May 26, 2012 – 5 Sivan 5772
Annual: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 (Etz Hayim p. 769; Hertz p. 568)
Triennial: Numbers 2:1 – 3:13 (Etz Hayim p. 774; Hertz p.572)
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (Etz Hayim p. 787; Hertz p. 582)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
While the Hebrew name of the Torah’s fourth book, Bamidbar – literally “in the wilderness” – provides the setting for its opening parashah, its familiar English name, Numbers, suggests the content of these initial chapters. A census of the Israelite population is taken. Excluding the tribe of Levi, there are 603,550 Israelite men of military age. The Levites, replacing Israel’s first-born sons, are placed in charge of the Tabernacle’s assembly and transportation. This inaugurates their unique role in the cultic and spiritual life of the nation. Still, they are to remain subordinate to the priestly line of which Aaron was founder and progenitor.
Chapter 2 provides a detailed account of the order in which the Israelite tribes proceeded through the wilderness and their structured arrangement when they make camp, with each marking its territory with an ancestral tribal banner. The tribes are divided into four groupings, east, south, north, and west of the Tabernacle. The Levites are encamped separately, close to the Tabernacle.
Another census, counting all male Levites from the age of one month, finds some 22,000; the number is recorded “by ancestral house and by clan.” A second census of the tribe of Levi, counting men between 30 and 50 years old, is taken to calculate the work force that would be assigned various tasks, including carrying the Tabernacle. Similarly, the duties of Aaron and his priestly line in maintaining and preparing the sacred accoutrements and ritual objects within the Tabernacle are listed.
Theme #1: “Though he may tally, still I believe”
“All the Israelites, aged 20 years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms – all who were enrolled came to 603,550.” (Numbers 1:46)
“The Book of Numbers opens on a triumphant note. A census of all conscriptable males above the age of 20 yields precisely 603,550 – a figure that implies a total population of over two million Israelites. God’s promise to Abraham, ‘I will make of you a great nation,’ has been fulfilled…. In truth, we never came close to being as innumerable as the stars…The paucity in our numbers drives us to take comfort in the profusion of quality, as we should – for never have so few influenced so many. Therein lies the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that his seed will be a blessing to all humanity.” (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)
“The Israelites may have needed parameters for whom to include and whom to exclude from the census described in B’midbar, but we must remember why even those not tallied do, in fact, matter. Today we may count every individual in our community, but may still discount how much they have to offer. The missing members in this parashah can teach us to reconsider what it means to count… All those we now seek to include genuinely are individuals, with much to gain from and offer to our communities.” (Rachel Stock Spilker, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)
“The census was commanded for three distinct purposes: that the people might gain added merit by passing before Moses and Aaron and being mentioned by name… In order to determine who was fit for battle… to demonstrate the greatness of God’s mercies, since the 70 souls who had originally come to Egypt grew into a host over 600,000….” (Ketav Sofer)
“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” (Albert Einstein)
“Anyone can count the seeds in an apple. Only God can count the number of apples in a seed.” (Robert Schuller)
Questions for Discussion
What was the purpose behind the census of the Israelites? To demonstrate the triumphant growth of the nation since its modest origins? Or to emphasize the diminutive size of Israel compared to other – in some ways greater – nations? How has the answer to this question changed and evolved over the course of our history?
To whom in the Jewish community does Rachel Stock Spilker’s observation about those “not tallied” apply? What groups are sometimes excluded from our thinking and strategic planning? To what neglected demographics and constituencies within the Jewish community should our congregations be turning special attention and renewed effort?
How might Albert Einstein have related his comment regarding “everything that can be counted” to Chancellor Schorsch’s statement about the Jewish emphasis on quality rather than quantity?
Robert Schuller’s statement reminds us about the very mundane aspect of censustaking. How might Israel’s execution of this divinely mandated accounting have strengthened their understanding of God’s unique qualities and nature? Was the census about Israel’s present strength and numbers, or was it about their unseen potential in the hands of Providence, which “only God can count”?
