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Drash on Parashat Bamidbar 2013

Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Emanuel School
Randwick, NSW

I don’t know how many of you have children, but mine are in love with “Spy Kids.” I recently watched “Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World” about a masked villain who was literally “stealing time” by making time speed up. One of the characters was trying to catch the “Time Keeper” and kept telling himself that he would spend more time with his children once he caught the bad guy. His partner told him that time may run out before that happens.

Coincidently, I also recently finished reading the book “The Time Keeper” by Mitch Albom (author of “Tuesday’s With Morrie”) whereby a man who invented time was cursed to hear the thoughts and prayers of people for hundreds of years all complaining about time, either wanting time to speed up or slow down. His curse was part of an elaborate modern midrash on the story of Babel. Both the movie and the book bring home the idea that counting time is both a blessing and a curse.

Parshat Bamidbar begins our reading of the fourth book in the Torah – Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers). It occurs in the very last days of our Counting of the Omer – our way of counting time. This parsha itself is also about counting. There is a tribe by tribe census of the Israelite community of those men over the age of 20 who are able to bear arms (except the Levites who were off the hook since their main job was to look after the Mishkan-the Tabernacle). There is a counting of every Levite from the age of one month and up with an explanation of their role and responsibility for the Mishkan. Finally, the parsha tells us of the ritual Pidyon Ha’Ben – the redemption of the first born whereby the non-Levite tribes must make a donation of 5 shekels to the Levites to redeem their first-born sons from service in the Mishkan. This ritual reminds us that our freedom from Egypt, through the 10th plague, was due to the loss of life on the Egyptian side.  Our “redemption money” is both a memorial to these Egyptians and a support to the Levites in their holy work. It is a reminder that time is finite, and the lives that pass through time are not. We must make both count.

The message of counting time, or people, or ages, or positions is a reminder that each person, at every age, in every position, at every moment has a purpose and must be counted. This includes every reader of this drash. Without you or them, the world will not be what it is today. The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said: “Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique....If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born." (quoted in Narrative Means for Sober Ends, by Jon Diamond, p.78”). If our existence is needed, then what we do must count for something. Our use of and valuing of time determines whether we achieve the purpose for which we have been brought into this world.

The Israelites in the parsha had one advantage over us. Their roles were clearly defined. Each of them was required to use their time in service of something bigger than themselves, including their community. Pidyon Ha’Ben is still practiced in many communities, often accompanied by a contribution to the community. Levites are replaced by those who keep our sanctuaries alive and functioning 365 days of the year, including those days when others feel no immediate need for them. It is in this service beyond ourselves where our individual sense of purpose finds itself. As Jews living in the modern Western world where individualism runs rampant, we must remember the teaching of our famous first century sage, Hillel who said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” We must ensure that what we do expresses our inner purpose, that our choices are valued and our time is well spent. We must also ensure that what we do matters to the world beyond ourselves, for we were put on this earth for a purpose and count for something.

Martin Buber recalls a Hadisic story that says: “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said "In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?” Be yourself. Make every moment count.

As we return to Mount Sinai, as Shavuot looms only days away, our parsha encourages us to ponder these questions this week. When was the last time you made your time count? When was the last time you did something new and good for yourself? When was the last time you did not put off today what you could do tomorrow? When was the last time you spent quality time with the important people in your life? When was the last time you did something that made a positive difference for someone else? When was the last time you did something for a greater purpose? If not now, when?

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