Drash on Parashat Bamidbar
Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Progressive Judaism Victoria
Trigger warning: this piece recounts a confronting episode relating to homelessness.
Two years out of Egypt, B’midbar begins by detailing the complex arrangements of a free people that created social structures out of nothing. That was great progress. They left slave quarters to become homeless and within two years had established a working tent society, bringing to mind the ma’abarot (tent villages) of the early days of the independent State of Israel. The size of the undertaking makes an impressive chronicle to launch this book of Torah. The military census identified men who were to fight and it’s tempting to focus on their names, clans and geographical placement by tribe, around the mishkan.
Even God’s tangible presence in the middle of the encampment, did not result in universal affirmation of the human leadership. There was disaffection, grumbling and outright rebellion. Having put middle management in place, grappling with the scale of individual/family needs (exemplified by the inheritance issue of the daughters of Zelophechad) we are left to wonder about the tens of thousands whose names and needs are never mentioned. Leaving aside the entire absence of women from the social overview at the start of Numbers, my concern is for the nameless, the young, the old, frail and infirm women and men, rather than those who could serve as soldiers. We see the census’s limitations as a social management tool, for which – to be fair - it was not designed!
Last week I found myself in an inner-Melbourne neighbourhood where the homeless gather on every corner. This is not a Covid phenomenon. Having lived in the neighbourhood, I recognised many who wait for businesses to close so they can settle into doorways for a modicum of shelter at night. Last week, in front of the supermarket entry under cover of the bus shelter, a young indigenous teenager sat with no possessions. I asked if he had eaten. I asked what he would prefer and asked him to remain there (sometimes the management moves people along) while I bought him some supplies. While I was shopping, I encountered a man my own age, begging inside the store. Asking for money, and explaining that he had cancer. He declined food. What he was really after was a toilet. I did not know where the nearest public toilet could be found and by the time I was able to give him the information, he had gone. I suspect that security had ejected him.
I saw him next as I was driving home. I was deeply wounded by what I now witnessed and had no remedy to offer. In a side street, in full view, his needs being urgent, the man was voiding himself into the gutter and simultaneously vomiting. He was clearly most unwell and had absolutely no resources in his distressing condition. The impact has stayed with me. Like most of the Exodus generation, we will never know his name.
Some may find this an undignified connection to make with a Torah portion. For me, the opposite is true. We are commanded to seek justice and pursue it (Deut 16:20). Government welfare systems are not ours to manage: budgets and policies do that. Yet caring bureaucrats and social workers deal with the frustration of inadequate resources all the time. The original Midbar was a place of transition where trauma was cleansed, and newcomers eventually replaced those enslaved by memory. Everyone was fed, but we can only surmise how mental and physical health needs were cared for.
So, what is to be done? It is not enough for the capable to be counted in the census; we must take pains to also count those who are on the margins. What used to be called “a fair go” was Australia’s secular version of Judaism’s “mishkan”, the interface between our essential obligation to each other according to the code of Divine obligation.
This week’s Haftarah portion reminds us that if we fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and act justly per the mitzvot, all the other efforts of which we can be proud are diminished. Last week, those enjoying their fine dining, their tantalising art works, their exotic books and their scintillating social banter near the supermarket, had set up those pleasures as ba’alim (idols, see repeated references in Hosea 2:1-22, Plaut 917-920) and very few turned to engage with the territorially dispossessed, the homeless, the poor, the literally naked who had no toilet. We can’t do everything, but Australians can begin by ‘paying the rent’ https://paytherent.net.au/about-us/ , a proposition that seeks to directly compensate traditional custodians. All synagogue Boards need to at least review the notion and see how it fits with our growing understanding of respect for the Country upon which we all enjoy sanctuary as Jews. As we say repeatedly, we must do that, because we, ourselves, were strangers in and refugees from Egypt, zecher liytziyat mitzrayim.
The highly sexualised imagery of Hosea notwithstanding, we are confronted with the consequences of distracting ourselves from our task of being faithful to God, of ignoring the values inculcated into the emerging generation of the midbar. If we fail to recommit to our obligations, then God will withdraw from the holy partnership with us because we will have withdrawn from it. Hosea could not be clearer: we must organise our communal responses to fulfil the vision of holy commitment to the covenant of us with God, in order to maintain the sacred partnership towards “righteousness and justice … steadfast love and compassion.”(Plaut 920) Our level of individual and communal altruism puts into contemporary practice the renewed betrothal between us and God as partners in the righteous undertaking of caring for each other.
According to the ancient criteria, most would have been excluded from God’s sacred service. Without a physical mishkan, those of us who are capable, have the obligation and opportunity to re-enact the covenant every day, not only for and within the Jewish people, but towards those with whom we share the challenges and benefits of our societies, especially and critically towards those whose names we will never know. And, to cope with the impact of these confronting realities, we seek holy solace, so as to be renewed and to continue in the battles of the everyday.