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.
Who am I? Life is a spiritual journey, with markers and milestones on the way.
Seldom, if ever, do we take the shortest or most direct line between two
points. Each individual life journey is as circuitous and confusing as the
wanderings of the children of Israel in the Sinai. The path emerges as we
walk. On the other hand, even the most wandering journey implies an aim and
direction. Certain trails have been tread by those who came before us.
Each of us travels the path from spiritual slavery--our own certainty of
misery--to personal liberation. Each of us must flee a different Egypt. For
some it is drugs, alcohol, abuse, fear of failure, or rejection. For others it
is loss, separation, loneliness, materialism, lack of meaning. Each of us
must wander in our own wilderness of Sinai, seeking those rare moments of
revelation, maturing as we face challenge. We travel from inner census to
inner census, each of us at some time taking stock of where we have been and
who we are.
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.