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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Better Late Than Never - Poetic Musings on the Beginning of the Book of Numbers/Be'Midbar

The name of this past week's parashah/portion, as well as the fourth book of the Torah, which began with this reading, is Be'midbar (Be’midbar /Numbers 1:1 - 4:20).  The name means "in the wilderness" and it can be found in the book of .

One ancient rabbinic commentary points out that if we change one vowel in the name of the parasha, the word במדבר be’midbar, in the wilderness, it then becomes be'midabeיr, with one who is speaking.

This is somewhat ironic, as the wilderness is usually associated with silence and solitude. However, we can imagine that the wilderness of Sinai and its surroundings must have been anything but silent, with the multitude of Israelites and others wandering through it for 40 years.

Yet, we all know that even in the midst of a chaos and cacophony one can experience silence.  It is just as true that one can experience unceasing noise in one's mind and soul while walking seemingly in solitude and silence. What determines the silence or the solitude is not one’s physical surroundings, but rather one’s inner spiritual state.

However, the English name of the book is Numbers.  This refers to the census of adult Israelite men found at the beginning of the parashah.  Judaism has long recognized the danger in reducing human beings to mere numbers,  and so has always had an aversion to counting people. 

One point about this census that has intrigued commentators for years is the fact that the individual numbers never seem to add up to the total that is found in the parashah.
Furthermore, in his commentary on the parashah the early Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev comments on the fact that the Levites are counted in a census separate from the other 11 tribes of Israel. The Levites, who serve in the Sanctuary/Mishkan, and will later serve in the Temple, have a special status. In his commentary, Levi Yitzhak reminds us that the separate census also reminds us that both Israel and Levi are within each of us. This is a concept that resonated with me as I wrote this poem about the dangers of counting, even though it’s something with which we and our society seem obsessed!.

These two poems use these two different readings and interpretations of the portion to explore possible meanings of these opening words of the book of Numbers/Be'midbar.


i.  wilderness of silence and speech

the wilderness is silent     still    serene
filled only with sounds of nature
wind rustling     sand blowing   animal footfalls    howls in the night
whispering the truth
a whole civilization lives  within this wild place
humans may go there to be at peace       alone   so we think
but this is  fantasy      ideal not real


in truth the wilderness   is filled with people
it is wild with sound    with speech    with dissent
with screams   with tears    with laughter
with joyous shouts     with words of love    with speech
it has never been silent        for 40 years
give or take    give and take
we take what we are given
        give back what has been taken
a life in the wilderness  alive with the sounds
the speech  the words   creating and destroying
people      life     worlds       filling the silence
 
this is a wild place of words     cries of revolt  and dissent
a place which swallows up rebels
in which critical words   turn a sister’s skin to white
where a chorus of complaints   fills us to bursting
words of mistrust   set us wandering
and still   words   soothe    praise     comfort
after  the death of sons    sister   brother
the loss of so many


words can also decree the death of a dream
the death of a leader     the birth of a new people


still I wish words would cease
filling the wilderness      swirling through my mind
emptying me of the ability   to be still   silent  alone
at one   with you 
 
I want a wilderness   without speech   without words
void of damnation and praise      love and hate     comfort  and  distress

I do not want   I do not need     words 
only true silence    peace     clarity 


I need a sanctuary    not a wild place
a place  where I can hear  only you  within me
in the stillness       I am able to hear the silent sounds
the whispers of the spirit   hovering around    dwelling within   us all


this is what I long for     what we all need
unfortunately    most do not know
for they cannot hear   the whisper of your voice
they can only hear    their own words
constant cacophony  striving for everything
sound and fury achieving nothing


only in subtle stillness can we find   everything    the all of the universe
only in nothingness    can we find the truth    of existence
that all is one



in this moment I wish we would all stop talking
         exile words from our lips    allowing us to return home
to the silent land    the true wilderness of the soul
where it all began  where it all continues
where we are   here   now
in present  in the moment   alone together  with you



ii. the counting


we are all here waiting     to be counted
        though most of us still do not understand why
when   the counting it is finished, it still makes no sense

numbers never really add up        as we think they will

especially with people
as we live our lives each moment

each of us is remembered        each of us is forgotten.
still       we continue to count      each day.

should we take a recount      or is once enough
after all      people are not simply numbers

to be counted     played with    manipulated
making  them say         what we want 

pretending they can tell us the truth.

in reality     numbers mean nothing

numbers are not alive         they are not the truth.
people mean something         for we are alive

we are each individuals   adding up to the ultimate number      one.
as we count each person the sum remains the same
for there is no     me     you      him      her       them
there is only one.

hearing the result of the census      the people cry out in protest

each tribe claiming their truth        that there are more
more dan         more simeon        more judah.

not realizing           all of these numbers mean nothing
they are truly in the wilderness 

the obsession with numbers only serves to confound
leading the people away from the truth      of one
more or less          these  are terms our ego creates from the need to compare

they serve only to separate us     to fracture        the reality    the unity.
wandering in this desert of numbers      comparisons     counting

they can only see what their hearts desire
they need to believe            they are more       others are less.

suddenly the levites cries out     stop      we are being ignored    
we don't count      we are not part of the whole      of the people
while the  other tribes still cry out in protest

wondering why    they are counted as less
why the levites are counted as more      special    separate     unique    holy

if they would all stop     for a moment
they would realize  the truth
this counting is foolishness      stupidity     futility
they would recognize     that we all count      because none of us counts.

our egos are  trying to deceive us   drawing us away
from the only one that does count

even today      we continue the counting      our ancestors' folly
we obsess about who is in     who is out      who is for       who against
who remains    who is banished           who matters    who does not

who counts       who does not

this obsession is the root of so much  suffering
israel     the ordinary ones       want to be counted as levites      the holy   special   unique
not realizing that both are within each of us

we are all holy and ordinary      sacred and profane
for these are mere words     our own creations
which    like counting       serve only to separate.

if we could stop counting and comparing      even for a moment
perhaps the struggling   and suffering   would end

God does not want us to count or compare
for God is the one      everything and nothing     as  are we all
for we are one with God.

counting causes the divisions which lead so many

to kill     to conquer     to destroy God's world and to separate the one.
letting go of the counting     
leads to knowing     sensing     caring     believing      loving     caring
leading us to celebrate all of  life      helping us realize      we all belong
God is one       we are     one        

the number without end       without borders     without separation,
leading us away from the wilderness of suffering     to our true home
a place of love      compassion     caring.
this is the only reality       this is the only truth       that counts

some day       hopefully soon       we will all remember this

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