Theme #2: “Baby It’s You”
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying: ‘Record the Levites by ancestral house and by clan; record every male among them from the age of one month up.’” (Numbers 3:14-15)
“From the age of one month: For purposes of military readiness, Israelites were counted only from the age of 20. Spiritual training, however, must begin virtually at birth.” (Humash Etz Hayim)
“The tribe of Levi represents our leadership. ‘Today,’ says Maimonides, ‘everyone who accepts Torah leadership is considered an integral member of tribe of Levi!’ For that mission, no child is too young! Charged with the mission of guarding the sanctuary and preserving the spirituality of the nation, we must lift the heads of our children, imbuing them with finite goals and responsibilities, from their very first moments of cognizance. We must raise them to the greatest height of spirituality at the earliest age.” (Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky)
“Brain research has taught us that the first three to five years of life are a time of extraordinary brain development. Jewish early childhood scholars tell us that during this period of amazing growth, Jewish experiences lay the groundwork for a lifelong Jewish identity and create the basis upon which all future learning is built. Jewish early childhood education is about building the foundation of a strong, vibrant, joyful Jewish identity for each child. A child who lights the candles and makes challah in his classroom each week in preparation for Shabbat begins to understand the rhythm of Jewish time. A child who sings the Shema with her classmates at morning circle and recites brachot before snack each day begins to build her own relationship with God. Children who act out the story of Abraham and Sarah receiving guests at the entrance of their tent begin to take ownership of the most important of all Jewish books, the Torah.” (Maxine Handelman, United Synagogue consultant for early childhood education)
“A babe in the house is a wellspring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men.” (Martin Farquhar Tupper)
Questions for Discussion
A number of the authorities cited above discuss the benefit that accrues to our youngest children through early religious education and spiritual experiences. What benefit devolves upon us – upon the Jewish community in general – through principled attention to early childhood education? Which of these dynamics do you believe explains the unusual method of accounting prescribed in our verse?
How might the lyrical statement of Martin Farquhar Tupper, 19th century British poet and philosopher, help explain the unique approach to the Levites’ census?
What are the programmatic and fiscal implications for our congregations of the “brain research” cited by Maxine Handelman? How can we reach out to new parents, especially given the fact that families tend to affiliate with congregations only once their children are old enough for religious school, thus missing the critical years between the ages of 3 and 5?
How can parents (and grandparents) convey a sense of mission and responsibility for religious expression and leadership to our young children, as discussed by Rabbi Kamenetzky? How do we provide “the foundation of a strong, vibrant, joyful Jewish identity for each child,” as Maxine Handelman describes? How do we provide compensatory experiences for those who lack such a religious background? To Jews who find religious meaning only later in life? To those who convert to Judaism as adults?
In Parashat Bamidbar, read on May 26, 2012, the tribes of Israel are commanded to encamp and to travel through the wilderness bearing their tribal banners. On May 26, 1941, the “American Flag House” – the historic home that had belonged to Betsy Ross, the storied seamstress who is said to have created the first American flag – was presented to the city of Philadelphia.
The exclusion of the tribe of Levi from military service in deference to their spiritual and cultic responsibilities carries a measure of irony. Together with Shimon, it was Levi who was disparaged by Jacob in his deathbed message, responding to the bellicose brothers’ attack on Shechem in reprisal for the rape and kidnapping of their sister Dinah: “Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be counted in their assembly… Cursed be their anger so fierce” (Genesis 49:5-7). In reference to the exemption of yeshiva students from service in the Israel Defense Forces on the basis of their sacred studies and religious commitments, Rabbi Reuven Hammer has written: “Service in Zahal (the IDF) is a halachic duty incumbent on every Jew living in the State of Israel. Whoever sees himself as engaged in important religious work has an even greater obligation to set an example by military service. Not to do this involves violation of three major mitzvot: Participation in a commanded war for the defense of the State of Israel; ‘do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’; the saving of human life. To shirk this duty is to violate the halachah” (Responsa of the Vaad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel).