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Count Me In

4 minute read
Straightforward

A fair amount of times, the Torah reports that the Jewish People conducted a census, breaking down how many men were in each tribe, and then adds up the subtotals for a total count. It occupies a lot of space in the Torah.

The Ramban explains that taking a census is a basic government function to organize logistics, safety, and military planning.

While that is accurate, the Torah’s lessons are timeless and eternal. Of what value to us is the level of detail in the raw statistical data from each census?

The Ramban explains that the information itself is more relevant to daily government, which is probably why it only covered military-age men. But the lesson isn’t in the data; it’s in the method of counting.

The way they counted was that every individual would have to appear before Moshe and Ahron, and God. The requirement to appear before the entire generation’s leadership tells us that those people were not just numbers; they were valuable individuals.

There is a constant interplay between individualism and collectivism. Individualism stresses individual identity and goals; collectivism focuses on group identity and goals, what is best for the collective group. The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. You are not just a cog in a machine, with another human being at the ready to take your place. You are not the property of the state or any group or person.

And as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. You are not fungible. You are not replaceable.

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights the Torah’s choice of words for the count – שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל / כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל – literally, “lift the heads.” There are many ways to say “count” in Hebrew; this isn’t one of the naturally obvious ones. Again, the Torah seems to be saying that even among the crowd, lift your head up high and proud. To this day, Jews do not count people directly, but instead, count heads.

There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.

It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish, that is, the same; it is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.

We cannot tolerate factionalism, where one subgroup splinters from the main group, but we cannot afford to exclude individuals. The Torah makes incredible demands of us, and we mostly fall well short, some a little more, some a little less.  We must hold ourselves to the highest standards, but we can never look down at our fellow.

To argue the other side, while we must celebrate individuality, we must not condone individualism. Our duty is to find a balance between being individuals while remaining part of the group. We need to maintain a tension between the need for individual freedom and the demands of others.

The whole idea of loving others is that they are not just like you; if you had to love people like you, that would just be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you. We must reinforce the notion of tolerance of heterogeneity, people not just like us.

Loving another is not that I care about someone in my circle who is just like me, and perhaps I have a duty to expand my conception of who is in the circle. That would be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you.  Loving another means that someone else’s problems bother me so deeply that I simply have to do something about it, and I will be lacking if I do not. The idea of loving another does not include circles – it has nothing to do with people’s similarity.

Evolutionary theory teaches that co-operation is as important for survival as competition. You’re irreplaceable and unique – but remember that we need you! The strength of the team is each individual. The strength of each individual is the team.

The idea that every Jew is worthy enough to be presented before God and the generation’s leadership, that every Jew must lift their head high, is timeless and eternal. Moreover, it teaches a broader lesson that is portable to all and covers women, children, and the elderly as well. The Jewish People are something massively monumental, yet we each have our own significant role to play. We must celebrate each other’s unique contributions while striving to do more ourselves.

This probably illuminates an interesting comment by Rashi, that the point of the census was to discern how many people had survived the plague that followed the Golden Calf debacle. The plague killed a small fraction of the total population figure given in the Torah, so it’s strange to talk in terms of “survivors” when only a few succumbed. But if we consider each individual as a core component of the Jewish People, then the Jewish People as a whole really is damaged by the loss of any single person, and the remainder truly are “survivors”.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that if the Jewish People are a Sefer Torah, then every Jew is a letter.

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

You can be the best whistler in the world, but you can’t whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra.

Keep Chopping

4 minute read
Straightforward

Mark Twain famously admired the Jewish People’s survival through the ages. The great empires of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all rose and fell, yet the Jewish People endured.

What, he wondered, was the secret to Jewish immortality?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that for every nation and culture in history, land, not law, brought people together. People first formed settlements, then small groups, then villages, and then built towns and cities. As the groups grew, they became unstable and developed legal systems to resolve disputes and uncertainties – first the land, then the law. Unique to the Jewish People is the phenomenon that the law precedes the land, and it transforms the expected trajectory of Judaism by making it non-contingent. When a nation is exiled and dispersed, it doesn’t typically survive; Judaism has spent most of its history in the diaspora – not sovereign in Israel.

And it has a lot to do with the fact that the Torah was given in the desert wilderness the fourth book of the Torah is named for – במדבר; the location of three-quarters of the Torah’s stories, where the Jewish People accepted the Torah and formed a covenant with God, lived on miraculous manna and water, while sheltered under divine cloud cover.

At that moment, the Jewish People were constituted long before they ever saw the land, and so they could survive, identity intact, without it. As only R’ Jonathan Sacks could put it – the law came before the land, so even when the Jews lost the land, they still had the law. Without geography, there was still history.

Pagan worship often revolves around natural life cycles and ecosystems, to which the desert wilderness is inhospitable, teaching the essential lesson that the One God exists in the emptiness too.

This understanding inverts our expectation of the exilic trope of the wandering Jew. We don’t practice a majority of the Torah in exile – the laws of the Temple, the laws of the Land, the laws of government, or the laws of holiness and purity, among others. But although exile is not ideal, we can still thrive.

Our ancestor Yakov was the final prototype of the Jewish people and is the archetype for life on the run. When Yakov leaves home for the first time, Rashi comments that even with his departure, and even in his sleep, the sanctity of the land went with him – it was contingent on him, not where he found himself. He fled from home, from Lavan, from Esau, and then from Israel. Yet he transitions ever upwards, and it all happens on the go, casting off a former identity and emerging anew, foreshadowing the journey his children through the ages would have to take.

The very notion of a Mishkan – a portable temple – embodies the idea that we can create holiness on the move, and it reinforces the idea that the law before the land means that the law without the land is not lesser. If we can live with God in the middle of nowhere, we can live with God anywhere.

It’s the underlying theme of the Purim story as well – in the moments we think we’re most alone, God is by our side every step of the way, no less than when He seems closer. You may have to search a bit, but God doesn’t vanish on us.

The law precedes the land. The model to survive, perhaps even thrive, is placed before us long before being tested – the antidote before the venom. On a far deeper level, it even precedes Creation – it comes before everything else.

None of this is to say that it’s easy to persevere in difficult times – it most certainly is not. There is no shortage of moments in Jewish history where it took all people had only to scrape by, at times physically, other times spiritually, and on occasion both. There is no shortage of moments where people were lucky to make it out alive. Our circumstances can be cruel, and that pain is genuine, and we must be careful not to callously dismiss it.

Yakov’s life was fraught with pain and strife, and the spectre of mortal danger loomed over his family throughout. The Jews fought Moshe and struggled to live in the wilderness from beginning to end. The Jews in the Purim story came perilously close to a genocide that was averted at the very last. If anyone says it’s easy – it’s assuredly not.

We don’t choose our circumstances, and sometimes the odds can be stacked against us. On a national level, exile has lasted for most of our history, but again, the law precedes the land. So sure, we yearn for redemption every day, hoping for a time we can practice the Torah in its fullness; but this is where we are right now, and life today isn’t worth a smidge less than it could be – so long as we’re doing the best we can. If we’re doing everything within our power, what more could God possibly ask of us? Perfection describes a process, not an outcome.

Channeling our ancestor, the archetype of Yakov, we can shine through pain and exile – not just surviving, but perhaps even thriving.

There are times we feel lost, scared, and alone. Sometimes the only real choice we have is whether we can even keep going at all. It’s real, and it’s hard! But we do have the capacity – הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says we’ll try again tomorrow.

Flags and Formations

< 1 minute
Straightforward

Wherever the Jewish People camped and traveled in the wilderness, the tribes were always positioned in a particular formation, which the Torah goes into lengthy detail about several times.

But we’re one people! Why are there tribes, and why was there any kind of formation; and more importantly, what are we supposed to make of the specific logistics millennia after the fact?

R’ Norman Lamm notes that we read about the formations before Shavuos when we celebrate receiving the Torah. We might think that we’re doing pretty great – we’re in the camp of Torah after all!

The Torah gently reminds us that that’s never been enough. The twelve tribes all had different characteristics, and each contributed in its own particular way. For example, Yehuda, the largest and strongest, tapped for leadership and monarchy, was the first in the formation and the first into battle.

We all have particular skills and functions useful at a particular time and place. It’s not enough to be Torah-oriented in general – what is your individual place and purpose in particular? What do you stand for?

We need only remind ourselves of Bilam, a man whose belief in God’s existence was as genuine and absolute as it gets and yet, remained an awful human.

Believing is step one only. The formations matter because we need a reminder that we can’t hide in the crowd.

It’s what we do that matters.

Attitude Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

During the Jewish People’s time in the desert, God gave a variety of commands.

We expect God to give commands, it comes with the territory, that’s what God does, it makes sense. They’d only just left Egypt and stood at Sinai; there was a new religion with new procedures and protocols to implement. And after all, there’s no way to know what God wants unless God says so!

What God says, we expect the audience to do, which the Torah dutifully records – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן. 

