B’midbar: Order From Chaos

Each week we invite a different rabbi or Jewish thought leader to write a “Taste of Torah” on the weekly portion – always from a progressive, inclusive perspective. To receive LAASOK’s Taste of Torah by email each week, subscribe to our newsletter.

This week’s author is Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith.

Rabbi Goldsmith writes: I failed Retirement 101 and am now serving as the part time rabbi at Temple Or Hadash in Fort Collins, Colorado. I also work part time as an Adventure Rabbi. In my spare time, I love spending time with family and playing “Elsa and Anna” with the best granddaughter ever!

Back on October 22, 2022, in synagogues all over the world, these two verses which begin our annual Torah reading cycle were chanted:

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters.” 
(Genesis 1:1-2)

We read on that God created order out of that chaos and made the heavens and earth where we reside today, with its orderly cycles of seasons, day and night, birth and death. 

When I was in elementary school, we were introduced to what were then the smallest particles known to humankind: the atom with the nucleus of protons and neutrons, and the electrons orbiting the nucleus. It reminded me of the known solar system with the planets (which then included Pluto) orbiting around the sun. Even then I knew that God liked orderly patterns and used this particular pattern in creating the heavens and earth.

This week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, picks up where the story left off at the end of Exodus. The Tabernacle has been created, and the B’nai Israel are about to embark on their journey, but they are not in any order. We can almost picture hundreds of thousands of people milling around wondering what is next. And once again, God steps in to create order out of chaos and dictates the order of their camp. Rabbi Rachel Havrelock in her introduction to B’midbar in The Torah a Women’s Commentary (p. 789), explained this order of the camp, “The power of this book emerges from the image of the encampment’s concentric rectangles radiating inward to a core of supreme holiness.” 

The 12 tribes of the B’nai Israel are arranged around the Tabernacle in these concentric rings in their respective clans, and the holiness emanates outward from the Tabernacle to the outermost rings. It reminds me of the structure of the atom and the solar system we learned about in elementary school. But more importantly, it reminds all of us that God likes order, and that order can be created out of the worst of chaos – from a world that is not yet created, to a rag tag group of former slaves who need order to embark on a long journey and form a national identity.

Created in the image of God, we humans also crave order. We learn in our study of Torah that order can come out of the worst chaos, especially if we remember the holiness in the center of it all.

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