Parashat Bamidbar: When in the wilderness, start with the self
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Parashat Bamidbar: When in the wilderness, start with the self

Glen Rock Jewish Center, Conservative

The world can sometimes seem like one big messy wilderness these days. With the lingering effects of covid combined with a war in Ukraine, gun violence constantly at our doorsteps and polarizing debates in the political discourse of our country, it can feel like the world needs more healing that we are able to provide. When I talk to people who shed the niceties of casual conversation and instead share openly how they are really doing, what people share with me is that it is all just too much. Just too much.

And somehow, even though we each juggle different priorities and challenges, our common language is that it is too much. Some of us juggle work and families. Some of us are worried about the safety of our schoolchildren. Others struggle with inflation and how they can financially get ahead amidst the economic challenges of our society. Wherever the tension originates in our lives, what many of us share, is that it’s all just too much.

Therefore, many of us ask ourselves where we should start. Just how can we get ahead when the messy wilderness of our lives feels so, so vast? How can we possibly help heal our broken world?

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Bamidbar, tells us that as the Israelites were setting up their military camp, there was a specific order regarding the location of each tribe in camp. Prior to outlining each tribe’s specific location surrounding the Tent of Meeting (east, south, west, north), there were general instructions regarding where one should stand in defending the people. We read as follows:

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (Numbers 2:1-2).

What I find interesting in this verse are the three reference points mentioned. One should stand with his standard, under their ancestral banner, around the Tent of Meeting. Why are these three different locations mentioned?

According to the Etz Hayim chumash (The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), these three locations refer to three different aspects of one’s personal identity. One’s standard (degel) refers to the self, the banner refers to one’s family, and the Tent of Meeting refers to one’s larger community. Each of us is part of a broader family and community. It is only when we come together in solidarity that we can stand to defend our people.

But how can we stand together to defend our people when we don’t even agree with our families? How can we work towards healing when our society disagrees on what the problems are, let alone the solutions?

What I see in this verse is a rubric about how to deal with the wilderness in our lives and help heal the world. Sure, the healing comes about when we work together in our respective clans to help the larger community. But initially, before we can come together to help our community heal in the Tent of Meeting, and before we work together in our respective tribes or families, we must first do the tough work of healing ourselves.

It all starts with us.

It’s easy to point fingers when we are in pain. We ascribe our suffering to external forces, perhaps in our greater community, or even in our families. They are the reasons why things go wrong. We might say, “If only our world was a bit kinder,” or “if only my family shared my values.” But the truth is, even if we stand arm in arm with the rest of the Israelite people, nothing can protect our world from going awry if we first don’t work on healing ourselves.

With covid has come an increase in mental illness over the past couple of years. Many of us have simultaneously felt both the pressure of the larger society and the internal pressure of life on a day-to-day basis. Our families continued to rely on us. Our communities still needed us. But as we felt like we were in a pressure cooker, something had to give. Hence, the Great Resignation. Did we need this break all along and we were just pushing along or did it take something like a pandemic to set us off as a ticking time-bomb?

The Torah teaches that before we hang the banners of our families, before we pitch the Tent of Meeting, first we need to focus on the self. In doing this, not only can we think about how to recharge our batteries, but we can also ask ourselves what internal work we need to do, what habits we need to break, and what goals we can set for ourselves.

The great task of healing the brokenness of our world need not start with lofty societal armies of change. Perhaps the best line of defense in healing our world is to first ask ourselves “how can I begin to heal myself?”

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