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Bamidbar: Life’s Center

Miriam Aflalo

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

 “Then the Ohel Moed, along with the camp of the Leviim, shall set forth in the midst of the camps” (Bamidbar 2:17)

Since the Torah rests in the Aron [the Ark], which is in the Ohel Moed, the Ohel Moed must always be '“in the midst” of the camps — right in the center. (Chofetz Chaim al HaTorah)

“Is this your little girl?” The Philippine  housecleaner seemed genuinely interested. She was busy washing dishes in the kitchen when I walked in with my toddler for a drink of cold water.

She dried her hands quickly and turned to us with a smile. “How old is she?”

“Two and a half.”

“Two and a half?” She gestured with her fingers. I nodded. Her smile broadened. “That is how old is my daughter,” she told me, in her broken Hebrew. “My daughter is also so. The same.” She patted my daughter’s head.

Suddenly I saw her differently. Behind her Asian appearance and her quick movements was a mother. A mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, a baby really, a mother who desperately missed her child and saw a faint reflection of her in every little girl that age.

It seems that she also has a five-year-old daughter and two sons studying in university. And she left them all with her husband and came here to work in far-off Eretz Yisrael for five years.

“Don’t think they were starving before,” she rushes to reassure me. But she needs more money, because her children are in university and their studies are expensive. Plus, they’re also thinking of buying a new house.


I reflected on this. One day, a woman packs a suitcase with a few items, and takes her leave of her little girls, husband, and two grown sons, of the town where she was raised, and the amazing ocean view from her window in the village. She flies to a foreign land with a different language and a strange culture. There she washes floors and dishes, and goes shopping in the supermarket without understanding a word.

Why? So that she’ll have a new house and her children will study in university.

Why? So that they too will have money to buy a new house, and so their children will be able to go to university … so that they can buy a new house….

And the cycle continues.

All week, the hidden longing in her eyes followed after me. “My daughter is also so,” she had said, her heart yearning.

A thought stuck in my head and couldn’t break free: If she’s doing everything for her children … then how can she abandon a two-year-old? And if she’s away from home for so many years, then who cares whether their home is nice or not?

Do we earn to live or live to earn?

There has to be something else, some other reason to live and work and eat and drink and sleep and raise children, besides perpetuating the pattern.

At least I have that reason! I thought with great relief and a feeling of inner expansion. I’m living for a purpose. I’m working for the sake of an ideal. I’m raising children for a reason!

But do I internalize this always?

Thousands of years ago, when the trumpets sounded in the desert, the masses of tents began to move over the sands. And the Leviim carried the Tent of Meeting in their midst. Exactly in the center.

Because the Torah has to be in the center. In the center of movement, in the center of the nation — the core of life.

Torah isn’t an addition to our lives, a beautiful ideology. There’s no decorative box in which religion is to be displayed, gently and reverently, while we continue to live our lives like everyone else. And then only on Shabbos or Yom Tov is it taken out of the box, because the time has come to “practice religion.”

No. The Torah has no box. The Torah isn’t just another book. The Torah is life’s heart.

Just as the bimah is in the center of the shul and the Tree of Life was planted in the midst of the Garden, so too everything must be concentrated around the Torah. Since life comes from the heart, its place is at the body’s center. From there, it sends forth the blood, which is the power of life, to every limb equally, and all of them are nourished from it. (Chofetz Chaim al HaTorah)

The housecleaner is probably still washing dishes in some kitchen, and I too am washing dishes in my kitchen. But I know why and for Whom I have a home and children.

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