The Book of Numbers — in Hebrew, B’midbar, “In the Wildnerness” — seems to begin with great promise. Our setting is the wilderness of Sinai. It evokes broad universalism and deep spirituality. As we read in the Midrash (B’midbar Rabbah 1:7), just like the wilderness is free to all, so too is Torah; and only those who open themselves up like a wilderness can access its wisdom.
The openness of this book of wilderness reminds me of the beautiful closing words of the novel, Leo the African:
Wherever you are, some will want to ask questions about your skin or your prayers. Beware of gratifying their instincts, my son, beware of bending before the multitude! Muslim, Jew or Christian, they must take you as you are, or lose you. When men's minds seem narrow to you, tell yourself that the land of God is broad; broad His hands and broad His heart. Never hesitate to go far away, beyond all seas, all frontiers, all countries, all beliefs. (Amin Maalouf, Leo the African [London: Abacus, 1994], p. 360)
Then, just as quickly as the Torah evokes this openness, it contains it. Verse one of Numbers (and of the parashah, also called B’midbar) gives us the setting in the wilderness of Sinai; verse two presents God’s command to Moses to take a census, thereby numbering and organizing the people. It is as if the wilderness of Numbers is like the primordial chaos of Genesis, in need of containment. There is military organization, and there is priestly organization — and quite quickly, we see the perils of organized religion. The counting is exclusive: women, youth, those unable to bear arms, all are not counted. We might see this as archaic if it were not for the experience of so many who continue to be left out. I think of my own many experiences as a rabbi who is a woman, coming to lead a shiva minyan and being asked whether women count; of Jews of color and Jews by choice who are assumed not to be Jewish; of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews, whose lives and loves have been insulted and ignored; of the very old and very young, whose voices too often go unheard; of those who feel kept out by money, namely, the lack thereof; and of people of different abilities, who are assumed to have none.
Perhaps even more challenging, the census is not only exclusive, but it is also hierarchical. Priests and Levites hold different positions than everyone else. Tribes are positioned in the camp based on their status, or that of their ancestors. It is a structure which, as the commentator Luzzatto (Italian, 18th century) writes, is set up “so that everyone would know his place.”
We can understand how this structure might have been necessary for a ragtag group of escaped slaves, needing to make their way through the wilderness. But there is a tragic irony here as well: none of the people in this census, except for Joshua and Caleb, will make it to the Promised Land. By the time the next census takes place, in Numbers 26, all of them will be dead.
So how do we make sense of this opening of B’midbar? What can we draw from it for our times? There is no question that the census, alongside the configuration of the Israelite camp, shows the pitfalls of organized religion. But I would also suggest it shows its strengths.
Organized religion, after all, has organizing principles. It is worth exploring what those are. In this opening parashah of Numbers, we can find three:
- People count. We may not like who is and is not counted, but the fact remains that we have lists upon lists of names, even though — or maybe because — this generation will die in the desert. Their individuality is noted and honored. Even Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons who died as a result of offering strange fire to God, are mentioned in this list. A midrash notes: “…see how heavily the death of Aaron’s sons weighed upon the Blessed Holy One… God’s grief was twice as keen as that of their father” (B’midbar Rabbah 2:24). Organized religion insists that we carry our loved ones with us after their death, and supports us in this holy work. Just as the Israelites carried the coffin containing Joseph’s bones through the wilderness, so too does the biblical account of their journey carry them. None of us are insignificant, in death or in life.
- God is at the center. This may be challenging to us, but it is everywhere in the text. Abarbanel (Portuguese, 14th century) reminds us that the whole organization of the camp was around the Tabernacle, the Mishkan: “The Tabernacle was to be like the heart inside the body, as the tribes would be its limbs.” Moreover, that center is precious, and in need of our protection and respect: “There is no comparison between a palace with a guard and a palace without a guard” (Sifrei Zuta, B’midbar 18:4). Judaism is often defined as a non-credal religion: being Jewish does not require a declaration of belief in God. But if organized religion is not organized around God, we might just be missing the point.
- Humility is essential. This is a corollary of the other two. If people count, and different people have different roles, we all need each other. And if God is at the center, it is not all about us: “There is no place for greatness in the presence of God” (B’midbar Rabbah 4:20). The midrash goes on to remind us that even the priests wore their best clothes to serve God, knowing they would get dirty. Being part of the community means that it may not always be to your advantage. You show up, even when you don’t feel like it — and in return, you are part of a bigger story than your own. It is not actually all about the journey. There is a destination, and you may not reach it — but your people will.
The opening of Numbers calls upon us to be part of something bigger than ourselves. It introduces us to the tensions that will permeate this book of the Torah: between individual and community, God and humanity, journey and destination. Most of all, it asks us to stand up, and be counted.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D. Phil., is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, Canada. Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, the editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and a regular columnist with the Canadian Jewish News. She serves as co-president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis.
As Rabbi Grushcow points out in her commentary on B’midbar, in a place of wilderness and chaos, and despite its exclusionary nature, the census and the camp’s organization provide order and containment that parallel God’s boundary setting in Genesis 1. Following hundreds of years of crushing labor under the Egyptian taskmasters, the census is also a way for God to “confer honor and greatness on each one of [the Israelites], individually,” says Nachmanides,1 citing the midrash in B’midbar Rabbah. Further, the camp’s layout is a means of affording the Israelites trust in their purpose and future. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg explains that, as the Israelites are camped “each man by his flag, under the banner of their fathers’ houses…” in Numbers 2:2, their sense of identity and their “singular role in the collective destiny of the people”2 are affirmed, as is their connection to God.
But chaos and mistrust will ensue: the people’s lack of faith in God’s plan results in constant complaining, regret, the express desire to return to Egypt, rebellion led by Korach, and the episode of the spies where the Israelites see themselves as mere grasshoppers to the Canaanites’ giants. As a result, God threatens to annihilate them but, in response to Moses’ intervention, God instead makes them wander in the desert until their generation dies off. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that this is a recurring pattern for Israel in the Torah: “First God creates order. Then humanity creates chaos. Terrible consequences follow. Then God begins again, deeply grieved but never losing His [sic] faith in the one life-form on which He set His image and to which He gave the singular gift that made humanity godlike, namely freedom itself.”3 God may not give up on humanity, but we consistently lose faith in God.
To the three tensions in B’midbar listed by Rabbi Grushcow, I would add the tension between order and chaos, between meaning and randomness, between spiritual fulfillment and despair, between “ecstatic faith” and “existential skepticism” to quote Zornberg.4 As the Israelites make their way through the wilderness on their forty-year journey, the Promised Land is always the goal, the Torah, the blueprint for achieving that goal, and the Israelites’ all-too human fears and foibles, the consistent obstacles to overcome. So too, our own faith journey during the course of our lifetime. I believe Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg sums it up best when he writes: “Faith is a life response of the whole person to the Presence in life and history. Like life, this response ebbs and flows. The difference between the skeptic and the believer is the frequency of faith, and not the certitude of position.”5
1. Nachmanides on Numbers 1:45
2. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), p. 21
3. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Ever-Repeated Story,” Covenant & Conversation
4. Ibid., Bewilderments, p.3
5. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” a reprint from Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? Reflections on the Holocaust, ed. Eva Fleischner (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1977), p.13
B’midbar, Numbers 1:1−4:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,028−1,043; Revised Edition, pp. 897−916
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 787–814
Haftarah, Hosea 2:1–22
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,252−1,255; Revised Edition, pp. 917−920