Census-taking. Number crunching. Head-counts. The material is...well...a bit dry; slim pickings, homiletically speaking. Pulpit rabbis are saved by the fact that, in most years, this parasha immediately precedes Shavuot, so there's lots to talk about there: the Shloshet Y'mei Hagbalah, the three days of preparation prior to the giving of the Torah, etc.
But not this year. We are compelled, by the calendar as it were, to spend time reflecting on Parashat Bamidbar on its own terms. Here's some food for thought.
This census was taken on the 1st day of Iyar in the second year of our departure from Egypt. In those 13 months, we had come a relatively short distance, but a very long way.
We departed from Egypt as an undisciplined rabble; it was a scene of barely controlled chaos. One can imagine the frenzy of the departure: people running, screaming, arms waving wildly in the air; the strong moving faster, the weak falling behind, parents desperately trying to keep their families together amid the balagan; mules, camels, wagons, the nobility all moving at their own pace. The Torah states that the cowardly Amalekites attacked the stragglers: the oldest, weakest and most tired of the pack.
Fast forward to our parasha, the 1st of Iyar, barely a year later. We have received the Torah from Gcd at Mount Sinai - an ethical/legal code unparalleled in the history of human civilization. We have a functioning judiciary. We have an executive triumvirate in the form of Moshe, Aharon & Miriam.
We have an established an orderly community: three concentric circles composed of the Mishkan/the Tabernacle, surrounded by Machaneh Levi'im/the Levite encampment surrounded by Machaneh Yisrael/ the Israelite encampment, organized by tribe, clan and family, each with its own standard fluttering proudly in the breeze.
We have an order of march - never again will the the weak and the stragglers be left behind. We have an efficient system for disassembling, transporting and re-assembling the Mishkan, itself a marvel of engineering. We have a system of communications with the shofarot and the silver trumpets.
And most important of all, we have the Shechinah, the palpable presence of the A-lmighty dwelling in our midst, with a pillar of cloud to lead us by day, and a pillar of fire to lead us by night.
We've come a long way, baby.
Our work at Sinai is now completed. In the space of a year, we have imposed order on the chaos and built a functioning society. We are ready to go, to begin our campaign to reclaim the Land of Israel. But before we move out, we take stock. We do a head count; we take a moment to reflect on where we've been before we write the next chapter of the history of the Jewish people.
Sometimes life is not all about the next achievement, the next milestone, the next sales goal. It's important once in a while to take a step back and look at where we've been. If you don't know where you've been, how can you know where you're going?
Every Friday evening on my walk to Kabbalat Shabbat, I try to reflect on the week that was. And we have a little custom in our family that during Shabbat dinner, before we sing, even before we share words of Torah, we go around the table and everyone shares at least one good thing that happened to them this week.
So perhaps the message of Bamidbar is to take time out once in a while (maybe once a week? - hint hint) to reflect on our successes and and setbacks, and thus prepare ourselves for the great things that are no doubt coming our way.