When I imagine the Israelites wandering through the desert, hundreds of thousands of them, day after day, women, children, men, elderly, their animals. There cranky, they’re hot, they’re thirsty and hungry and even when they have food and drink, they are still cranky because it’s the same thing day after day. Finally each night I imagine their relief when the pillars of cloud and fire suddenly stop and their wandering for the day is over. I imagine them exhaling, heavily dropping their packs, falling to the sandy floor exhausted from their labors. Content to camp and sleep where they fall before having to get up again the next day and do it all over again.
What I do not imagine is what is actually described in the second chapter of the book of Bamidbar. The careful and orderly arrangement of the camp, ordered by military divisions with the Ark and the tabernacle at the center of the encampment. Judah on the east and next to it the tribe of Issachar. Reuben, at the south, and next to them Simeon. Carefully organized neighborhoods if you will, arranged with care, thought and intention.
From the time of the Israelite wandering in the desert, to the middle of the rabbinic period of 200CE, to our modern Jewish community, there has been an emphasis on where one lives. We joke about Pikesville, and our own Jewish ghettos in Baltimore, but they find their origin 3000 years ago in the Sinai wilderness. The verse in Numbers says that “The Israelites shall camp each with his degel, (in modern Hebrew his flag, really meaning his tribe) under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.” [Numbers 2:2] When we camp, we do so in consideration of our tribe, our family, as represented here by the ancestral banners, and the community, which is represented by the Tent of Meeting.
We arrange ourselves in such a way for two reasons, one negative or precautionary, and one positive or proactive.
The negative is what the Torah just spent 10 weeks teaching us in the Book of Leviticus, namely that contact with a source of impurity conveys impurity. The ancient Israelites cautioned time and time again about the dangers of improper association. While we moderns may disagree with the specific examples given in the book of Leviticus with its blood taboos, forbidden sexual relationships, and skin ailments, all of us would agree that we are deeply influenced and shaped by those people and those things with which we come into contact.
In the rabbinic period this Biblical teaching is reinforced in universal way in the book of Pirkei Avot and Nittai ha Arbeli’s exhortation to keep far from an evil neighbor, and not to partner up with someone who is wicked. [Pirkei Avot 1:7] The Rabbis taught from a precautionary perspective, urging us not to put ourselves into situations where it would be almost impossible to “be good”. From the time we are small children, our parents talk to us about choosing our friends carefully, about running with the right crowd, because they and in time we, know without a doubt what would potentially happen if we had a partner who could be considered wicked.
Some may bristle against this negative way of talking, they may perceive it as narrow-minded or as a desire to live a cloistered life with people only like oneself. But I think that is a misreading of both Leviticus and of Pirkei Avot. Our tradition does not urge us to live alone or only amongst other Jews, it speaks about behavior and cautions us against entering into relationships with people in whose hearts evil has settled. It and we know the dangers connected with establishing ties to such people. [Tamar Elad-Applebaum on Pirkei Avot 1:7]
Now on to the positive or proactive reason for arranging ourselves into particular neighborhoods in both the Biblical sense of the word and the suburban sense. The Torah describes in not such exciting detail the physical arrangement in which the Israelites marched and camped in the desert. Because from the earliest times of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs in Genesis, there was a concern to find the best and most appropriate place to live, to work the land, to find a life partner, and in Exodus to find a place to worship.
The Rabbis continue that approach again in Pirkei Avot. Five Rabbis are asked the same question: Look about you and tell me, what is the right path for a person to choose to live a good life? As is usually the case with multiple rabbis, each of the five rabbis gives a different answer to this question. It is Rabbi Yosi’s and Rabbi Yehoshua’s that concern us. Rabbi Yehoshua says the right path to living a good life is to have a good haver, a good friend or colleague. Rabbi Yosi says a good neighbor. [Pirkei Avot 2:13] when we proactively surround ourselves with good people, notice it doesn’t say people like yourself, it doesn’t say Jewish people, it says good people. Good friends, good work colleagues, good neighbors.
When we engage in relationship with people with good values, when we physically locate ourselves in the midst of decent and respectable human beings, we increase the likelihood that we ourselves will have good lives. That’s why the children of Israel don’t just do as I imagined and wander through the desert all day only to collapse at night in the place where they stop. They carefully arrange themselves into tribes, into families, into communities with their most deeply held values at the center.
It’s what we are doing here this morning and again tomorrow and Monday as we celebrate Shavuot. We are arranging ourselves, aligning ourselves by tribe, family and community with ritual and religion as the center. With Torah our central book and guide as the focus with the hope that in this we will find the right path to a good life.