Parashat baMidbar — 5771 — ” A Room of One’s Own”

31/05/2011 at 09:10 Leave a comment

“A Room of One’s Own”

Parashat Bamidbar

Neil F. Blumofe

28 May 2011

In 1929, the modernist author, Virginia Woolf, wrote a long essay entitled, A Room of One’s Own, which argues for a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary culture and tradition dominated by men.  This essay is considered to be highly influential in helping to shift sensibilities and expectations in the male dominated profession of writing and criticism, helping to open the door for future generations of aspirant and ambitious women in literature and in many other professions as well.


This week’s Torah portion concentrates on assigning each tribe a space in which they can move through the wilderness with a minimum of conflict with each other and to maximize their efforts should they be encountered and attacked by others.    The areas were predetermined around the mishkan, or the Tabernacle, which was at the center – as the children of Israel walked, they would form a protective ring around it, both guarding it and also, according to our sages, drawing inspiration from it as they moved.


By all accounts, the mishkan was physical, an intensely physical object, that radiated relationship – and as much as modern Judaism and post-modern Judaism equivocate through ingenious metaphor, unlike the center of the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the Beit haMikdash which was constructed later in time, the holiness at the center of the wandering in the desert and when encamped was occupied by a substantial and corporal presence – an existential thing that had to be negotiated – dismantled at each campsite and reassembled when on the march – it required the cooperation and the support of all of the tribes – without public rancor, which would lead to chaos and the failure of the system.


For example, the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zevulun had to walk together everyday to the east of the mishkan, regardless of their relationship with each other and if they felt that they wanted to be in the north, next to Naftali, or in the middle, next to Moses and Aaron.  For better or for worse, this was the system in which they moved – even if they desired another, each tribe had a room of one’s own – a safe place from which emanated association and bonding with the rest of the nation, the outside world and with God.


What would happen if this place, or this room was unstable?  If on an ordinary day, someone from the tribe of Judah went to the accustomed place, getting ready to go forth, and found someone from the tribe of Simeon there, because he liked the view, or wanted that vantage point, or wanted to be with another friend, or for some other reason?  Does the one from Judah then attack Simeon – does he appeal to Moses and Aaron, or the entire b’nei Yisrael for resolution?  Does he accept his fate and go join another tribe, living in exile and estrangement from his people?  Is this idea of people with an allocated dwelling just a quaint idea whose time has come and gone?  In our enlightened age, do boundaries matter?  Should one feel ashamed for even thinking that they do?


Earlier this week on Facebook, I posted, without commentary, a quote from the speech of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel that he gave Tuesday before members of the United States Congress.  He said, as he referred to words that he and all Israelis long to hear: “‘I will accept a Jewish state.’  Those six words will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.  With those six words the Israeli people will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise.  I will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise.”


While many weighed in with a like, there ensued among people who did not know each other – all either identified as Jews or former students of mine — a vociferous debate which quickly turned nasty and personal.  To me, the idea within this quote – that others recognize that a Jewish state should have a room of one’s own is the foundation for all movement going forward.  One can tweak and qualify Virginia Woolf’s idea, just as one can and should critique anything – however, not to accept this idea of a safe and secure room of one’s own is a non-starter – there cannot be any debate about boundaries if the presupposition is that a country or a people cannot reside in freedom and peace.


While there are many other important ideas, which must be explored and pondered – they are secondary — it is this idea of sovereignty that is paramount and is a baseline – is common currency for other difficult discussions that define a nation, that establish relationships and expectations between neighbors, and out in the world.


In our study of the Book of Numbers, we rediscover that the generations in the desert essentially wandered in formation until the entire generation that escaped from slavery in Egypt died out – must we wait until an entire generation of people are released from the shackles of fundamentalism, radicalism, and extremism?  Must we delay getting to the many next necessary questions that in encountering strenuous and difficult challenges serve to uplift a state and inspire a people, if we are certain that any compromises will result in more missiles launched, more terrorist activity, and more inflammatory exhortations to dehumanize and destroy the Jewish people?


If the Jewish people are not safe in their homes in Israel, they are not safe in their homes anywhere else in the world.  This idea — to have a room of one’s own is the beginning of the conversation – it is not embedded in future talks about other critical things – the mishkan would have never moved forward if the tribes were fighting over position and our story would have ended in the barren land.


So, if we can stand in no doubt that our children can ride buses safely or sleep in their beds safely, then we can, in the words of the Prime Minister, begin to make far-reaching compromises – and until that day we cannot rest and we, because of that fatigue, react with bluster and heavy handedness and vitriol. Let us rest.  Let us pray for discernment and for insight borne on the wings of wellbeing and God willing, a peace that comes in the shifting of our world – through the recognition that all in this world must have a hand in moving the mishkan towards a guaranteed destination and all must have secure and sheltered ground on which to walk while doing so.


Shabbat Shalom.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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