Finding Our Way: The Lessons of Bamidbar
…you can’t tell the players without a program... - Anonymous ballpark vendor
Everyone needs guidance.
No one would want a surgeon to perform surgery before he or she had been shown the way. No one would want to board a flight with a pilot who had not been properly instructed. And no one would want to visit a distant land without a guide or a very good map.
These days, we rely on GPS to get us where we are going, whether our destination is a restaurant the next town over or a conference hundreds of miles away. Not that long ago, we used maps, or even – God forbid! – stopped to ask for directions at a filling station.
Bottom line, while our pride might preclude us from acting lost the truth is none of us likes to be lost. That is true of today’s traveler. It was true of travelers thousands of years ago. It was certainly true of our own brethren when, after escaping Egypt, they found themselves in a place with no street markers, no sign posts, and no corner filling stations.
The opening of the Book of Bamidbar can be read very much like a traveler’s guide, an instructional manual for a people who, after so many years, was only beginning to confront the awesome beauty and challenges of freedom.
The Torah served as a guidebook for these travelers. It specified each facet of the degalim – banners – that showed where each tribe was to camp, its position and location relative to is neighbors as well as to the Mishkan, the exact order in which it was to travel and encamp. After all, our people was embarked on a long journey, one with many pitfalls. There were old people, young people. Strong men and women suckling new babies. There were leaders and followers. And all had only just been freed of the yoke of slavery. Of course they needed specific instructions!
So too, the Torah details the methods of carrying, assembling, reassembling and dismantling. It taught the specifics of the Mishkan, the ways and means in which the sacred objects were to be handled and who was to supervise each task.
All very important. Even the most superficial amongst us can see the need for such guidance. But really, why should such guidance have been in the Torah? The Torah records only that which has eternal value; that which teaches and guides all generations. What could these instructions mean to us?
Quite simply, seder. Order. Life demands order. It is fine and good to dream great and lofty dreams, but without methods, guidelines, and instructions such dreams will never be realized. This is as true of our daily routines as our greatest dreams, as well as in the performance of the highest goals of halacha.
We all want the ruach. We all want sense of kavanah when we truly connect with God. But our tradition is clear. Moments of transcendence exist but rarely without proceeding according to very exact ways and means. That is halacha – the way to travel. Our destination is full spirituality; our path is defined by the guidance of halacha.
Teaching the basic lesson of, and need for, order – seder – is the fundamental lesson we learn from Bamidbar’s detailed instructions. Rav Aharon Kotler teaches that we must learn the value Torah places on order, which includes the proper arrangement of all aspects of life, which, to one seeking spirituality, may seem hopelessly mundane. But it isn’t!
Too often we rationalize, “So what if I’m late?” or, “Okay, it’s not perfect, but it will do.” Rav Aharon Z’L notes that the Dor ha’Midbar never experienced our everyday challenges – no trains to catch, no college papers to complete, no rent to pay. They did not even have to concern themselves with their clothes. “Your garment did not wear out upon you” Devarim 8:4. God provided for all.
If God provided, why the need for order?
But order, seder, is non-negotiable. There is never a time when it is okay to ignore the way God has delineated. To do so is to risk getting lost. So the Torah emphasizes, “According to the word of Hashem would they journey…and according to the word of Hashem they would encamp.” (9:18) Every facet of life, from the most mundane to the most sublime demands seder. The Levi’im who were assigned to sing in the Temple could not be the ones to safeguard the Temple gates. One man’s task could not be substituted with another’s.
Indeed, the greater the level of holiness, service and sanctity, the greater the risk of desecration and therefore, the greater the need for clear, precise guidelines. A single letter missing from the hundreds of thousands of the Sefer Torah invalidates the Sefer Torah.
A single letter!
A Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 3:11) tells about the prominent Levite family of Kehas. The posuk says: Al tachrisu es shevet mishpechos ha’Kehasi mitoch ha’Levi’im – “Do not cut off the tribe of the Kehasi families from among the Levi’im.”
Why? What is this all about? Had something happened that would make anyone even consider cutting them off ? As the Midrash relates, the Kehasi men, privileged to carry the Aron, used to push and shove others for position, and when they approached the Aron, it destroyed them.
Their motives were pure! Their behavior was not from any lack of respect but rather due to their eagerness to fulfill their duty. They were so filled with a passion to serve and be close to the sacred Aron. But in their eagerness, they failed to meet the seder required to approach the Aron. Intentions are wonderful but even the best intentions cut off from seder risk desecration. Such that even this most highly regarded and esteemed family – the Kehasim – filled with devotion and enthusiasm for Avodas Hashem found that a lack of seder can turn the most sacred task into a true balagan.