Bamidbar: The town square

town squareAnd……we’re still at Sinai.  Here it is, a whole book and a half after getting to Sinai, and receiving the Torah, and……we’re still there.  The rest of Exodus and all of Leviticus?  Still at Sinai, as we begin the book of Bamidbar, in the wilderness, aka Numbers.  The reason it’s called Numbers is that the book pretty much begins and ends with a census-taking.    But Bamidbar (in the wilderness) captures more of what the book is about.

Time to get moving.

Now, there are a lot of people involved.  Plus they have the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the place where God dwells when God’s in town.  “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell with you.”  How does this massive group of people …hundreds of thousands of people, by the Torah’s clan-by-clan count….get moving?

One of the things that comes through is that, whether they were on the march or encamped, they arranged themselves in a very specific way.  Issachar/Judah/Zevulun…to the East.  Gad/Rueben/Simon to the South.  Asher/Dan/Naphtali to the North,and Benjamin/Ephraim/Menasseh bringing up the rear.

Who are we missing?  Oh yes, the Levites, Aaron and Moses’ family. (How many of you just did a quick count?  I know the clan groupings add up to 12, and there were 12 tribes, not 13, but Ephraim and Menasheh, Joseph’s sons, are often counted as one when the Levites are mentioned.)  Nevertheless, the Levites are in the middle, thoroughly protected, because they’re traveling with the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

This was an army formation, but it could also be seen as a model for building community.   What’s at the center is to be protected; it’s held in the highest esteem and holds the greatest value.

Many of the older American towns, modeled after European patterns, have town squares, with the courthouse and the library right in the middle, and maybe a fountain or sculpture.  Stores surrounded the square, and it was truly the center of the community.   Urban planning and automobiles have had their effect on town squares, but in a virtual and Jewish sense, what do we hold at the center of our Jewish communities?  In ancient times, when a new Jewish community was established, the first two things built were the mikveh (ritual bath) and the cemetery; the beginning and the end of life, the core of family living.


It’s not a surprise, I suppose, that  the center of my Jewish life is Torah – studying, grappling with it, and writing about it every week.  It makes sense to me, even as its reasoning evades me.  The stories grabbed me and have never let go.  I rarely re-read books, except for this one.  For more and more Jews, there is no center of their Jewish life, because their identity is outside Jewish living.

What do you hold at the center of your Jewish identity?  What’s in your Jewish “town square”?





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