Covenant & Con­ver­sa­tion Num­bers: The Wilder­ness Years

  • Review
By – July 14, 2017

Rab­bi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rab­bi Emer­i­tus of the Unit­ed Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tions of the British Com­mon­wealth, has recent­ly pub­lished a com­pendi­um of short essays on the week­ly Torah read­ings for the book of Num­bers. This vol­ume com­ple­ments sim­i­lar books that he has writ­ten on the books of Gen­e­sis, Exo­dus, and Leviti­cus, with the entire set of Torah com­men­tary soon to be com­plet­ed by a forth­com­ing vol­ume on Deuteron­o­my. This book, the lat­est in the series, includes four to six essays for each of Num­bers’ Parash­iot, as well as an inter­est­ing intro­duc­to­ry essay con­tain­ing sev­en impor­tant exeget­i­cal prin­ci­ples that per­tain specif­i­cal­ly to this book of the Torah.

In his intro­duc­tion , Rab­bi Sacks writes that Num­bers: “…is a key text for our time. It is among the most search­ing, self-crit­i­cal books in all of lit­er­a­ture about what Nel­son Man­dela referred to as the long walk to free­dom.’ Its mes­sage is that there is no short­cut to lib­er­ty.” He expands upon this theme both in essays specif­i­cal­ly ded­i­cat­ed to this con­cept (“Time as a Fac­tor in Pol­i­tics” , and The Long Walk to Free­dom”) as well as in his numer­ous appli­ca­tions of the dis­tinc­tion made by. Ronald Heifetz between tech­ni­cal” and adap­tive lead­er­ship.” The for­mer chal­lenge mere­ly calls upon the leader to solve objec­tive prob­lems as they present them­selves to the nation, some­thing that Moses com­pe­tent­ly addressed in the books of Exo­dus and Leviti­cus. The lat­ter, which becomes the dom­i­nant chal­lenge of the book of Num­bers as the peo­ple pre­pare to enter the Promised Land, requires find­ing ways to influ­ence the entire Jew­ish nation to change and evolve in order to address new real­i­ties. This role proved much more dif­fi­cult for Moses. In Lead­er­ship and the Art of Pac­ing,” Rab­bi Sacks con­vinc­ing­ly argues why as the Jews were emerg­ing from their for­mer slave men­tal­i­ty” and becom­ing more inde­pen­dent, Joshua was now more able to serve as the prop­er leader for the people.

Anoth­er theme that Rab­bi Sacks f high­lights in his intro­duc­tion and invokes on numer­ous occa­sions through­out many of the essays, is how the inter­play between bib­li­cal dis­cus­sions of law fol­lowed by nar­ra­tive, serves as an impor­tant coun­ter­point. for while not negat­ing man’s free will, it nev­er­the­less attempts to impose a mod­icum of order upon the some­times anar­chi­cal ten­den­cies with­in human beings’ social organization.

Through­out this vol­ume on Num­bers, as in the many oth­er works he has pub­lished on var­i­ous top­ics over the years, Rab­bi Sacks’s con­sid­er­able eru­di­tion is evi­denced through his numer­ous ref­er­ences to atyp­i­cal pri­ma­ry Jew­ish sources as well as to var­i­ous philoso­phers, ethi­cists, social sci­en­tists, and polit­i­cal thinkers. Also of inter­est are mul­ti­ple ref­er­ences to the same pri­ma­ry source, with dif­fer­ent emphases being placed in light of the spe­cif­ic con­text in which the source is being used.

This work by Rab­bi Sacks offers a great deal of food for thought regard­ing major top­ics in the book of Num­bers, that should enhance a great many individual’s appre­ci­a­tion not only of this book of the Bible, but also of major themes in Jew­ish thought and how such mat­ters per­tain to our con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence. It is high­ly recommended.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions