Today I am a man. Wait a minute that’s not right. Today I am a woman in the Jewish community, a Bat Mitzvah doubled. On June 3rd, 2000, I became a Bat Mitzvah, and earned my right of passage by chanting these very words I have just chanted for you today – Parashat Bemidbar. In it, a census is taken, and the tribes of Israel start to take on their own identities. They are not slaves any more, and they are not just a muddled mass of Israelites. The age at which men will take up arms in a defense military is determined, so that those of proper age are prepared to defend the tabernacle in case of bandits, and a census taker is assigned from each tribe, to count the tribes, and G-d assigns a side to for the tribes to camp on to always keep the Tabernacle safe in the center of the mass of Israelites as they travel across the desert toward the holy land.
Only one tribe is not counted in the same way. The tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. They are not considered a part of the census and they are not given a side to camp on, as they will remain in the center with the tabernacle. G-d declared that all first born Israelite sons be consecrated in exchange for the 10th plague in Egypt but then says that the Levites will serve in place of the first born. All Levites will be consecrated to serve G-d in the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple. The other tribes are told to stand on the east, west, north, or south side of the Tabernacle, but the Levites get a whole host of demands. They go from being as much a part of the muddled mass of Israelites as the other tribes to being the pillars of the community. From zero to hero, if you will. The other tribes, on the other hand, seem to be going through a sort of adolescent phase of identity development. They’ve only really gone from zero to human, from slave to West Side Camper. The rest of their identities remain to be seen.
Being told who you are and what to be might not be fun if you don’t agree with the assessment given you. Maybe you think you’re someone else and you want to do something totally different. But it also can cut down on a lot of confusion and angst if you’re not yet sure who you are or what you want to be. In the year 2000, I don’t think I knew yet who I was or what I wanted to be. Although I was able to dig out my old cassette tapes with my Hebrew school tutor chanting the Torah and Haftarah portions and blessings for my Bat Mitzvah, it seems my folder with my speech and other such papers is long gone. Being adolescent, I probably didn’t have the courage to say, “I don’t know who I am or what I want to be,” and I know I didn’t yet have any thoughts that I, like the Levites, would serve G-d and the Jewish community. So I have no idea what I might have written then. But it’s a great Bat Mitzvah portion, because it is so easy to project those early teenage feelings onto the newly counted tribes of Israel who do not yet have their own identities. I was unusual to have found such a sincere calling to the rabbinate only a few years after my Bat Mitzvah, and now, 13 years later, find myself very much entrenched in fulfilling a longstanding dream. Most people struggle much longer to find a passion and an identity like that. I’m not saying it was never a struggle for me, or that I haven’t ever had to ask myself since I was 16, “Who am I and what do I want to do?” But I think I have to recognize how lucky I am to have found a passion at 16 that I am still passionate about at 25 and a dream I will likely see realized by 30.
For the rest of you still looking for that, it’s important to not feel alone or discouraged. An old Chassidic saying points out the great paradox to be learned and appreciated from the census of this week’s parasha: “On the one hand, it implies that each individual is significant. On the other hand, a head-count is the ultimate equalizer: each member of the community, from the greatest to the lowliest, counts for no less and no more than "one." G-d repeatedly commands Moses to count the Jewish people to emphasize both their individual worth--the fact that no single person's contribution is dispensable--as well as their inherent equality.” You are all unique, and you will find your passion, your identity, your calling, your proper service for G-d and your fellow man, and in the end, we are all simply B’nai Yisroel – that muddled mass of Israelites. May you find joy as you go on your life’s journey and peace when you find your own callings. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.