By Name and Not by Number

24 May 2020 

This week we start a new book of the Torah – Bamidbar or the book of Numbers.

Bamidbar gets off to what might seem a rather dull start. God asks Moses to take a census of the tribes.  God wants to know the numbers, literally. But some of the rabbis ask themselves why God wants another census when they just had one – in Exodus, prior to the construction of the Mishkan.

Rashbam – Rashi’s grandson – offers a very practical answer.  The census was military – to ensure the people would have a strong enough army to face potential hostility when they entered the land. That’s why the Levites are not numbered – because they had ritual things to do and weren’t expected to serve in the army (there are modern day parallels I’m sure you are aware of). For Nachmanides, the army reference means we should not rely on miracles. We know from history that God intervenes, God liberates, but here as Israel is about to enter the land, it’s important for the people to be prepared for hostility.

Perhaps the most memorable of Nachmanides’ reflections on this passage is the idea that God loved the people so much he wanted to count them, out of love for them, and to see how they had prospered and multiplied after going down to Egypt only 70 in number.

The Midrash, however, in Bamidbar Rabbah, takes us one step further and focuses on something even more important. “The Eternal ordered Moses to number the people in a manner that would confer honour and greatness on each of them, individually.” It wasn’t just a question of counting families or households as we tend to do today in Jewish communities; the people were to be counted by name, by each person’s individual name.

Many of us follow the Covid numbers on TV every day.  We’re happy and relieved when we see the numbers decline, when we see the curve flattening out. But we’re still only looking at numbers. Behind each number is an infected or hospitalised person, an anxious person and an anxious family. And then there are the deaths, a bereaved family, traumatised by the death of a loved one in isolation … we are all individuals and we are counted by name.

For the 15th century Spanish Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama (in his Aḳedat Yitzchaḳ - The Binding of Isaac) the census at the beginning of Badmidbar is not about counting “… animals or material objects… each one had an importance of his or her own … and God had shown special love to towards them… this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status; for they were all equal and individual in status.”

In our Covid circumstances we are all individuals, not objects or animals, and we are counted by name just as Moses counted the people before entering the land.  And while we might be tempted to pray for an easy solution, a quick fix, a miracle cure, like Israel we are called to be prepared, to use our own resources and to rely on common sense and qualified experts.

Nachmanides adds an extra nuance, saying that what was unique about this second census was that each person got a personal blessing from Moses and Aaron. This new count was to extend a special blessing to each and every individual.

We can all use a special blessing these days. Maybe this week? Shavua Tov!

Brian Doyle

IJC Rabbinical Intern