by Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant

Last week’s Torah Parsha (BECHUKOTAI) was the final portion in the Book of LEVITICUS. The entire Book of LEVITICUS provided us with dozens of commandments, directives, and sins; with corresponding punishments if any of God’s laws were disobeyed. Parsha (BECHUKOTAI) was particularly harsh, in the terror and curses, which would befall the nation of Israelites, should they fail to honor their mission as a holy nation (1).

In the first Book of Numbers (BAMIDBAR), plans are being made to dismantle the Tabernacle and to re-build it further into the wilderness. First, God spoke to Moses in the second year after the Exodus, saying: “Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families, following their father’s house. Lift up their heads as you count them” (2).

In Judaism, taking a census must always be done in such a way to signal that we are all valued as individuals. “To lift someone’s head means to show them favor, to recognize them; it is a gesture of love” (3).

It is logical to question both the objective of the census, as well as the move of the Tabernacle further into the wilderness, as opposed to transporting it to the ‘Promised Land’. The census was not only a ‘count’ of the Israelites, according to family tribe; but, also a look into their souls and hearts to evaluate their commitment to God and the nation of Israel, should war become imminent.

It is highly likely that they would be attacked by a neighboring nation, once they reached the ‘Holy Land’, if for no other reason than the uniqueness of their faith.

After only one year, living in the wilderness, the Israelites certainly did not have the wherewithal of governance of a mature society. Even as slaves in Egypt, they were exposed to commerce, social interaction, and a daily routine.

There are other unique aspects of the desert experience, specifically: isolation. Normally, societies are influenced by the ideas, mores, and behaviors of other societies – – either, consciously or subconsciously. The newly-freed slaves, at the dawn of their national history, may not have had the will-power, or experience to withstand negative influences from the pagan societies, which they would encounter in the land of Canaan.

Upon reflection of the psychological framework of the Israelites, it somewhat clarifies why God chose the isolation of the desert, for the period of incubation. The Israelites needed time alone in the desert to achieve a full understanding of God and the nature of His commandments.

Our willingness to follow God through the desert is the foundation stone of our relationship with Him; and, it is what compels God to forgive our lapses in judgment, which has maintained our relationship with Him throughout history.


(1) LEVITICUS (26:14-36)

(2) NUMBERS (1:2)

(3) Maimonides