This month is my future son-in-law’s birthday: 5-21-21. Two days later, on 5-23-21, I will have been married for 40 years and all 9 of our immediate family will gather for 8 days to celebrate. Numbers, numbers, where would we be without them?
This month, we read from the Book of Numbers. Numbers, the fourth book in the Torah, is so called because it focuses much on the number of men whose service was required to build and transport the Mishkan, or Sanctuary, as we wandered through the desert; it also tells us about who carried what as we traversed the wilderness. All told, 8,580 men were assigned duties based on the families from which they came. The Gershonites, the sons of Gershon, who numbered 2,630, were to carry the coverings, the curtains, the screens, the hangings and the cords; the Merarites, the sons of Merari, numbering 3,200, were to carry the solid parts of the Tabernacle, the boards, the bars, the pillars and the pins; and the Kohathites, the sons of—you guessed it—Kohath, who numbered 2,750, were responsible for carrying the holy objects, those things used during our rituals in the Sanctuary, and for keeping them covered for security purposes and out of reverence due such sacred objects.
Each man between the ages of thirty and fifty had a specific job to do to ensure that we got from place to place and that, as we arrived at each stopping point, the camp was set up according to plan. And, each person was named to his particular task.
Perhaps the same holds for each of us. Judaism teaches that each individual has a specific mission to accomplish and that we were each placed here for that particular purpose. As with our ancestors in the desert, it’s truly amazing what we can accomplish when we take our tasks seriously and work cooperatively as we do so.
Today, we are also facing a journey, albeit of a different flavor, along with the challenges inherent in entering any unexplored territory. And our numbers also tell a story. As of the end of last month, 148,859,866 people contracted Covid-19; in the United States, one third of us have experienced measurable mental health issues; as of December of this past year, over 3 million people lost their jobs in the hospitality industry alone and close to 800,000 people in the arts and entertainment sector became unemployed.
This is the time for us to carry. Just as the Levites each bore a responsibility to transport the Tabernacle and bring us closer to the Promised Land, so, too, are we obligated to bring sanctuary (small s) to those with whom we share the planet.
Food banks are calling out to us to help feed our neighbors and their children, many of whom go hungry when school cafeterias are closed; virtual tutors are needed to support students whose parents are stymied by the new math—or the old math, for that matter; shelters for the newly homeless are in need of bedding, toiletries and socks; our elderly friends, those unable to get out, might really appreciate our run to the pharmacy or market; and those isolated like never before might truly relish a phone call, text or virtual visit.
Moses received instructions from G-d and handed them to us so we could accomplish the very important job of constructing and moving the Tabernacle so many years ago. No book today, though, directs us in rebuilding our universe. It’s up to each one of us to dig down into our own soul, our spirit—what some of us might call conscience—and to discern our place in carrying the collective load. No task is a small one; remember, it took someone carrying a curtain rod to build the Mishkan.
8,580 men built and carried the Sanctuary and every single one mattered—as does everyone reading these words. As we navigate the Book of Numbers, rather than solely counting every person, perhaps we must look around and ensure that every person counts.