Parshah Bamidbar by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

I turn to this week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Numbers, Sefer BaMidbar, literally, “In the Wilderness.” It is a relief, after the dry, priest-and-purity legislation of Vayikra/Leviticus, to find some narrative leavening the endless Torah law. God commands Moses to number the people, and here, my hackles rise: census-counting is never a good sign in our Jewish Bible: don’t ever know exactly how much you have of anything; it’s a major kinehurra (evil eye). “Dad, how much money do you earn?” “David,” my father would reply, solemnly, “I make enough.” In traditional congregations even today, when worshipers count to see if they have enough Jews to make a minyan, the prayer quorum, they count, “Nisht ein, nisht tzvei, nisht drei—not one, not two, not three….” The taboo against numbering continues. Some old-country Jews will not clip their nails from thumb to pinky; they must follow an abstruse digital dance to fend off the demons. There is a noble irony in belonging to a people who are at once so worldly and over-educated, including doctors, lawyers, and captains of industry, and who yet cherish their superstitions.
As for the census, Moses needs assistants from each tribe, and I love the archaic, long-forgotten names of his assistants in this undertaking which we garner from the text, names like Shelumiel ben Tsurishadai—“Complete Peace of God, son of the Almighty is my Rock,” and Nachshone ben Aminadav—“Big Snake, son of My People are Generous”—the midrash-legends tell us that this latter worthy was the first to plunge into the Reed Sea at Moses’s command, and that it was for his merit and daring that the waters split, allowing the doubting people to cross, dry-shod, to the other side. The names sound quaint and curious to us moderns, but the listeners must have nudged one another as they heard the Torah-reading centuries ago, smiling, “That was my father’s father’s uncle!” and, “You’re wrong, he married the lady next tent over, I can see her face before me, now,” and other reminiscences. How sad that no little Jewish boys in temple preschools today bear the names of large snakes or generous people. Instead, we are Jacob’d and Ethan’d to distraction. O for one Tsurishadai!
The results of the census are swift and sure, if exaggerated and symbolic: 603,550 males over the age of 21, every man-jack of them capable of wielding sword or spear in defense of the Israelite nation—which is still a Bedouin rabble at this point: Bronze Age herdsmen, albeit monotheistic, and expected to conquer Iron-Age farmers living in walled cities—not unlike bringing a popgun to a siege. Yes, it was hard then to be a Jew, even led by God Himself. Assailed by doubts and fears of the future, they marched on, following their mysterious, invisible deity, and working on their faith, as do we. Some things don’t change. How have you strengthened your Judaism today?

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