Bamidbar: Where Unity and Uniqueness Can Be Found
There have been a number of moments of unity among Torah observant Jews over the last few months. As recently as a month ago, one can point to joint statements put out by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel imploring people to not daven communally and to stay home for Pesach. Even as current guidelines diverge somewhat, we are all motivated to save lives. Another example that seems so long ago took place on the very first day of this calendar year. Nearly 100,000 Jews gathered at MetLife Stadium to celebrate the completion of the 13th Daf Yomi Cycle, in which thousands of people learned the entire Talmud in 7.5 years. (Who could imagine today that so many people could be together? Baruch Hashem we could do this safely before the virus arrived.) Both men and women learned Daf Yomi and attended the siyyum. Jews who attended included those who do not identify as Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, yeshivish, chareidi, chassidish, and whatever labels we can come up with. We were not all the same, but we were united by a purpose and value: the significance and/or centrality of Torah learning in our lives. Both of these aspects are important – nobody becomes the same after these moments, but still, Torah is our supreme unifier.
R’ Eliyahu Schlesinger, in Otzar Ha-Torah, notes that Parashat Bamidbar is often read around the same time as Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot. What is the theme that links these three? Achdut, unity.
Today, as I write, it is Yom Yerushalayim. The day celebrates two types of unity. The most apparent one is the historical event in which Yerushalayim itself was reunified. In May, 1967, one would stand near Mamila and look at the Old City from afar. In June, 1967, one could walk the mile from there to the Kotel Maaravi. “Zeh ha-yom asah Hashem, nagila v’nismecha vo” – what could bring more joy than the unification that allowed us to get as close as one can to the site of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, (to be rebuilt speedily in our days)? The second type of unity is found in the inherent nature of Yerushalayim. ירושלים הבנויה כעיר שחברה לה יחדיו – Jerusalem built up, a city connected together (Psalms 122:3). The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that Yerushalayim is that which makes Jews friends with one or another. It is true prescriptively, in that this is the purpose of Yerushalayim. As the place of choice for the residence of the shechina (as described in the Torah reading for the second day of Shavuot), Yerushalayim is designed to be a place that brings Jews together. It is also true descriptively that Yerushalayim does, in fact, serve as a connector for Jews. Around the world, Jews may not know the ins and outs of various communities in Eretz Yisrael, but most can sentimentally identify with the Old City and the Kotel as symbols of Zionism. Going to the Kotel is a highlight of Birthright trips; whether or not one is strictly religious, it is a special, spiritual moment. For many individuals and families, pictures by the Kotel are extremely precious. When one davens at the Kotel, one might hear Nusach Ashkenaz, Nusach Sefard, Nusach Eidot Ha-Mizrach, or Nusach Ari, but they are all there. We are not all the same, but we have a place that unites us, and that is Yerushalayim.
Shavuot is also a day that brings out unity. Famously, the arrival of B’nei Yisrael at Har Sinai is portrayed in the following pasuk: ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר, “he(?)” encamped near the mountain (Shemot 19:2). Most verses that describe the travels of B’nei Yisrael are the ones that get glossed over; there is not much to elaborate. But Rashi notices that the verb for “encamped” is in the singular, and explains profoundly that this must not mean that it was literally one person who encamped. Instead, it speaks of the spiritual state of B’nei Yisrael, that they encamped “as one person with one heart” – כאיש אחד בלב אחד . Now, we often don’t speak of the rest of Rashi’s comment, which admits that the rest of the encampments took place with charged disputes. What do we make of this disparity between the one moment of unity versus the other moments of disunity? Disagreement is a hallmark of human interaction. It is normal, and sometimes very healthy, when done right. We do not always need to think, feel, and believe the same things. A cursory description of תורה שבעל פה includes an acknowledgment of halachic disagreements, שבעים פנים לתורה (seventy facets of Torah), and אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים – that multiple approaches can reflect an accurate understanding of God’s revelation. But we also need an anchor as a nation. If we are different, what holds us together? Torah. We heard the same revelation and received the same Torah. How we interpret and apply it becomes a matter of difference over time. But the significance of Matan Torah and arriving at Har Sinai is that we have that starting point that we share. At the Siyum Ha-Shas, we saw the gathering of people who have different customs and halachic opinions. Even within the Daf Yomi, not everyone learned with the same approach to learning and interpreting the Gemara. But even with all of those differences, we could come together to celebrate Talmud Bavli. We still have that focal point where we can be “k’ish echad b’lev echad.” Likewise, we are currently in the midst of some machloket regarding the proper application of health and legal guidelines for the resuming of minyanim. But we also saw throughout this time, rabbanim of all hashkafic stripes acted together to urge the preservation of life. Still today, both those who currently support and do not support the creation of minyanim are united by a desire to preserve life, which is the essence of Torah. We say every day כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה' אלקינו תורת חיים… at Har Sinai, Hashem gave us a Torah of life. This Torah of life holds us together.
