Parashat Bamidbar: Army, nation and the pursuit of peace.

Army. This is the first word in my reading of Parashat Bamidbar, and it’s the most remarkable word. It is of course not a new word in the Torah, but it is a new concept. The Israelites are turning into a nation, and as such we need an army!

Following God’s announcement to Moses about enrolling the people of Israel in the army, we read of lists with numbers of prospective soldiers from each tribe.

Just a couple of weeks ago we remembered the Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and a little later we celebrated Israel’s Independence Day, the state whose existence promises our ”SAFE” continuity. And one of the ways to ensure that, our “insurance policy”, is the army of Israel. So we look at what we had just a few weeks ago – holocaust, independence – and we read Parashat Bamidbar, which confirms the importance (or in other words, the divine commandment) of having an army as a “MUST” for our national formation. But BECAUSE OF THAT the appearance of the army in the Torah doesn’t have a random timing. It happens in the book of Bamidbar. It happens AFTER we received the books of Exodus and Leviticus, the basis to create an ethical people. We received the notions and the values to build a good nation. We learned about loving the immigrant and the stranger, and “loving your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). We learned about economics, how to distribute our resources in order to make a fair society. And after two books of ethics, spirituality, deep connection and lots of humanity, we are called to make an army.

Very often we hear in Israel that we have the “most ethical army in the world”, which means that we define ourselves by seeing what others have. I don’t think that it’s a good idea to establish and to think of our army by comparing it to the values and behavior of others. I wish to think about our army as the most Jewish in the world; committed to the land of Israel but committed nonetheless to the life of and love for others, to peace, justice and Tikkun Olam (repair of the world).

I learned when I was a kid, from my beloved Rabbi – Rabbi Hans Harf – that we should live holding the Torah in one hand and in the other holding the newspaper. We can’t separate the Torah from the newspaper! We have seen over the last days the video images of the two Palestinian youth being killed next to the wall in the West Bank. We are deeply saddened, frustrated and horrified. Watching these images squeezes our hearts. We hope for this case to be immediately investigated and we ask for justice, at the same time that nothing will be able to return the lives of these youth and justice won’t prevent the death of the next two, only peace will.

There is a Talmudic statement which claims that  “Kol Israel Arevim Ze BaZe” – all of Israel is responsible for one another, not only for keeping the well being of the people, but also taking responsibility for our deeds. When we stand in front of this kind of tragedy we should ask ourselves how we express that responsibility. I mentioned that Parashat Bamidbar, after providing details of enrolling in the army, delivers lists with huge numbers of people, emphasizing (from my perspective) the idea that at the end of the day any huge group or organization is made up of individuals. Even when I’m critical about the organization, the Israeli army, and I know that there are lots of things to repair, I refuse to think that by “repairing” the army this kind of act will be prevented. This can only happen by repairing the people who make up the army. I do understand that this was done by a soldier and of course I do not separate “him” from the context – a constant conflict, political discourses with unjustified hatred, the fact that being conqueror and conquered creates a lack of balance in our understanding of human value, etc.

My mother used to tell me a Chassidic story about a poor town in Europe that was trying to collect enough wine in a bad year of harvest, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year). They decided that every week at Motzei Shabbat (after Shabbat) they would put the remainders of the wine in a common barrel. And so they did. A few months later, the day of Rosh Hashanah, they opened the tap of the barrel to start to deliver the wine, and were surprised to discover that not a single drop of wine fell from the barrel, only water. Each one of them, assuming that all the rest were putting in wine, himself ‘contributed’ water, thinking that a little bit of water in so much wine was not going to make a difference, whereas individually each would benefit.

Our social relations, interactions and partnerships in society are pretty similar to this story. We contribute from ourselves into a big barrel. No one other than us can know what we are actually contributing. So this story comes to remind us that our individual contribution has a deep influence on the collective.

The reason I bring this story is because this is the way we have to express our responsibility today, confronting last week’s episode and confronting of the fact that we are a nation with the right to exist, we have an army and we own a long-term conflict that has to be resolved.

The way to express our responsibility is by meticulously paying attention to what we are delivering, by expressing our criticism, our love, our discomfort, our desire for peace, and filling the collective (the barrel) with them. This is the only way to not be surprised by water instead of wine. Our Zionism is not legitimated by the comparison with other countries or nations, but by our capability to bring to our life, to our country, the highest commitment to our Jewish values. For 2,000 years we have fought for and dreamed of our right to be – to exist; we achieved this, we have the right, and we can keep it, but it would be terrible to miss the meaning of “being”, because we will find ourselves “empty of contents”.

So we start “Bamidbar” by remembering our commitment – as a nation and as individuals – to making peace and to loving the other.


Image: ShalomSalaamPeace; Epson291 at en.Wikipedia

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