Bamidbar by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Bamidbar (במדבר)
Torah: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1 – 2:22


Scene: Open Wilderness—nothing but sand, rocks, and thornbushes, a harsh, burning desert expanse. Vultures circle overhead. We behold a long, undulating line of people—men, women, children—old, young, middle-aged—gathered around a tall rock, from which a bony, aged, bearded elder, obviously the leader, barks orders. He is Moshe ben Amram, Leader and Rabbi of Israel. Because of his age, and the possible strain on his voice, his words are repeated on all four sides by Tribal Chieftains, who use arm-signals and ram’s-horns to try to organize the multitude into a semblance of marching order.

Towards the front rank, we see two teenagers—Nachron ben Gafiel, of the Tribe of Benjamin, and Zamrielah bat Shulamit, of the Tribe of Dan. They are trying to move out of the crowd, to listen to Moses, their only entertainment in a dull day,  and also to stand next to one another, without seeming too obvious about it.


Moses (faintly): And I tell you all, that the Lord, God of Hosts, has told me this day, there is to be a Census, a Counting of Countings, of all the families, relations, relatives, and tribes of the entire Children of Israel on this day….


Nachron: Psst! Zami—Zamrielah! (Zamrielah pretends to ignore him; she adjusts her headscarf to cover her ears better; Nachron reaches for her sleeve, yanks it gently but firmly) I say there—Zamrielah! Don’t you hear me?


Zamrielah (pretending to be angry, but secretly pleased): Nachron! Don’t be touching me! What if my father Ezriach saw a strange boy, from a different tribe, daring to touch his youngest daughter? What chutzpah—what nerve!


Nachron (abashed): Sorry. But you heard me very well, and you were ignoring me.


Moses (voice quavering): …I call upon the Tribal Chieftains to appoint Sub-Chieftains, and Sub-Sub-Chieftains, to supervise the counting of countings, as the Lord God has directed me, and His servant, Aaron, and my disciple, your general, Joshua—I say! Can you heralds not quiet those Reubenites, over there? What is stirring them up, so?


Joshua (shading his eyes, and squinting into the morning sun): I believe, Milord Moses, that Dathan ben Eliab has nearly been stung by a scorpion. That’s him, dancing about, the fat fool. Hm—it’s too bad; the scoundrel is still alive. Where’s a good scorpion when you need one? (Shouting) You there—you rabble! Quiet down now, before the Lord God and His servant, Moses!


(The Crowd murmurs: When will those ridiculous Census-takers get started?…Mama, I’m thirsty!…We should get well underway, afore that burning-hot desert sun gets up overhead: shouldn’t we be in Baal-Sheetim afore noontime?…They say there’s a big oasis there, big enough to water all of my sheep and goats!…That would be wonderful—when was the last time the wives and little kids  had a proper bath? Etc.)


Moses: Well, let me go on…. So, Heralds (Heralds gesticulate to the crowd)—No, I mean, start your appointing. (Moses reaches out, and Joshua helps him off the Rock) Is there any water left in that goatskin? Just a trickle, a small drop, is all I need (Moses is breathing with difficulty; Joshua sits him down gently, and holds the goatskin carefully to his lips) Ah! That’s good. Blessed are You, Lord our God—who gives us sustenance….(drinks)


Joshua: Amen!


Nachron (whispering): Zamrielah, your skin is getting red from the sun—shouldn’t we go sit beneath that carob tree, over there?


Zamrielah: Do we dare, Nachron? Is it allowed?


Nachron: If anyone stops us, we can say that we were feeling faint from the hot sun, and we went there for the shade. Besides—


Zamrielah (eagerly): Besides what?


Nachron: Well, I’m not twenty years old yet—just fifteen—so they’re not really interested in counting me for the census. And you—


Zamrielah (hoping he’ll compliment her): What about me? Do you–?


Nachron: Well, you’re just a girl, so the Sub-Chieftains won’t be counting you, not at all. You’re not really important.


Zamrielah (angry): Not important? Is that what you tell a girl?


Nachron (realizing, too late, what he has just said): Wait, that’s not what I meant—


Zamrielah (turning her back on him): Leave me alone!


Nachron: Wait! Zami, wait! Please! (Running after her, he slams full-bore into Gen. Joshua, who is moving through the crowd, selecting his Sub-Chieftains) Oh, pardon, pardon me, General!


Joshua: Oof! Careful, youngster! (Seeing Zamrielah, he smiles) And you better move faster, to snare that lovely gazelle of yours. She is well-worth the chase, I see.


Zamrielah (embarrassed): Oh! Leave me alone! (Darting between a heavily-laden donkey and a wagonload of clay jugs, she disappears)


Nachron: Zami? Zami, where are you? Oh, Zami….(He shakes his fists in frustration)


Moses (from a distance, fading away): “Of the descendants of… the registration of the clans of their ancestral house, as listed by name, aged twenty years and over, all who are able to bear weapons of war—those enrolled from that tribe, numbering….”


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.


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