This week, as we begin the book of Bamidbar, we find the Israelites continuing their journey through the wilderness of Sinai. Still nomadic and not yet settled in the land of Israel, the tribes are given guidelines for a complex and intricate census system that categorizes based on ancestral lineage. The first of two censi, this creates a more robust social order—one that will be counted and categorized once more later in Numbers. Indeed, it is rather curious that this system is being created here and now, while they are still bamidbar—in the wilderness. It would stand to reason that a complex society could be established once the Israelites themselves are established. Why try to create order amidst such chaos?
Order amidst chaos appears here not only in the form of a census. The parashah itself begins with a familiar phrase: “God spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai.” Never to use extraneous words, the text specifies that the location of this holy conversation—this transmission from God to the people by way of Moses—was the midbar, the chaotic and wild desert. The Mekhilta d’Rashbi explains in its commentary:
The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it.
In this moment of deep uncertainty and liminality of identity, the Israelites are given the powerful tools of Torah and of community; both of which may be sources of wisdom, comfort, and guidance on their continued journey. The instinct to create order amidst chaos—whether it be through grounding and supportive systems of relationship or through the grounding words of our tradition—seeking meaningful ways to find order in chaos is a central act of communal survival.
As we continue our journey through our own midbar—our own wilderness—may we remember that Torah is indeed for all of us, and that the structures of our own holy community are there for us, as sources of strength, support, and divine connection.