What is the meaning of being in Bamidbar?

And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month in the second year of their exodus tom the land of Egypt, saying:

Lift up the head(s) of all of the congregation of B’nai Yisrael, after their families, after the house of their fathers, with the number of the names, every male by their polls.

If we were to choose the Torah portion each week based on the most scintillating narratives and action packed stories, I highly doubt that we would have voluntarily chosen to read this morning’s Torah portion. I am glad that we have a system of Torah reading that demands that we read the entire thing out loud in public with translations.

We read the entire Five Books of Moses over the course three years, and I would not have it any other way.

When we come to a passage that, if it were a show on television or a movies playing at the Shoppingtown Mall, I worry that it would have a small box office and modest ratings. But when we are confronted with a piece of Torah that eludes immediate excitement, one can always ask the say: ok, I read it, but what is really going on here? What is hinted at and lurking just beneath the surface?

Glad you asked.

This week’s Torah portion is not just the beginning of the fourth book of the Five Books of Moses. Each book in the Five Books of Moses has its own major themes.

  • Genesis is all about Beginnings, both of the world and of the Jewish people.
  • Exodus is all about Freedom and beginning a life of purpose and service.
  • Leviticus is a detailed description of how to make all aspects of life sacred.

So what is the book of Numbers all about? Thankfully, it is not all about numbers and counting things, although, as Talia taught us earlier this morning, counting is important. According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, a 19th Century German rabbi, wrote that:

“This fourth book comes back to stark reality and shows us the actual relationship between the actual nation and this ideal of their calling shown in the third book.”

Hirsch reminds us that for the past several weeks, as we have been reading the book of Leviticus, we have been exploring in details the ideal, the goals that God and Moses have set out for us to achieve, in living a life of holiness, where holiness is found in the integration of the ritual, ethical and moral. There is almost no narrative in Leviticus, and is comprised almost exclusively of a rich body of law that acts as a lure in guiding us to a life of holiness and purpose.

With the beginning of Numbers, we are now out of the theoretical, and squarely back in the wilderness, which is the English translation for the Hebrew name for Numbers, which is Bamidbar. Rabbi Hirsch points out that it is very fitting to have a census at this point in the Torah’s narrative, a counting of all of individual members of the nation. And in the way that this census counts the individuals the concept of a nation, what has been the mere idea of a congregation, now becomes a reality. And this is the exact purpose for which the people are now counted.

There could be no other purpose! They are in the wilderness, between here and there, essentially nowhere, and it is almost as if they were in another dimension of time and space. This counting was not for political reasons, nor for economic reasons, and not even for a military purpose. This counting is for the purpose of taking the abstract concept of B’nai Yisrael, a people who live in service of the Torah and of God, makes it real. Here they are!

Yet, we began as a small family, back in our early beginnings, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, aka Israel, and we were literally B’nai Yisrael, Israel’s children. And we then became a numerous people in Egypt, who left all together, forging the beginnings of peoplehood, and then we stood together at Mount Sinai, and entered into an eternal covenant and life of service.

Now, at this moment, when all is said and done, it is in this counting that we actualize the idea of who we are: a congregation, which in the Hebrew is an edah. In the Torah, we often assume that no word is chosen without care, and that this specific word is charged with a whole new reality. Rabbi Hirsch, who knows his Hebrew roots well, knows that this word is related to the words “ya’ad” and “yachad” which mean togetherness, signifying a people joined together for a common calling and held together by the centrality of that calling: a congregation. What is expressed here is the idea that the whole nation, comprised of hundreds of thousands of individuals, forms an edah, a congregation. In turn, Adat B’nai Yisrael, the Congregation of B’nai Yisrael, are those in whom we can “count upon” to uphold our common purpose.

But lest you think that the individual members form the nation or congregation directly, the Torah comes to teach us otherwise. The verse about counting the people includes the phrases “after their families, after the houses of their fathers…” So there stands the individual as one member of the congregation, but there are two concentric circles around them before we reach the level of the entire congregation: they are the circles of family, and tribe. The congregation is comprised of tribes, and each tribe is comprised of families. Here again, the Hebrew terms shed light on the deeper meaning of these terms. The word for tribe is mateh, which means branch, reminding us that all twelve tribes stem from one ancestor, Israel, just as all the branches of a tree stem from the same trunk. The term for family, mishpachah, comes from a Hebrew root meaning to “join together” and “to influence,” reminds that it is these close sacred relationships that form the core of our identity.

At the very center of the congregation stands the individual. The Torah relates that each person was counted by name, “b’mispar shemot,” reminding us that each individual, and all that they are, is part of the whole, and that each individual should be conscious of their importance to the entire congregation.

We begin with the edah, the congregation.

Which is comprised of matot, tribes, twelve in all.

Which are each comprised on mishpachot, families, with numerous families in each tribe.

And final each family comprised of its many individuals, each with their own unique name, their shemot.

Yet, there is a tension in all of these concentric circles of belonging. One might think that the essential relationship might be to the tribe, or the family, or even solely to the self, that there is no real unity among the congregation. Rabbi Hirsch makes the point that:

“[The House of Israel] must always and at all times make itself thought of in the essential real universal calling of its members, who by a common inner factor are one, and each one of them must feel him [or her]self to be, and to present him [or her]self as a concrete and important part of the unity. Even when the descendants of the one Jew Israel, had grown to six hundred thousand men [which implies at least two million people total], they were still all members of “one house”, children of “one man,” stamped in spirit and heart with the same stamp, bearing one mission, one destiny as their heritage through the ages.”

Does this essential one-ness erase individuality? Do we get lost in the masses, all thinking and doing in lock stop? For me, and thankfully for Hirsch, far from it. He continues:

“In the midst of this fundamental sameness and unity and under its influence, the greatest diversity of tribal and family specialties of traits and dispositions was carefully nurtured….”

This is to be “a model for the whole human race.”

Rabbi Hirsch expands our particular reading of this “counting” of each person, family, and tribe in B’nai Yisrael, and reminds us that this unity is part of an even greater unity, the entire human family, and that, like within B’nai Yisrael, we are must celebrate the even greater level of diversity found within the entire human family, every character, tendency, profession or position in life; every specialty and every peculiarity, because each human being is made in the image of God. It is this inner divine dimension of humanity that unites us all, and begs us to look beyond the surface and to see the spark of the divine in everyone that creates one human family, one tribe, one congregation, one human people.

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