I am posting this old, old poem as Jewish worshippers enter — as part of the liturgical cycle — the fourth book of the Jewish Bible. Conventionally called Numbers, its name in Hebrew is B’Midbar, as is its first section. Roughly, “In the Wilderness.” I’m prompted to post it after reading former Senator Joseph Lieberman’s fine WSJ commentary on the need to balance freedom with law; or, more accurately, the developmental arc between the Jewish Holy Days of Passover (the gift of freedom) and Shavuot (the gift of Torah).

Near the beginning of their sojourn in the Wilderness,

the Lord sought to orient these covenanters,

to offer them some markers

against the fading certitudes of slavery.


He ordered Moses to count the population,

at least those of military age,

and now they had some sense of magnitude –

they were a presence

against the nothingness of their horizons . . .


and then He told them, through his prophet,

how to arrange themselves, in tribes,

around the tabernacle,

protecting the Kohanites and Levites.


And now their being in the wilderness

had both quantification and design.


The counting came often, as it had before:

how many of each offering each leader should bring,

and the listing of tasks assigned . . .


But first came the covenant and the commandments:

here was the plan against the wilderness,

the desert within.


Here was the design of a people’s spirit

with all the guideposts, distasteful as manna,

to keep two million souls from getting lost.


Later, the priests were told just how

to aim the light from the menorah,

which radiated into sacred time:

the Sabbath at its center,

the framing six days of creation

– three before, three after –

(but really no before and no after)




          –Philip K. Jason

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