-What Makes It Holy? (Redux & Revised 5761)
Bemidbar 5766-Redux 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5764-Doorway to Hope
Bemidbar 5763-Redux 5759 (with additions for 5763)
Bemidbar 5762-They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta be Kidding!
Bemidbar 5759-Marrying Gd-Not Just for Nuns
Bemidbar 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5761-What Makes it Holy