Parshat Bamidbar

Torah Reading for Week of May 9-15, 2021
By Rabbi Corinne Copnick, ’15
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
There has been much public discussion, sadly so recently acrimonious, about the value of every human life. Of course black lives matter! In fact, the assertion that every single life matters, every single life counts — whether white, black, brown, yellow, or red, or shades in between — has been an essential Jewish value for thousands of years. Every life has been created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It is one of the lessons of Bamidbar, from which our Torah portion for this week is taken.
The Torah portion takes place in the desert, in the wilderness of Sinai, after the Exodus has already taken place. At God’s instruction, Moses is preparing for the future by taking a census of all young men over twenty able to bear arms. The immediate purpose is to determine the strength of the Israeli community – as well as potential tax revenues, since the Jewish people are always practical – so that they will be able to defend themselves against any foes. And in doing so, every life counts. Every life has value. In all the hues that Jewish life represents around the world.
But taking a census in biblical times was not so easy because of a general, deep-seated ambivalence toward counting. The plague had decimated so many people that the Jews superstitiously avoided being counted so that the plague wouldn’t find them. They also believed that knowing the numbers set limits on growth and blessing, and that it was better not to know. Only God knows whose days are numbered. Therefore, a census had to have divine sanction, as it does in this passage, or there would be dire consequences.
According to medieval commentators Sforno and Abarbanel, since men of that biblical generation were usually identified by a name that expressed their personal character, God told Moses to count the names rather than the men so that he need not fear incurring a plague or other consequences in retribution. In that way, every life was counted.
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Here is a story I like to tell: I learned that every life counts long before I read this Torah portion. I learned this value when I was eleven years old from an animal, from my pet cat, Buttons. She was a beautiful Persian cat with piercing green eyes and fur so glossy and black it seemed to have purple highlights. Naturally she attracted the attention of some of the neighborhood Toms, and soon we noticed that Buttons seemed heavier around her middle.
Then one evening as I was taking a bath, I heard sounds behind the tile bathroom walls, faint sounds, mice? No, they seemed to be mewing sounds…behind the wall. Wrapping my towel around me, I rushed to the cupboard just outside our bathroom. Sure enough, the cover to the opening of the wide pipe that ran behind the bathroom wall had been chewed off. I put my ear to the pipe and listened. Yes, those sounds were alive, and, oh, the heated air was warm in there. With eleven-year-old valor, I reached my hand in as far as I could and touched…wet fur. That is how I lifted out, first one, then two little kittens. But I could still hear a faint mewing. Stretching my arm to the limit, I reached in once more and lifted out a third kitten. Jubilant, I carried them all downstairs to our warm kitchen and settled them comfortably in a basket lined with soft towels. My little sister instantly named them Spic, Span, and Rainbow. Spic was white, Span was black, and Rainbow was multi-colored.
I thought Buttons would be so pleased to see her kittens safe and sound in the basket. But she was not pleased. She was frantic as she touched each of them on the nose and paused. And then again, she counted noses. Then she rushed up the stairs to the bathroom closet and squeezed into the pipe. She soon emerged with one kitten, and then with another. She carried them down one by one to the basket, and when all five of them were settled, she counted their noses with her own nose. ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR-FIVE. And then again to make sure. That’s how she took her own census. I didn’t know that cats could count. Finally, she settled contentedly into the basket with her kittens.
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That is how I learned from one of God’s small creatures that every life counts. The medieval commentator, Rashi, a wealthy wine merchant in France, who had more accurate biblical texts than most of his contemporaries, certainly thinks so. Why do we need a census, Rashi asks? And then he answers his own question (or the question may have been posed by one of his students).
Because God loves each of his children, he suggests. That’s why God wants us to count. “He is continually counting them,” Rashi adds. “He counted them at the time of the Exodus; again after so many died at the time of the Golden Calf incident, He counted them to find out how many were left; and now when He was going to rest His Shekhinah upon them, He counted them again” on the first of the Hebrew month Iyar.
Some say God counts us every hour. Remember that God promised Abraham, several times, that he would make his seed as numberless as the sand and the stars – “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).
Perhaps, as Nachmanides suggests – and Nechama Liebowitz reminds us — the census is taken – apart from the military purpose – to remind us of just that miracle. The Jews went down to Egypt with only 70 people, and despite their vicissitudes, they grew to be a large number. The Bible says that some 600,000 people left Egypt in the Exodus. Six hundred thousand grains of sand.
As the mystical poet, William Blake (1757-1857), a non-Jew writing from mid- eighteenth to mid- nineteenth century, reminds us so eloquently, we can see the whole world in a single grain of sand. “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Perhaps we can see the whole world in a single name.
So, as Moses sets up a military camp in the desert, it is important to remember that the life of each man, each grain of sand in which we can symbolically see the whole world, matters. His possible death or injury matters. And that the purpose behind military preparedness has to be worth the strategic military formation that Moses initiates.
What does he do? First he appoints tribal chieftains from the descendants of Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, from the descendants of the sons of Joseph, and the rest of the 12 tribes. And then he sets up a strategic, square military camp, divided along ancestral lines and intended to be a mobile force. In the middle of this square, protected on all sides, is the Tent of Meeting, guarded by the Levites, who will not be obliged to fight, and thus are not numbered. Their special job is to protect the sacred objects in the Tabernacle.
I have read this Torah portion in Bamidbar many times over the years. I have given Divrei Torah on various aspects. Every time you read a Torah portion, you find something new. This time, I realized, in a flash of insight, that the most essential purpose of the military formation as the Israelites prepared for their march into the land of Canaan, was to protect what is sacred. To protect the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies inside. Especially since they were moving to what has proved to be a very dangerous neighborhood.
And so, according to God’s explicit instructions, the sacred ritual objects are ceremoniously gathered and meticulously placed on an altar of gold and covered with a blue cloth. Since the Israelites will be travelling to an unknown destination, they are carefully covered with waterproof dolphin skins to protect them. This inner core will be guarded by the Levites and then by the external force of the carefully positioned tribes. Protected by necessity in all directions.
Interestingly, the Haftarah that accompanies this Torah portion, Hosea 2: 1-22, opens with a prophecy of national renewal as God leads the people – ammi, My people — into the desert and then back to the land. As noted modern commentator Michael Fishbane says, “Beloved of God, the nation will respond positively.” Hosea, he claims, is the first prophet to portray the covenant between God and Israel as a marriage, an idea that attained permanent spiritual status in Judaism, culminating in the beautiful, allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs as an Israel yearning for God. An Israel yearning for what is sacred.
Maybe it is only a religious myth that God counts us every hour. Maybe it’s true. But it is very comforting nonetheless to imagine a God that also cares for us, that yearns for us. And for the precious gift of our lives, we owe it to God and to ourselves to make every hour count. To use it well for ourselves in the time that we have – something we especially appreciate as we grow older — and to use it well for the rest of the lives that have been created, for humanity and for all of God’s creatures. And that is why every life counts – whether white, black, or multicolored. Just like Spic, Span, and Rainbow. And still unnamed numbers four and five too.