This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Moira Hart
This week’s Torah portion is called Bemidbar and is the first parsha from the Book of Numbers. Numbers is not a translation of Bemidbar which actually means “in the wilderness”. It recounts a time in the life of the Children of Israel when they are having to change from being slaves and all that entails to becoming citizens of their own land. Much of the parshah is to do with the counting and sorting of people into their tribes. It’s all about transition.
Moses was instructed by God to count, by tribe, every male from the age of 20 to 60 – men of draftable age.
Moses counts 603,550 men.
However, this didn’t include the Levites, women or children!
It’s not really clear why a census was needed but it could be that God wanted the census to show his power in redeeming such a large number of people, a whole nation wondering in the wilderness. To give you an idea of the scale of the number involved, 603,550 is somewhere between the 2016 estimate of the population of Macau in Asia at 597,000 and Montenegro in Europe at 626,000. (166 and 167 out of 233 nations according to the United Nations.)
The reason for the census may simply have been more pragmatic – perhaps it was to have a list or clear idea of men eligible to fight and this would explain the omission of women and children.
It happens that some years later but also related in the Book of Numbers, God again instructs Moses to take a census of males over the age of 20. This time it is towards the end of their time of wandering in the desert and the Children of Israel have been through many traumatic and difficult times including being affected by plague and much fighting. So despite the passing of time the final tally is 601,730.
I have read that it could be viewed that this time God is trying to allay the fears of the children of Israel and refresh their spirit by adding a sense of newness and distinction to their mission. The purpose of this count serves not as a census or military count so much as a reestablishment of their old identity. Something akin to a shepherd looking after his sheep – keeping them safe.
To return to the census in this parsha, why weren’t the Levites included? Chapter 1, v 47 says “But the Levites, according to their father’s tribe were not numbered among them.” I discovered that it relates back to the incident of the golden calf. When Moses returned from Mount Sinai and found some of the Israelites dancing around the golden calf he asked that “Whoever is with God, come to me”. The entire tribe of Levi gathered about him and they were charged, sadly perhaps, with murdering everyone guilty of worshipping the Golden Calf. The Levites then became the tribe charged with carrying and looking after the tabernacle in place of all the firstborn from each tribe who were originally going to be assigned this important task.
The parsha goes on to describe how the camp would be set out going forward. The Levites were to set up camp to immediately surround the tabernacle with the other tribes camped around them in a specific order. And just how many Levites were there? 22,000 males over the age of one month old. The fact that the children were included probably indicates the importance of the tribe of Levi.
So we can see that there are many different reasons and theories as to why God wanted to count the number of Israelites. Nick Gendler’s interesting article in Reflections says that Rashi tells us that at important moments in history God counted his people. And perhaps it is simply a question of taking stock – something we all do at times of emotion, happy or sad.
Nick also goes on to discuss the idea that he recalled that Jews should not be counted individually. An idea derived from the first lines in this week’s haftarah, “And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted”. This rang a faint bell in my head and my consequent research led me to the following thoughts which are loosely based on an article from the Orthodox Union.
We will never know exactly why God chose that the Jews should never be counted with a census, but here are some thoughts. The Talmud teaches that blessing is not found “in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, only in something that is hidden from the eyes.” I think this is a rather beautiful idea.
Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, a Spanish rabbi and scholar born in 1255, explains that we do not count separate individuals, since we do not want to single them out and bring judgment upon them. An individual may not have enough merit to pass that judgment. However, when counting as a community, even if judgment is brought upon us, there are sure to be enough good deeds in the community to ensure that they pass the judgment and are found worthy of God’s mercy.
So what do people do to overcome this problem of wanting to know how many, but not wanting to count individuals. As ever, there are ways around this problem. Many censuses were carried out by collecting a coin – perhaps a half shekel, King Saul asked soldiers to bring kid goats, you can count noses or thumbs but not body parts that would are really significant for life. And just by the way, once you have counted/or not counted it is ok to use the final number as long as it is arrived at in a correct manner.
As a footnote, and perhaps a hint to another reason why we traditionally don’t count individuals, King David counted the Jews in a more conventional way and a great plague struck and many of them died.
Another, rather lovely tradition, is that of how one should check whether there are 10 people present for a minyan. The most usual way to do this is to use the words in a Scriptural verse (usually Psalm 28:9). This is a very beautiful way, because each word in a sentence is unique and without it the sentence would lose its meaning. Illustrating what a mitzvah it is to be part of a minyan. The verse translates as:
Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever.
הוֹשִׁיעָה אֶת עַמֶּךָ וּבָרֵךְ אֶת נַחֲלָתֶךָ וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד הָעוֹלָם
Anyway, I got so caught up in all of this that I forgot about the links I might be looking for to make all this meaningful for this week. However, when I stop to think about it I think the parsha is about working out a good model and a way of life and a plan for living that makes a community function effectively. I think everyone this week has been pondering on what we need to do to make our local communities, national community and global community to function well. We need to do take a long hard look at the way our global community operates and to see if we can mend something that seems to be very badly fractured at the moment. I don’t really feel I have the authority or the right to try and speak to you all or help you find some understanding of this week’s events so I have turned to Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and would like to share some of his recent blog.
He writes. Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena. The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music. Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.
Next week is Shavuot and we shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight that we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism – the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.
I [Rabbi Wittenberg] spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Berlin, at a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.
The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.
We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.
But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly. In response, I encourage us all to mark this bitter and sad time through special generosity and kindness towards children and young people.