"The Israelites' encampment in the wilderness, guided by God in the form of a pillar of smoke" by J.J. Derghi, 1866
"The Israelites' encampment in the wilderness, guided by God in the form of a pillar of smoke" by J.J. Derghi, 1866

Cultural conformity on the road to Canaan

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 1:1–4:20

The Book of Exodus describes how God reveals the covenantal laws to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. The Book of Leviticus then instructs the Israelites on the laws of sacrifice, purity and ethics, meant to enable the Jewish people to settle and thrive in the Promised Land.

The Book of Numbers, which begins with this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, takes a different course. It chronicles Israel’s journey, from Sinai to the Jordan River — the very threshold of the Holy Land, where the people will ultimately live out those laws.

This narrative of the wanderings of the Jewish people covers 38 years.

Numbers follows the movement of God’s presence from the stationary center of Sinai to the portable and mobile Tabernacle, signifying the evolving relationship between God and the Jewish people. This divine presence is visible as a cloud by day and as fire by night.

As God’s fire cloud descends on the ark whenever God desires to address Moses, the ark represents a tangible witness to the divine presence.

The ark is flanked by winged cherubim, suggesting that God is not restricted or confined to the ark except when God descends on it and communes with the people of Israel. God’s relationship with Israel is dynamic; it changes as they themselves change on their journey.

The Israelites have a long way to go, and grow, before they reach the Promised Land. Throughout the Book of Numbers, the Israelites are described as a petulant, complaining people, incessantly challenging Moses and regularly expressing their desire to return to Egypt.

Despite their liberation from bondage, the revelation at Sinai and the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites come across as stunningly unappreciative.

In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Book of Numbers contrasts “the people of Israel as it actually is” to “the ideal to which was summoned in [Leviticus].” The generation of the Exodus is far from God’s vision of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So how will the Israelites ever be worthy of, and prepared for, life in the Holy Land?
Most of them won’t.
The generation of the Exodus, as well as their great leader Moses, die off before reaching the land of Canaan. But the Torah ends on a note of hope — a new generation of Israelites stands poised to enter the Promised Land.

While this younger generation is more of a blank slate than the older one (they are bolder, less encumbered by the anxious, fearful slave mentality of their parents), they still face some unique challenges that will make life in the Holy Land as complex as was life in the wilderness.

Although this new generation of Israelites has never known slavery, they have also never known the direct experience of God at Mount Sinai, or the revelation of the covenant. The laws and rituals they are obligated to observe now are an inherited tradition, not a firsthand memory.

In a similar way, these ancient Jews are much like we Jews today. Many modern Jews do not feel as obligated by tradition as did our forebears. The whole notion of analyzing, questioning and often critiquing inherited ideas and norms is a core foundation of modern thought.

Further, Jews today generally do not live in self-enclosed communities anymore, which makes social pressure and cultural conformity a far less powerful force than it was for the many centuries that Jews lived in close proximity in ghettos and shtetls throughout the world.

Being a “good Jew,” even when living in the Holy Land, has always been hard. Have there been times when I wished it was easier to be a Jew as faithful to and exacting about our religious traditions as it might have been in antiquity? Of course.

But I am not willing to give up my intellectual autonomy or my personal freedom. I will not turn a blind eye to the treasures of other spiritual traditions. I embrace both the particularism of Judaism and the unique ideas and practices of other peoples and cultures across the globe.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."