Strangers in The World
As long as they were slaves, the Children of Israel could complain, “I, a stranger and afraid in a world I never made,” to quote Housman, a common complaint of children, and a frequent lament of many who feel displaced in the community. Perhaps as they approached Sinai, no matter how protected and supported by God, they continued to feel powerless in building their own world. When they would eventually enter the Land of Israel they would have to first conquer a world not their own, and then plant fields and build a land in which many of the factors were imposed, not their own. It is almost impossible to imagine being able to feel that all of my reality is my own. Except…
for the Children of Israel in the desert; Bamidbar. God provided a perfect physical environment and challenged them with the opportunity to create their own community free of any determining factors save their own desires and goals.
Each person stood before Moses and Aaron who would point out to him the purpose of his existence, his strengths, challenges, and potential. Each was empowered with a powerful sense of self as he became part of a community.
Lest we wonder whether such strong individuals could form a cohesive community, as we learn of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died because of their inability to connect to each other as the great people they were, each was assigned his place and specific role in the community; the famous flags in this week’s portion. This was a perfect opportunity for them to develop a reality all their own. They were free of the Egyptians, danger, and economic fluctuations. They were strong and independent. They were focused on a common goal. Their world would be just that, their world.
Imagine being able to educate our children with such a powerful sense of purpose and individuality! Imagine nurturing our children, not as “part of a community,” but as having an essential and unique role in the community! Society would not impose itself on the child, but rather, allow the child to use the world to help him find his own special place.
“Well and good,” you say, “but we don’t live in a desert or in a perfect environment free of the world around us!” How much independence can we nurture when we expend the majority of our effort on protecting what we already have from the world in which our community is, “a world I never made?” Can we really afford to focus on independence and self-expression when our community is under constant assault by a world whose values are so antithetical to our own?
The Jewish community was devastated by the Holocaust, and our great leaders decided that we had to focus our efforts on rebuilding communities. We witness the wisdom and success of their approach. We have thousands of schools, Yeshivot, communities, and institutions that protect and guide us. Is there really any place for the lesson of the desert encampment and its flags in our world and times?
The process in the desert did not begin with the community, but with Moses, Aaron, and the Princes of the Tribes. The Desert Flags are an instruction to our leaders, not the community or the people at large. The Flags demand that the communal leaders “Pakod,” or “appoint/assign” each individual: Each student, each child, must be taught how to become himself with a sense of unique purpose in order to become part of the community. The leaders may not count the numbers, as in, “We have more people studying in Yeshiva than ever before,” if they did not begin each child’s instruction with a sense of Pekida.
We will still have to battle to protect our community. We will remain “strangers in the world,” but we will not remain strangers to ourselves, “afraid in a world I never made.”
(See Chesed in Malchut)
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