Who am I? This is a question most of us ask ourselves at some time or another during our lives. What have I accomplished? Where am I going? We often ask these questions when we are embarking on a new endeavor, in a period of transition, or perhaps at some life milestone: starting college, changing jobs, celebrating a child's wedding, mourning the death of a friend or parent. Evaluating one's life, taking stock of achievements and setting goals, is part of maintaining a sense of self and personal identity.
This is true for groups as well as individuals. "Have you filled out your census form?" was a familiar refrain on the radio not so long ago. Every 10 years, the residents of the United States engage in a time-consuming, expensive, and slightly annoying process to find out who we are. We fill out forms and take part in interviews to identify ourselves by race, educational background, gender, geographical area, marital status, and profession. Why do we bother? In part, we engage in this process to plan our logistical future: to re-map voting districts, provide information for emergency preparations, allocate resources for improved highways and airports. But we also just want to know who we are as a group: How many of us are native born? How many of us are retired? How many of us have nowhere to sleep each night? Where have we been and where are we going as a country? The census gives us a defined sense of ourselves as one united people, however diverse.
This week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, asks the question, "Who am I?" for the first generation of the Jewish nation. It describes an exhaustive census of the Jews who fled Egypt. This is a group of people who repeatedly and publicly yearn to return to safety even if it means a return to slavery, a powerful example of psychologist Virginia Satir's remark that people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty. As they prepare for their journey in the wilderness, the leaders of the community want to establish a sense of national identity. So they physically arrange themselves according to tribe and number their adult population.This portion's census is complemented by a second counting (Numbers 26) toward the end of this biblical book. The later census is of the generation ready to settle in Israel as a free people. The narrative as a whole, from census to census, relates the psychological journey of the Jewish people in the wilderness as they move spiritually from slavery to freedom. Through the formative experiences during their wanderings, the ragtag mixed multitude of slaves who fled Egypt is forged into a cohesive religious community.
The stories after this first portion of taking inventory imply it is not enough to be merely passively freed; maturation is a process of becoming free. Thus, the wilderness of the Sinai desert is both the setting for this moral development and a metaphor for the ethical wilderness within the hearts of the former slaves as they seek holiness. The desert is a place of danger and deprivation--hunger, thirst, raging fires, vicious predators--but also of miraculous growth and creativity--talking beasts, rocks that spurt water, food that falls from the sky! The Book of Numbers recounts (and literally counts) an epic journey--from Egypt to Israel, from generation to generation, from slavery to freedom, but most important, from doubt to faith. The census of this week's portion underscores the fact that such a journey begins through the process of self-awareness and evaluation.