In Parashat Bamidbar, the Torah tells us how to construct a community that has God and Torah at its center. God’s command, “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8), is now given true shape as the Children of Israel depart from Mount Sinai and begin to move as a community and settle as a camp. The Sanctuary, the place of God’s presence, is in the center of the camp, and the tribes, each with its individual banner and distinct position, are arranged around it.
First, we learn that after we have departed from Mount Sinai, when we are engaged in the activities of encountering the world, we must remain oriented towards God and God’s presence in our midst. Whether we are encamped or marching, whether our lives are stable or in transition, we must always strive to direct our actions towards serving God. We must realize that to describe where we are in life, where we are encamped, is to describe where we are in relation to the goals of kedusha and to God. But we also learn that we need never enter the Temple to have God in our midst. Some people will seek to enter the Temple on a regular basis, others may only enter once a year or even never, but all of these people can have God in his or her midst.
Further, we learn that to be a people is not to be a homogenous mass; unity is not to be confused with uniformity. True unity, a cohesive community, comes from respecting differences: “each person on his banner,” each tribe with its distinctive qualities preserved. Some are on the left, some on the right, some north, and some south. What holds them together is a shared commitment to respect each other’s boundaries, to value their distinctive banners, their diversity, and to exist together as one people with a shared orientation towards God’s presence in their midst.
The final lesson is one of accessibility. True, a small number of impure people were temporarily excluded from the Sanctuary during their period of impurity, and the Levites comprised the innermost ring around the Sanctuary. Nevertheless, any person had the ability to enter the Levite camp and even the Sanctuary itself. All the people participated in making the Sanctuary, and all the people had access to it and a part in it.
Just as the Sanctuary was accessible, so was the leadership. Moses’ tent was no longer outside the camp; it was in the very center of it, open to all who would come. Only in a camp where every individual understood that he or she counted and had a right to engage and be heard could those who were impure say to Moshe, “Why should we be excluded from bringing God’s sacrifice in its appointed time?” (Bamidbar 9:7). Only in such a camp could the daughters of Tzelafchad approach Moshe and say, “Why should our father’s name be excluded from his family, because he has no son? Give us a portion together with the brothers of our father!” (Bamidbar 27:4). Only in such a camp could inclusion be assumed and exclusion be seen as a profound affront. And only in a camp led by a leader such as Moshe would the response not be condemnation and silencing, but a humble bringing of these just concerns before God.
This is the model of a camp with God at its center, and it must be our model for a Jewish community. To build such a community we need a laity that embraces these values and leaders who embody them. A leadership that embodies these values is accessible. It is a leadership that believes in unity through diversity, not through sameness. It is a leadership committed to ensuring that all are included, that no one is rejected or left outside the camp. Sadly, there are those in positions of rabbinic leadership who do not share this vision, who believe that the only Jews who count are those who fit a narrow definition, one that is getting narrower each day. Such is a leadership is fearful of diversity, believing that unity can come only if all Jews act and believe exactly the same way—their way.
The leadership that should be our standard is of a different sort. It is a leadership that spreads God’s Torah in a way that teaches respect for all Jews. It is a leadership that teaches that Jews who never enter the Sanctuary can still have God in their midst if they orient their lives towards God in ways that are less obvious or ritualistic. It is a leadership that values and respects difference and diversity and believes that we are enriched by it. In a world where small-mindedness and intolerance are rife, where Jewish identity and shared values are elusive concepts, it is no small matter for a community to embrace this alternate vision, and asking a leader, a rabbi, to help shape such a community may seem like asking the impossible. But in striving to achieve this vision, we will do much to transform the Jewish community and our respect for one another.
Building on the foundation of diversity and respect, we can create a welcoming and accessible community that builds bridges rather than walls, that reaches out to those who are marginalized or who have been excluded. It will be a community that believes that any Jew—regardless of denomination, background, observance, sexual orientation, skin color, ability of sight, mobility, or neurotypical status—has a fundamental right to be included, to find his or her place in our camp. It will be a community that is exquisitely attuned to the cry of “why should I be excluded?!,” verbalized or non-verbalized, and that will remove any obstacle and create any accommodation to ensure that everyone is present and valued.
And it will be a community whose leadership is accessible, humble, and responsive. At a time when rabbinic leadership as a whole is becoming more authoritarian and unbending, the leadership that we most desperately need has pride for the Torah and the tradition that it represents, but with humility, it also seeks participation and collaboration. The community needs leaders who can admit their mistakes and learn from them. Such leaders, in the end, are loved and respected all the more.
This type of camp, this type of community, along with the leadership required to create it, will truly fulfill God’s command: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”