A Kinder, Gentler Nation

B'midbar, Numbers 1:1−4:20

This week brings us Yom Y'rushalayim (May 8 / 28 Iyar), one of several Jewish holidays commemorating events of war in the modern State of Israel. This one recalls Israel's "recovery" of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. Despite these modern holidays, or the always popular Israeli postcards of handsome young men and women in uniform, it seems safe to say that we Jews generally don't think of ourselves as a military people.

Yet the coming together of Yom Y'rushalayim with our annual reading of the opening portion of the Book of Numbers, beginning with a census of all Israelite men "from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms" (Numbers 1:3), might give us pause to question our assumption. In fact, from Abraham onward in Torah we find ourselves often embattled, and the fighting continues beyond Deuteronomy and into other books of Tanach as well.

Take the Israelite nation, for example, in this week's Torah portion, B'midbar. Here's the same crowd we witnessed a year and a month before, running hurriedly from Egypt, looking over their shoulders as they cross the parted sea, terrified by what lay behind and ahead. But in the beginning of B'midbar, "In the Wilderness," they've become much more organized, some might say "civilized," and the "proof" is that all the tribes are lining up in perfect order exactly according to instruction, surrounding their newly constructed sacred Tabernacle, preparing now to march through the wilderness toward the Promised Land.

The Book of Numbers shares its Hebrew name with that of the first portion, B'midbar. Why is the book called "Numbers" in English? Presumably because it begins with God's instruction to Moses (and Aaron and a man from each tribe) to count the people, s'u et-rosh kol-adat B'nai Yisrael, "take a census of the whole Israelite company" (Numbers 1:2). God immediately clarifies the command saying, kol-zachar, "all the men . . ." (1:2). (Note: Just a few months into the United States military leaders' decision to allow women to serve in combat, it's useful to remember that gender inequality is neither new nor ever easily overcome. But I'll write more on that in discussing later portions of B'midbar.)

The commentators notice the way God describes the head count: s'u et rosh, "lift the head." Nachmanides (thirteenth century) points out that the phrase can be positive or negative. Joseph uses the same phrase positively back in Genesis when interpreting the dream of the imprisoned cupbearer: "in three days' time, Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your post." But Joseph also uses the phrase negatively a few verses later while interpreting the baker's dream: "in three days' time, Pharaoh will lift your head from your body and hang you on a pole . . ." (Genesis 40:13,19).

Imagine our scene, though, Moses and Aaron are alongside a representative of each tribe-actually lifting each young man's head, gently touching the chin of each soldier-to-be, looking him in the eye-thus acknowledging the humanity of each one, and recognizing the real "risks" of war. Will this young man's head be lifted up to greatness or fall in battle? The reality of combat is intensified by God's further instructions to Moses: S'u et-rosh kol-adat B'nai Yisrael l'mishp'chotam l'veit avotam b'mispar sheimot kol-zachar l'gulg'lotam, "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" (Numbers 1:2). These future soldiers are not just young men, but young men with names (b'mispar sheimot), young men from families (mishp'chotam), young men still connected to the house of their fathers (l'veit avotam). And perhaps God alludes to the harshness of war by using a different word for "head" at the end of the verse, not the familiar rosh, but gulg'lotam, from the "root" (shoresh) meaning "round," but also "skull" (gulgolet) offering a subtle and sobering look at the soldiers' possible futures. (In later times, the related word gilgul comes to mean "reincarnation," as in "to go around again.") Is God trying from the start of B'midbar to wean us away from war?

S'u et-rosh, "Lift up the head" of each one, says God to Moses, as if to say, touch them, look them in the eyes, write down their family names, because even though you are counting them, these men are not just numbers. A wise man once taught that if you look deeply into the eyes of another, you will find there the Presence of God. Would we really be able to send people into battle if we spent the moments before looking deep into the eyes of our soldiers?

Our sages who chose the haftarah, the companion to this Torah portion, also thought to move us away from war. Its beginning contrasts with opening census statement in B'midbar: "The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, not to be measured or counted . . ." (Hosea 2:1).

What happens in Hosea that allows us to stop counting our young men for purposes of war, to stop creating armies, and instead to echo God's promise long ago to Abraham that he would father a people as numerous as the sands of the sea? (see Genesis 22:17; 32:12). The answer is revealed near the end of the haftarah, though alas, it's only a vision, an imagined future, not a real one, not yet anyway: "On that day [says God] I will make a covenant for them with beasts of the field, birds of the air, and with creeping things on the ground: I will remove the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and make them lie down in safety" (Hosea 2:20).

As we shall see in the weeks to come, despite its stories of fighting, rebellion, and violence, the Book of Numbers also delivers the message that God would rather encourage the people Israel toward a gentler way of being.

1. http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=15784

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D., is the leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world's first gay and lesbian synagogue. She is a thoughtful and reasoned advocate for same-sex marriage, environmental protection, and social and economic justice. Her writing appears in books including Kulanu: All of Us (a URJ handbook for congregational inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews) and The Women's Torah Commentary.

Milchemet Mitzvah, the Commanded War

Daver Acher By: Gersh Zylberman

The Prophet Isaiah famously presents a vision of future perfection: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4). Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai riffs on this ancient dream when he writes:

Don’t stop after beating the swords

into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating

and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again

will have to turn them into ploughshares first

(quoted in Mishkan T’filah, ed. Elyse D. Frishman [New York: CCAR, 2007], p. 179)

We all work toward and pray that the day will come soon when these visions will become a reality, a time we call the Messianic Age. Until then, we recognize that the reality of our world remains imperfect and that war and violence is indeed, sadly, sometimes necessary; that innocent people must be defended vigorously against those who wish to do them harm; that countries and political groups who threaten others with annihilation must not be appeased.

Our Sages of old knew that war is sometimes unavoidable and determined that waging war could even rise to the level of milchemet mitzvah (a commanded war). In a Reform Movement responsa (a Jewish legal response to a question) we learn that “our tradition rejects pacifism as a policy of national defense. The Torah does not expect us to submit to armed aggression, to stand silently and passively when others seek to conquer and dominate us. The people of Israel have the right to defend themselves from attack. Indeed, we are commanded to do so: the obligation to defend and preserve our lives overrides virtually every other religious duty” (http://ccarnet.org/responsa/nyp-no-5762-8/).

While we work for and pray for peace we must also be prepared for war, at least until the arrival of Messianic Age, may it arrive speedily in our own day.

Rabbi Gersh Zylberman is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, California.

Reference Materials

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

Originally published: