The Avodah Blog

Bamidbar 5781

This week, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. In
Hebrew, bamidbar means wilderness or desert. In English, the title
Numbers derives from the multiple censuses taken throughout the book.
Bamidbar is a much more apt title for the journey that we will be
taking these next many weeks, as we enter the liminal space and state
of being that the Jewish people are inhabiting as they continue to
negotiate their relationships to themselves and one another. We also
read this Torah portion most years on the Shabbat before Shavuot, as
is the case this year. Shavuot is the holiday on which tradition
teaches that we received Torah collectively on Mt. Sinai. Our
journeying these past seven weeks of counting the Omer parallels in
some respects the journeys that the book of Bamidbar will guide us
through over the next few months. Just as on Pesach/Passover we move
from narrowness to expansiveness, from slavery to freedom, so, too, as
we move through these weeks of counting the Omer, we are moving, day
by day, towards the ultimate revelation of Torah in all of its
fullness, challenge, complexity and joy.

Parshat Bamidbar introduces us to the messiness that is Sefer Bamidbar
first in its opening census. Only men from the ages of 20-60 are
counted, tribe by tribe. It is from this and other similar censuses in
the Torah that the Jewish people have developed traditions and ideas
about how to count, and who counts. We have a longstanding custom not
to count people directly, as counting people is a means of
commodification, of flattening their humanity. When we count, we tend
to obscure the unique and irreplaceable individuality of those whom we
count. Think of the statistics we encounter every day, how it is far
easier for the human mind to grasp numbers than to grasp the enormity
and often the tragedy and heartbreak those numbers contain.
Traditionally, when a minyan for prayer is being assembled, we recite
a verse from the Tanakh that contains ten words, understanding a
minyan has been gathered once the final word rings out. Each of those
ten individuals forming that sacred community and container are
infinitely needed. So, too, are each one of us. In a world in which
the enormity of human suffering and violence are too hard to bear, it
is essential, now more than ever, never to forget that those numbers
we encounter represent human beings, universes unto themselves, all of
whom are infinitely precious, to G-d if not, G-d-forbid, to us.

The census that opens Parashat Bamidbar is quite dry and to the point,
listing men of military age according to their tribal affiliation.
When we liturgically read that census, are we nodding off or asking
questions about the individuals whose names ring out year after year?
Who are they? What were their lives like? Who loved them? Who cradled
them in their arms at times of trial and at times of joy? What was
their journey out of Egypt like? What stories do they carry with them?
And what about the lives of those whose names we will never know,
whose stories we have lost? How can we use the sacred gift of
storytelling to unearth, with humility, that which is not found in the
pshat, or simple/straightforward read of the Torah’s text?
Let us use our capacity for curiosity and wonder in a world so
desperately lacking both, so that we may never forget, in our times of
assumed knowing all that we do not know, all we must learn.

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