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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat BaMidbar - The Portability of Holiness

Updated: Jul 12

The Book of Numbers, Bamidbar (in the wilderness) in Hebrew, opens with God commanding Moses to take a census, assessing the numbers of men able to bear arms present in the Israelite camp. God then commands Moses and Aaron how to properly organize the camp, where each tribe is meant to pitch its tents when the Israelites come to a stopping point on their journey. Both of these acts of order, interestingly and poetically, conflict with the inherent chaos suggested by the name of this book, in the wilderness. 

The tribe of Levi is then set apart from the rest of the tribes, honored with the task of operating the mishkan. The tribe is subdivided into smaller clans, each assigned specific tasks connected to the mishkan. One of these tasks is breaking down the mishkan anytime that the Israelite camp needs to move to a new location in the wilderness. The details of how each piece should be covered, stored and carried are meticulously recorded in the portion. You can feel the importance of this task as you read the words. Even in its dis-assembly, this tool of unification for the Israelites in their earliest stages as a nation is of utmost importance. 

The attention to detail in how we take apart the holiest piece of the wandering camp of Israel also seems to speak to another deeply significant aspect of the mishkan. It is, by design, portable. Everything about the Israelite existence in the wilderness is in motion. This necessitates even the most holy piece, built from the wealth and by the work of the people, to be the same. 

God could have commanded, the Torah could have taught, that a different type of structure be built. Why not build a shrine and altar in every place only to leave them behind as the Israelites moved on to their next destination? Or, why not construct a structure with some permanent form with only some portable aspects? But no, we received the mishkan, with all the impracticalities of transporting something so precious through a harsh wilderness. As all things in the Torah, even the challenging ones, there is a lesson in this. 

Holiness, conjured and created within the limits of the mishkan and its courtyard, is portable. It is not limited to one space or setting. Rather it can move, just as we do, through time and space. Holiness is found even in the most dire of places, in midbar, a wilderness, a space at the edge of human discovery. There is incredible power in the lesson that holiness is portable. It demands only that we open our eyes, that we become aware of this lesson, then we can tap into holiness wherever we are. 

I would take this idea one step forward and say that, like the Israelites through the book of Bamidbar, it is in our portability, our ability to move, grow and change that our true power as human beings rests. Like so many of you, so many of my preconceived notions of what the world is and how it works have been challenged, some of them entirely upended, in the last nine months. There have been many times where I have felt that I was (or still am) wandering through the ideological, political, and social wilderness. So much of what I thought of as settled or as stable ground was exposed to be the opposite. 

The portability of the mishkan and the wanderings of the Israelites in this fourth book of our Torah arrive this year just as some pieces are beginning to take on some clarity. It reminds me, as I hope it does you, that the journey is rarely easy or pleasant. Yet at the other end we can emerge, tried and tested along the way, as something new, recalibrated, with an enriched understanding of the world and our place in it. 

May the journey be a blessing. Even though the path may be fraught and painful, let us take strength from the journeys of our ancestors and the knowledge that even in the most wild of places, holiness is there to be found. 

Shabbat Shalom!

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