Finally, tomorrow, we mark Shabbat through the parasha of Bamidbar. The details enumerate the individuals included in each tribe, the way the camp of B’nei Yisrael was set up, and how they traveled. But within the details, we find some important messages. The Torah tells us: אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ: “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” (Bamidbar 2:2). It is remarkable that each tribe had its own banner. Rashi specifies that each banner had its own color, and no two tribes had similar colors. Colors are often invoked as a way of demonstrating uniqueness. Meanwhile, a “banner” itself often symbolizes a unique vision and mission. To extrapolate from Rashi, it is not just that each tribe had a different color on their banner, but they each have their own unique banner in terms of what makes them unique. Each tribe has its own unique characteristics, emphases, and approaches. It brings out the אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים in B’nei Yisrael – that there can be legitimately different communities and flavors of lived Torah experiences. But if everyone is different, how do we stay together? There are two points that can be made. First, we must remember what was in the middle of the camps. They did not travel in a random pattern or line; instead, the Torah says that the Ohel Mo’ed, the Mishkan, is “betoch” the camps of the tribes. What is “betoch?” It means in the middle (see Rashi, Bereishit 2:9). The center of all the different tribes and their unique banners is the Mishkan – the place where the Shechina is – and the tablets, meaning the Torah. In the same way that we said Yerushalayim is what connects us and creates our camaraderie, the Mishkan does that as well. Likewise, our shared Torah, even as interpreted and applied differently by each banner, is what keeps everyone together. That brings out the second point of how unity is maintained. Our parasha takes place a year after Matan Torah. The creation of camps and their banners can only take place a year after Har Sinai. Why? Rav Binyamin Tabory z”l explains, “First (of all), the nation as a whole had to be unified and consolidated, and only thereafter could there be any discussion of the individual characteristics of each tribe. The individuality of the tribes had to be based on some common denominator.” We needed כאיש אחד בלב אחד first and a shared experience of Torah. Only once we were grounded can we begin to split into our factions so that we would all be focused on the center: Torah. The Vayichan program organized by Yeshivat Hakotel for Sunday, May 24 shows us how different Torah thinkers from a variety of perspectives and communities can come together maintaining their uniqueness while being unified by love of Torah.
Torah principles encompass unity, and we hold achdut as an important value. Yet, even in our unity, we almost always can still find the unique banner of each individual or each individual community. The two do not need to contradict each other, but that is only as long as we are still linked through common cause and roots. Calendrically, the unity of the Jewish people through Torah and Yerushalayim remain the focal points of this time period. Situationally, it is the Torah’s emphasis on life that also anchors us all. No matter where one is davening, we can think of the Mishna we learned earlier this week that demonstrates how Yerushalayim unites us: while we ideally face Yerushalayim while we daven, even if we cannot, the important thing is that our hearts be directed towards Yerushalayim. May our sincere prayers, being offered with proper halachic guidance to keep us all healthy, reach Yerushalayim in unity and be accepted by the Shechina.