Saying a person’s name correctly is a way of recognizing his or her individuality. Most of us appreciate when someone we hardly know remembers meeting us and calls us by name; it is an affirmation that we matter. When I meet someone new and introduce myself, often the person looks confused over how to pronounce my first name, asking “would you repeat that?” or “how do you spell that?” I have learned to say, “Vered rhymes with Jared, but with a V.” After the mnemonic, my name is almost always said correctly. It may seem small, but it is a way of acknowledging that I matter.
This week’s parashah, B’midbar, begins the Book of Numbers. The previous book, Leviticus, sets out laws for how our ancestors were to live in relationship with people, God, and that which was outside of them. It set the groundwork for us today, considering how we develop those relationships as modern Jews. The Book of Numbers shows how our ancestors actually experienced those laws when they were traveling through the wilderness. It reminds us that we too are on a journey. Like our ancestors, we move forward in community, and we seek a balance between how we matter as individuals and how we contribute to the greater good.
For instance, B’midbar opens with a commandment to take a census. It appears straightforward: as our ancestors traveled towards the Promised Land, they would have military encounters. Moses needed to know the cold, hard numbers of who was eligible to serve in the defense forces.
The text, however, goes into great detail on how to count the men who could serve. It would have been much simpler to ask, “How many men can fight?” Instead, Moses is told:
Take a census of the whole Israelite company [of fighters] by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. Associated with you shall be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house. These are the names of the men who shall assist you… (Numbers 1:2-4)
And then the text goes on to tell who is in charge and how many people they counted. Why do we need so much ink, so many names, so much detail, if the purpose is just to know how many troops are available for battle?
In the 13th century the great Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, honorably referred to as Nachmanides, looked for the moral and spiritual messages in the Torah. The 20th century Israeli scholar, Nehama Leibowtiz, cites three meanings Nachmanides gleaned from the elaborate description of the census.1
First, Nachmanides reminds us that when Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt, there were only 70 of them. In diligently counting those who left Egypt in the Exodus, our ancestors could see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants as many as the sands of the sea. If we fast-forward to today, we might be inspired to see the large numbers of contemporary Jewish communities as indicative of our ongoing relationship with God.
Next, Nachmanides refers to the midrash (B’midbar Rabbah) noting that God wanted Moses to number the people in a way that would honor each of them as individuals. The midrash advises us not to ask: How many people are in your family? Rather, it suggests we count each person as he (or she) steps forward to receive honor and be recognized as a unique soul. We do this today when we inquire about each other’s loved ones and take the time to hear their names, their interests, and appreciate their individuality. Our ancestors’ primary concern in this section of Torah is for protection during their wilderness journey. In a different way, we can look at the people around us and ask who helps us walk through the wilderness of life, and in what ways do we support each other? Each one deserves to be honored as an individual, contributing to the success of the whole.
Nachmanides’ final point is military strategy. Our ancestors needed to know how many fighters they had in order to appropriately plan battles. The literal application of this lesson is a vital concern for today’s brave men and women serving in the armed forces, just as their well-being ought to be of concern to us all. However, scratch the surface of people’s lives and we find B’midbar can be a metaphor for many types of personal battles. As we work to build meaningful, successful lives, we are also living with addiction, illness, poverty, prejudice, and other realities that can obstruct our journey. B’midbar reminds us that preparing for battle is part of our plan to move forward: assess who and what we have around us, take names and numbers, and build a team that is committed to our success.
1. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, “The Second Roll-Call of Israel” [Jerusalem: Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, 1991], pp 12-13
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK. She appreciates how our ancient texts continue to speak to our modern experiences.