Bamidbar/Numbers, Bamidbar 1:1 – 4:20

For the parashat hashavuah, I read a variety of commentaries on Bamidbar and had some interesting conversations regarding the content of them. The commentary that I read were as:

  • the JPS translation (p.272-287)
  • Jewish Study Bible (p.284-291)
  • Torah Queeries commentary from 2010 on keshetonline.org (because I did not have the physical book with me at the time. The commentary in the book for this parashah is different than the one I found online)
  • commentary from 2015 and 2016 on my youth movement’s listserv

This week has been an overwhelming one. I went from my finals at University straight to a seminar to prepare for summer camp. There were a lot of amazing and important things that happened this week and one of them was that I was able to find different ways to incorporate my investigation into religious Jewish literature in a variety of ways. In two separate check-ins I had with two friends, I was reminded of themes from the parasha and we had a really interesting conversation about it. I got to talk to someone, albeit briefly, about the commentary they wrote for the listserv in 2016. Finally, I was able to read and discuss the Torah Queeries commentary with a group of people in my kvutzah/shichvah (group, age group).

So this parasha is the first portion of the fourth Book of Moses. Moses and Aaron are instructed to conduct a census to find out how many men age 20 and older are eligible for military duty from all of the tribes except for the Levites because they are not supposed to do military service. Instead, Levites are supposed to be the guards of the Tabernacle. One of the tribes is divided in two in order to still have 12 tribes. Aaron and his sons are the priests who are the only ones allowed to come in contact with holy places or things, and anyone else is threatened with death.

I focused on two themes in the parasha: the census and the militarization of the Israelites.

While I was reading the JPS translation of Bamidbar, the fact that women are not counted in the census stood out. The census was to find out how many men there were who were eligible for military service, and women were not factored into that equation at all. Abi Weissman, who was the author of the online Torah Queeries commentary, wrote about her experience with being counted or not counted within her Jewish community as a lesbian Jew with a partner of a different faith. I read this with a group of my friends and we talked about different ways that we have experienced or witnessed being counted or being left out of Jewish spaces. I’ve been really lucky to be a member of a bunch of Jewish communities that have recognized and validated my identities.

This reminded me of a dicussion I had in on of my gender and women’s studies classes this semester. The pretty recent ability that US citizens have to identify themselves as LGBTQ+ on the US census has been taken away. Citizens who are married to someone of the same-sex can get around that by identifying the gender of the person they are married to, but that doesn’t really do much. Censuses are really important for a lot of different things, from getting a general overview of the country to informing policies. Not allowing this identity to have a place on the census is mostly likely going to do more bad than good. In the wilderness of Sinai, women not being counted along with the men in terms of military eligibility probably had its upsides and its downsides but for me, it is a reminder that women are constantly being eliminated from narratives – and the Tanakh is arguably the most influential and important narratives that exist.

The other theme was about how the 12 tribes became the way that the people were organized and then made into an army. The movement and the encampments of the Israelites were all structured around the military groups. This actually came up in two different conversations that I had this week. And both conversations were about the same thing.

I realized while reading the parasha that the Jewish people have always either been in isolated living situations like Shtetles or in military like what is being described in the Tanakh and how Israel is today. Even in the really early 1900s when Jews started moving to British Occupied Palestine (Pre-Israel), there were 3 defense forces that were created: the Palmach, Lehi, and Etzel which were all volunteer forces (they eventually were combined to create the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] once Israel was established).

That means every year we are reminded that in order to survive freedom from slavery, the Jewish people had to be on the defensive (or maybe offensive) in order to protect themselves. The times they did not were when they were forced to live isolated communities like in the Pale of Settlements in Russia from the late 1700s until early 1900s. Jewish generational trauma comes from more than the Holocaust or constant diaspora due to exile but from the very beginning of Jewish history. It seems as though Jews have never really been able to feel confident and secure no matter where they are, whether it’s traveling through a desert on the way to Canaan or living in the kibbutz. It’s pretty serious and scary and sad.

I have a lot of conflicting feelings about Israel and the Occupation and the Arab-Israeli Conflict and the parasha this week brought all of that up for me, especially because during the seminar I was in, we talked a lot about anti-Occupation work and activism, Zionism, and the work that movement members in Israel are doing. In such a small section, there is so much to read into and think about, which can be said for all individual parashot, probably.  I have begun looking at the material for this coming parasha, Naso, as well as what is being read for Shavuot and it’s been very interesting so far. Hopfully I’ll post about it sooner rather than later in the comign week.

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