The very first question God ever asked was, “Ayeka?” – “Where are you?” Adam and Eve had just eaten fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They lost their innocence and realized their nakedness. And so Adam hid with Eve among the trees. (Can you imagine them there, crouching, covering up?)
God’s question to Adam referenced this rather undignified location and stance. But it’s obvious that the question was not really about Adam’s physical place in the world. God wasn’t asking for directions. God was asking Adam to assess his own spiritual direction. Where are you, Adam, and where are you going?
Religion has been defined as a way of finding one’s place in the world. Where do I stand? – not just “on the issues,” but in relation to others. Where do I stand in life?
The book of the Bible we begin reading this week is aptly called Numbers in English, because of the censuses with which it begins. As the people prepare to enter and conquer the Land, they count the men above military age; the Levites one month or older in age who will serve in the Temple there; the Levites between ages 30 and 50, who will care for and transport the Tabernacle and its accouterments; and the first-borns, whose role and status will effectively be taken over by the Levities.
But, perhaps surprisingly, “how many” is not the ultimate question, as Numbers begins. The ultimate question is “where?”
This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, describes the placement of the Children of Israel as they traveled through the desert. The Levites surrounded the Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting. Among the Levites, the Gershon family camped west of it. The Kehat family camped to the south, and the Merari family, to the north. Moses, Aaron, and their immediate families, who are descended from Kehat, camped to the east of the Tabernacle.
Another protective ring around the Tabernacle was formed with the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin to the west; Reuben, Simon, and Gad to the south; Dan, Naftali, and Asher to the north; and Judah, Issachar and Zebulun to the east.
And in the center of it all was the Tent of Meeting, where God spoke to and “met with” Moses and where the ark was kept. The Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments it held were, literally, at the center of the community.
Once the men are counted for a military census, we learn: “The Children of Israel pitched their tents, each person in his camp, each under his tribal banner, according to their divisions…. These are they who were numbered among the Children of Israel, according to their ancestral families, all [the military-age men who] were counted from the encampments, according to their divisions…. Thus they encamped under their [tribal] banner, and thus they traveled, each man with his tribal family, based on his ancestry. (Numbers 1:52, 2:32,34)
Each person had a place to call home even amidst desert wanderings. All the people of Israel knew, literally and figuratively, where they stood. They found their place in relationship to their own families and to other Israelites, with the Ark and the Tablets given by God defining their center.
As we approach Shavuot, the “time of the giving of the Ten Commandments,” the orientation of Numbers is worth remembering. We may not know much about some of the tribal leaders named in this Torah portion, and the numbers may not (without gematria gymnastics and deeper mystical understanding) seem significant, in and of themselves. But each of us can challenge ourselves to question how we stand in relation to our ancestral families, what banners we stand behind, and, most of all, where we stand in relation to God and Torah.
Heschel famously and poetically prioritized time over space. Like Shabbat, Sinai is a “cathedral in time.” Sinai is re-enacted every Shavuot, every time we stand to read the Ten Commandments in synagogue, and more often than that – if we are paying attention. We aren’t even sure which mountain is Sinai. All we know is that, apart from being the site of a mass theophany and astonishing miracles, it is indistinguishable from other nearby elevations. It is a humble, “low-rise” mountain in the Sinai desert. Clearly, the geography of Sinai is not our main concern.
But geography is not incidental, either. There is a message in it. Remember: The Children of Israel received the Torah on an otherwise humble and indistinguishable low-rise mountain. We as a people are to the nations of the world as Sinai is to the other mountains. Any sense of majesty or chosen-ness we have is derived from the fact that we were instrumental in bringing Torah to the world.
This potent analogy between mountain and nation was delivered in the Sinai desert – between the land of our enslavement and the Promised Land. Spiritually speaking, if not geographically, that is where we are, still, today. Thank God, we have been freed from where we used to be (geographically: Egypt; spiritually: oppression, idolatry, other sins, addictions, toxic relationships, etc.). Unfortunately, we are not yet where we seek to be (geographically: Israel – in a sustainable, peaceful, and secure position; spiritually: fill in your own blanks here).
The revelation of Sinai happened in the “eternal present.” That is to say: Now. And now. And still now. And again now. It is accessible at any time, “if you will only listen to God’s voice” (Psalm 95:7).
Yet, it matters that we stood together, in one place and one time, originally. Regardless of whether – or how – you believe in the historical accuracy of the Sinai experience as it has been transmitted to us, the narrative has many sacred messages to teach. Among them: Community counts. Finding and occupying your place in it matters. God and Torah have the greatest impact when they are protected by you and held in your core. For maximum holiness, stick close to your ancestral tribe – and listen. At least occasionally,make sure to ask yourself one of God’s great questions: where are you?