Beloved Friends, 

This week we begin reading from the Book of Numbers. The book picks up the narrative interrupted by the book of Leviticus. At the end of Exodus, the Israelites have just completed the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary through which God was to be worshipped during their wilderness sojourn. 

As we pick up the narrative, God commands Moses to take a census and then gives specific instructions as to how the Israelite camp was to be organized around the Mishkan at each stop they would make on their journey to the Promised Land. The arrangement of the tribes is described in great detail. This detail is a red flag indicating that there is much more going on than simply laying out the plan for each encampment. 

My daughter, Anna, is an urban planner. Much of her work is in the area of sustainability. Specifically, she works with communities trying to do better with transportation. Anna sees exactly what happens when a plan is set before execution and what happens when there is no plan. A good transportation plan allows for a community to thrive in a healthy way. God, the very first urban planner, had this in mind. Each tribe had its specific spot identified before they embarked on their journey from Sinai to the Promised Land with the Mishkan. Each tribe was able to feel their connection to God through the Mishkan and their connection to the community by having a designated spot for themselves within the community. 

Moses, in our Torah portion, was first told to take note of each individual by their tribe to let each individual know that they counted. Then, each tribe was assigned a place around the Mishkan to affirm their connection to God and to one another. Several chapters from now, Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, will pronounce a blessing over the Israelites upon seeing the arrangement of the tribes around the Mishkan. 

Balaam, hired to curse and thus weaken the Israelites by Balak, the King of Moab, is unable to do anything but bless the Israelites. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” What do these words mean? Is Balaam struck by the beauty of the structures themselves? Is it possible that Balaam was in awe of the architecture? 

No, according to our sages of blessed memory, Balaam was in awe of the great care each family took in setting up their sukkah. In such a crowded camp more than six hundred thousand in number, Balaam took note that the entrances and windows of each dwelling were set up to ensure that each family could have privacy. The respect that people had for one another was reflected not only in following God’s plan but in how they honored their connection to one another. Knowing that each individual counted, that each one was a reflection of God, fueled the respect with which they treated one another. 

Beloved friends, as we continue to move through the pandemic, let us be mindful of the message of this week’s Torah portion, the message of respect. We are very fortunate to have planned successfully how to keep each other safe, first shutting down the building when that was called for, then allowing for limited in-person experiences with masks and physical distancing to now having a mask optional policy. Respect has been the critical element to our success and continued efforts to keep people as safe and healthy as we can. Respect calls us to be non-judgmental of people’s choices based on their own feeling of comfort to be in-person or digital, masked or unmasked. 

As we continue to move forward, may it be said of us, ‘How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.’ 

Shabbat Shalom,