Last week we concluded the book of Leviticus, a book that focuses on holiness, on ritual purity, and on the life-altering effects of religious ritual. Through detailed descriptions in the beginning of the book of ritual animal sacrifices, vivid imagery of ritual purity and impurity in our bodies, homes and communities, and dozens of laws governing our behavior toward each other and toward God, we are commanded, to paraphrase the words of Leviticus 19:2, to be holy because our God, the Israelite God, is holy.
With all of the power that Leviticus brings to our moral, ethical, and religious lives, there is an aspect of the book that is difficult for many people to fully understand. Even though Leviticus provides us detailed descriptions of how we should act following a mistake or after we have become ritually impure for one reason or another, there is a theme present throughout the book of perfection. The mishkan (desert tabernacle) is perfect and is a representation of God’s presence on earth, the cohanim (priests) need to be physically perfect in order to present our animal sacrifices to God, and the animals themselves need to be without blemish, exact representations of what we are supposed to understand God meant that animal to look like.
While this idea is understandable, it does present certain difficulties for those of us who live in the real world of flesh and blood, the world of imperfection. How can we, who are not physically or emotionally perfect, relate to a religion that holds up perfection as a guidepost, even while understanding that not everyone can achieve that goal? As is often the case, the Torah provides us with an answer almost as soon as it presents the question. The answer is found in the book of Bamidbar, the book of Numbers.
As perfect as the imagery from Leviticus can be, that is how imperfect the imagery from Numbers is. Rebellion, complaining, mistakes by the entire community, life-changing missteps by Moses and Aaron, the list goes on and on. And yet, there is a powerful lesson to be learned from this powerful and insightful book of the Torah. More than any other book of the Torah, Numbers is where the people of Israel gain an understanding of who they are as a nation, maturing and growing to the point where they are no longer living from miracle to miracle, or from one life-altering event to another.
Genesis laid the groundwork for an understanding of where we come from and for an understanding of why God created the world and human beings, Exodus provided us with the two most important events of ancient Israel (God redeeming Israel from Egyptian slavery and the revelation at Mt. Sinai), Leviticus gave ancient Israelite religion shape and form and reminded us of the importance of striving for purity in all that we do, and Deuteronomy centered our religion around a shared religious worship experience, all together as a nation in Jerusalem (written about in the book but not accomplished until much later).
And what about Numbers? More than any other book in the Torah, Numbers presents us with the challenges and tribulations of real life. People who disagree with each other, husbands and wives who don’t trust each other, competition for power and prestige, rebelling against the confines of a society. Why do we relate so well to these stories? Because they are human stories that only differ from our own in minor details. The human drama, the emotions at the core of these stories, all ring true even today.
Perhaps it is because of this that the rabbis chose a selection from the prophet Hosea for the Haftarah for Parashat Bamidbar. Hosea (8th century b.c.e.) was the first prophet to portray the covenant between God and Israel in terms of a marriage. In his own life, God forces Hosea to learn the lesson of what it means to love someone who is unfaithful to you. As Hosea feels pain from the actions of his own wife, so too does God feel the pain from Israel who has been unfaithful to God.
Marriage can be one of the most powerful relationships in a person’s life, and yet there is no doubt that it is a relationship marked by uncertainty. Will the person I loved at 25 still make my knees weak when I am 55 and see her across the room? What if, as we grow older, we grow apart instead of growing closer together? Uncertainty is an inherent part of any human relationship, and because of the relationships we read about in the book of Numbers, uncertainty is part of the book itself.
Coming on the heels of Leviticus, Numbers teaches us that while striving for perfection in the mishkan is nice, out here in the real world we all know that uncertainty and striving to do the best we can are goals we can all do our best to achieve. The desert, where the book of Numbers takes place, is a stark environment, a place of great beauty and also danger. And yet, it is in the desert where we truly understood who we are as a nation and came to appreciate that the uncertainty of relationships was well worth it, because these relationships enable us to grow and mature in ways we could never imagine doing as individuals. It is only in relationship with others and with our larger community, that the true voice of Torah can be heard.