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.
In Parashat B’midbar Moses is instructed to count the whole Israelite people, but just the men of fighting age, and not those from the tribe of Levi. While we say that the Israelite community was counted, we know that many were not — many were excluded. While we may want to explain that away by reminding ourselves that the count was just for military purposes, let us instead consider what it might have been like for those who weren’t counted. Think of those sitting on the sidelines. What might it have been like to be sorted? What might the ramifications have been?
It’s not hard to picture, we see it all around us today. While our country may be more diverse than ever, those we typically associate with are just like us, maybe not in appearance but in ideology. The consequence of this long-term trend is that everyone who is not “like us” has become the other. They have no names, they are numbers, and they are “those people over there.” If we are not careful, we may start thinking of those who are not like us not only as the “other,” but also as evil. Throughout the world, we can see examples of this kind of shift in attitude toward the other; about minorities, people with different beliefs, and even opposing political parties. When we do this we stop seeing the Divine spark within them.
Rav Kook wrote extensively on pluralism and warns what happens when we stop acknowledging that there are other valid points of view. He wrote that “All the defects of the world, the material and the spiritual, all derive from the fact that every individual sees only the one aspect of existence that pleases him, and all other aspects that are uncomprehend by him seem to deserve purging from the world. And the thought leaves its imprint in individuals and groups, on generations and epochs, that whatever is outside one’s own is destructive and disturbing. The result is multiplication of conflict.”1
How perfectly that describes our current predicament. Perhaps it is time for us to rebel against the big sort and create a new modern-day Parashat B’midbar. One in which we reverse the counting of people and instead name them, get to know them, and then include them in our communities.
- Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Ben Zion Bosker, trans., Orot Ha-Kadosh I
Rabbi Philip N. Bazeley, RJE, is the associate rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, NJ.
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