[by Rabbi David Feder]
Special to Community
Over the last several years, I’ve become much more interested in family genealogy, trying to track down European ancestors, as well as both distant relatives and relatives from whom we’ve been distant in this country.
I was recently surprised when my 90-year-old father asked me if I knew whether his 93-year-old first cousin was still alive. Now, my father has a number of first cousins and this is the first time that I can ever remember him mentioning her. I spent a day looking into it and then told him that as far as I could tell, she was still alive.
When I asked him about her, he told me that when he was 8 or 9 and waiting to go to Sunday School with her, she hit him or was mean to him and he let his parents know that he wouldn’t go to Sunday School with her again. The half-forgotten petty childhood argument led to them just drifting apart.
Petty and more significant arguments about food, water, travel, sex and leadership characterize Sefer Bamidbar or the Book of Numbers and are among the reasons why it’s my favorite book in the Torah.
The characters and situations we encounter in Bamidbar are real and familiar. The complaints around the dining room table about what’s for dinner, the squabbling in the back seat of the car during a long (or not-so-long trip) or the debates about the route in the front seat, the pontificating, bloviating or the speaker simply enthralled with the sound of his or her own voice at a meeting, whether it’s the PTA, neighborhood association, synagogue or elsewhere within the Jewish community, all seem to have their antecedents in Numbers.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is easy in the abstract and makes a nice bumper sticker or t-shirt, but it’s a lot harder when you’re trying to live in a community with real people and real conflicts. The Book of Numbers shows us that our ancestors weren’t saints or one-dimensional characters, but were like us, complex characters dealing with messy and complex situations.
Sometimes they rose to the situation and triumphed as in the battles against Sihon and Og. Other times they succumbed to baser desires and fears when they denigrated the land we were promised and their ability to conquer it, supported the demagoguery of Korach, gave in to the enticements of the Midianite women or simply complained about the never-ending diet of manna. Our ancestors behaved not as we would have liked them to behave, but as we expect imperfect people to behave.
Our tradition teaches us, “maasei avot siman l’vanim” – the actions of our ancestors are a sign to their descendants. The examples of both success and falling short that we have in Sefer Bamidbar should serve as both guide and cautionary tale for the situations in which we find ourselves today as individuals and within the various communities in which we find ourselves.
We can see that when our baser desires dominate and we capitulate to human folly and foible or just take the path of least resistance, there will be long-term consequences. We can also see that communal cohesion and genuine faith in ourselves yield positive results. Even the simplest of acts and decisions can set us along a path of unimagined consequences. May we have the wisdom to weigh those decisions in the light of our ancestors’ experiences.
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Shabbat candles should be lit Fridays, June 27, at 8:52 p.m.; July 4 at 8:52 p.m.; July 11 at 8:50 p.m.; July 18 at 8:46 p.m. and July 25 at 8 p.m.
Editor’s note: Rabbi David Feder, the principal of Louisville Beit Sefer Yachad, has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.