But what we might not expect is that the Torah reports with meticulous regularity, each and every time, not just that people obey, but that people carry out their task as per God’s command – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. The Torah uses this phrase tens, if not hundreds of times!

If you think about it, apart from the repetitiveness, it’s almost entirely redundant. It’s not at all obvious what doing something per God’s command adds, because, in almost every example, there is literally no other conceivable way to do the thing.

When God says to light the Menora, there is only one way to light a Menora. When God says to take a census of how many people there are, the only way to fulfill the command is to count people. When God says to bring a Korban Pesach, or how to do the Yom Kippur service, or any of the Mishkan-related workflows, or to go to war with Midian, or to execute somebody, there isn’t any other way to do any of those things! And yet each time, the Torah doesn’t say people followed their instructions; it says that the people followed their instructions faithfully as per God’s command – ‘וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. 

Each time people follow instructions, why does the Torah add that they followed the instructions per God’s command?

Perhaps the Torah isn’t telling us that they did it; it’s telling us how they did it.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that even when there truly is only one way to do something, there is still a right and wrong way. When the Torah adds that people followed instructions faithfully – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה – it’s not saying that they did just like they were told; it means that people follow instructions just like when they were told, capturing the snapshot of sentiment or feeling of a particular moment.

When you do anything, even if there’s no other way, you can still do it with energy, focus, and joy; or not – a right way and a wrong way, even when there’s only one way. 

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

Rashi quotes the Sifri that Ahron lit the Menora every day, precisely the way Moshe told him for the rest of his life, and never changed or deviated in any way – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה; the Sifri suggests that our everyday approach to Torah should similarly be with freshness and excitement – וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל־לְבָבֶךָ.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa notes that as much as the comment is about Ahron not changing how he performed his duties, it’s equally a comment about how his duties didn’t change him. Some people let privilege and honor get to their heads – but not Ahron.

The Sfas Emes notes that lighting the Menora wasn’t a particularly prestigious ceremony in that any Kohen could kindle the lights. Still, Ahron took it seriously enough that he insisted on doing it himself every day for the rest of his life – every day, he did it like the moment he received the command.

The Ishbitza notes that the highest praise for Ahron is that he retained that initial desire, that things never got stale or boring for him. He kept challenging himself to find something new and exciting, so he lit the Menora his last time with the same enthusiasm as the first.

The Shem mi’Shmuel notes that the word for training, which means practice repetitions, is cognate to the word for inauguration, the first time you do something – חינוך / חנוכה. This suggests that training is not simply a repeat of past performance but the repetition of newness, with each repetition inviting an opportunity to introduce a fresh aspect or dimension.

Attitude and mentality are everything; the mental and emotional components heavily influence the substance of any interaction. Prayer and sacrifice require proper intent to have any substance to them; there is a vast difference between giving someone a hand because you care and giving someone a hand out of pity.

A Torah scroll is quite clearly and obviously a religious article, and yet it has no inherent sanctity from its perfect script and spelling. A Torah scroll is kosher and sacred exclusively if they were written with the express intent of imbuing the words and scroll with sanctity; which is to say that its utility and value as a holy object are solely determined by the mentality of the scribe.

The Mishkan had plenty of unique artifacts like the Menora, but it had some pretty ordinary implements that everyone owns; a shirt, a hat, a cup, and a spoon. What designated these as sacred and distinct is the intention with which they were crafted.

This is a universal truth in all walks of life, from Judaism to art to cooking. A great cook will say their secret ingredient is love; a great artist or sage will say their secret technique is heart and soul. 

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., if a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

Mastery is typically boring. Finishing your fiftieth marathon is probably less special than your first.

It’s normal.

The more we experience something, the more our enthusiasm and attention typically wane. Predictability and comfort put an end to fresh euphoria; when we know what to expect, our excitement wears off, and boredom sets in. That’s why we need to keep things fresh if we’re focused on a long-term project or goal; cruise control is a killer.

It’s something often seen with young athletes or scholars who lose their way – they think they’ve made it and stop putting in the work that would take them to the elite tier. The seasoned pros always comment on how essential it is for youngsters to maintain their concentration and focus to stay on track; to be fully present in each moment and devote their full and undivided attention so things don’t get boring.

In all walks of life, the highest form of mastery is in valuing each repetition and finding the novelty and excitement in it.

It’s not redundant for the Torah to say each time that people did the right thing in the right way for the right reason. It is ubiquitous because it reflects a truism of life, a constant reminder that is universally true.

The way you do things matters.