We enter the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, commonly known as Numbers, encountering, as we would expect from the title – the importance of taking a census. Yet, this book also goes by the Hebrew title, B’Midbar, which means, In the Wilderness.
When our ancestors entered the lonely, difficult world of the wilderness, indeed when we are in what for us is wilderness, the text invites us to consider what we must do to protect ourselves, what we should hold most dear, and what we must do to be strong to go on.
The first step is to take a census for the principal purpose of organizing an army to protect and serve the community. Whether it’s for defense of the community or for our own physical or spiritual self-defense, isn’t it vital in the most important ways to number those assets that will protect and defend us from whatever attack that is leveled against us? Only by being secure and protected can we and the broader community be properly structured so that we can best support the community and the community can best support us.
And what is at the core of what we must protect at all costs? At the center of the community are the ark, the tent, and holy objects. They represent our fundamental principles. They define who we are at our highest level and who we ideally must seek to be. They represent what matters most – our establishing sacred space to draw close to God, our living true to our covenant with the Divine, and our having the blessing of God’s nearness.
We take another census to count the Levites who will maintain and operate this sacred space. In our own lives, this may be symbolic of our seeking and numbering those elements of our being and our will that will maintain and support our souls in ways that are true to our mission. When we’re lonely, when we are tempted, when we wonder about the meaning and duty of our lives – all things that perplex us in the wilderness – what do we summon to help guide and guard our best selves to make it through?
There are lessons in these censuses in the wilderness. It is in God’s steadfast word and our covenant with God where we find our strength and direction. The hard work of counting and organizing and protecting this legacy and what’s central to its mission is essential to success in our life’s journey and what the Bible teaches us in this text.