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The Book of Numbers is filled with a narrative of complaints.  Our ancestors were always complaining about something.  They complained about the food.  They complained about the lack of water.  They complained about the scarcity of meat.  They complained about the distances to travel.  They complained about Moses’ leadership.  But in chapter eleven we read about those who were not really complainers but those who were “like” complainers.  As the opening verse reads: “va’yehi ha’am k’mit-onenim” – the people were like complainers.  The Hebrew letter “kaf” is what grammarians call “the kaf of similitude,” denoting that the people merely resembled complainers.  What’s the difference?  After all, complaints are complaints!

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Because the sanctity of the camp of Israel had to be scrupulously maintained, God commands Moses to make certain that those who are ritually impure or removed (Numbers 5:1-4).   And principal among the sources of impurity is contact with the dead.  Yet it seems rather harsh to exclude those who might have become impure while performing a valuable service like burying the dead or through no fault of their own such as being afflicted with a contagious disease.  Such unfortunates should be comforted, not excluded.  Hapless victims of death or disease ought to be compassionately embraced rather than unceremoniously evicted.

Grappling with this challenge to our sensibilities, the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 7:1ff) insists that God does not lack compassion. 

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Shavu’ot is much more than the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai because the Torah is more than the quintessential guide to Jewish observance.  As noted by George Mendenhall in 1954, historically conceived, the Torah is form or covenant: a vassal treaty between an overlord (God) and his subordinates (the people Israel).  But limiting the understanding of Torah to a vassal treaty diminishes from the larger meaning of what a covenant is.  In contrast to a contract that outlines mutual responsibilities, a covenant is based on mutual affection.  Thus the purpose of a covenant is to effect loyalty.  In the case of the Torah, that loyalty is expressed both to God and to each other.  The outcome of the Giving of the Torah is the propagation of a shared destiny and a shared identity among the people of the covenant.

The significance of this outcome is voiced by David Brooks.  Writing in the New York Times, Brooks bemoans the fact the contemporary obsession with individual choice has torn at the social fabric.  Community cohesion has been weakened as individualism has been strengthened.  The result is a loss of identity, aimlessness, and uncertainty.  The key question, he contends, is that “in a globalizing, diversifying world, how do we preserve individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity?”  His solution is the rehabilitation of the concept of a covenant.

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It seems that the Torah insists that a particular encampment is required in order to protect Israelites from harm (Numbers 1:53).  The Levites are instructed to dwell around the Tabernacle for two reasons: to be near the facility they serve and also to prevent any angry attack against the Israelites by God in the aftermath of the incident of the Golden Calf.  This protective positioning of the Levites is not the only aspect of the narrative, according to James S. Ackerman in The Literary Guide to the Bible.

Rather than visualize the description of the camp in terms of a square corresponding to each of the four directions, we should think of the camp as a series of concentric circles of holiness. 

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Words to live by

 

If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.

-  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia