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Torah Commentary
B'midbar (May 24, 2014)

Joshua M. Davidson, Senior Rabbi

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY I learned that when meeting people for the first time, I should look them in the eye and repeat their names back to them — that doing so would help me put names to faces.

There are several names for the fourth book of the Torah. In Hebrew it is titled B’midbar, “in the wilderness,” because the book describes events that occur as the Israelites journey through the wilderness of Sinai on their way to the Promised Land. But the name by which it is most familiar to us comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation. “Numbers” is fitting because the book opens with God’s command to Moses that he “number” the Israelites, that he count them.

The census with which the book begins is not the first counting God has undertaken. When the Israelites descended into Egypt during the famine in Canaan, we are told their number was approximately 70. When the Israelites first departed Egypt, we are told they “journeyed from Ramses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children.” And according to Rashi, after Israel sinned worshipping the Golden Calf, and 3,000 of them were put to death, again God counted them. So at moments of trial — during famine, after sin and punishment, after a narrow escape though the Red Sea, and as they wander in a wilderness fraught with danger — God counts them to make sure they still are following behind.

Turning to the census in Parashat B’midbar, we read in Numbers Chapter 1, verses 1- 3:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community 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.

What was the reason for this census? The commentator Rashbam views its purpose as military: Those counted are those deemed fit to bear arms. The commentator Ramban disagrees: It’s not just a military matter. If it were only about telling us Israel’s military might, he argues, then why not just give us the number? 603,550 potential soldiers. That was the figure. Why doesn’t the Torah just list it? And why such detail regarding the counting itself?

It seems as if the Israelites are to be counted in a variety of ways. Look at verse two: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.” The Hebrew is even clearer: They are to be recorded according to their families, their tribes, their names and, finally, according to their individual identities.

What does this mean? They are to be counted by the groups of which they are a part, but every individual must be counted. In other words, it is not enough that Moses knows that the Schwarz family has five members. He is not permitted simply to write down the number five. He has to go count each family member individually. According to the Ramban, “The Holy One blessed be God ordered Moses to number them in a manner that would confer honor and greatness on each one of them, individually.” So God instructed Moses: “[Let] all of [Israel] pass before you…with the honor due to them and you…number them.”

In fact, the Hebrew idiom for “take a census” is seu et rosh, “lift up the head.” It’s almost as if Moses and Aaron had to look each individual in the eye and repeat his name back to him before logging him in the book.

I find this passage both instructive and affirming as I continue to try to meet and know as many members of Temple Emanu-El as I can. To date, I have had the occasion to sit down with some 600 congregants, many in groups of 20 to 30 and many one-on-one, to learn about them — them their passions, their needs and their aspirations for our temple. And these conversations will continue next fall. If the dates we offered this past year did not work for you, then please keep your eye out for another set of opportunities, and call and let us know what does work. Hearing your thoughts about our future, and those areas where you would like to become involved in shaping it, is so important to me.

Unfortunately, the technique I was taught — looking people in the eye and repeating back their names — doesn’t always work. I am, of course, most appreciative of the fact that when I don’t remember your names, you have been more than understanding and forgiving. But I will keep trying!

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