Every year on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we read parshah Bamidbar. “Bamidbar,” Hebrew for “in the wilderness,” is commonly known to the English-speaking world as The Book of Numbers. The first parshah shares the name of the Book. As we have touched upon before, we currently live in a world rife with numbers in the place of human beings. Is it a coincidence that New York State has a plan to reopen from economic shutdown in 4 phases? The first three Books of Moses are Bereishit, Shemot, and Vayikra. The 4th book? Bamidbar, The Book of Numbers. That is just a bit of synchronicity to chew on for those who are interested in such things.
“‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel’” (Num. 1:2-3). G-d begins Bamidbar by asking Moses to take a census of all men who are of an age that is deemed fit for engagement in warfare. To make matters a bit confusing, the Levites, who are in charge of service to the Sanctuary, are left out of that particular count. Rashi tells us that the Levites are left out of the larger count to serve the Sanctuary. They are the “Divine King’s Legion,” and deserved a different census. With the counting complete, all “military-aged” males totaled 603,550, while all Levites who were at least one month old amounted to 22,300. The Hertz Chumash implies that one of the many possible reasons for the census-taking was simply discipline and organization. As the people of Israel trekked toward Canaan, G-d seemed to want them to appear as a solid unit, not as a disorganized conglomeration of runaway slaves.
As states across our own country begin to reopen, or wrestle with reopening, certain benchmarks and guidelines are being put into place. We hear of death rates, hospitalizations, available beds for the potentially ill, testing, and contact tracing. All of these categories must meet certain standards for New York State in particular to begin its phasing in of economic reopening. In other words, there is a lot of counting going on in order to organize. If we all just ran outside of our homes and out into retail stores, hair salons, and restaurants, the results would likely be dire. We trace and count methodically in order to maintain a semblance of discipline. This is a concept that is right in front of us in this week’s Torah portion. Counting people is nothing new, and we see the old become new again before our eyes. Everyone is given a task and a position in Bamidbar, just as we have “contact tracers” identifying the “position” of the infected and collecting information. Numbers and tracking have always been important.
All of this counting, all of these years in the wilderness, and all of this preparation. Let’s reflect: If G-d was going to reveal the Torah to the people of Israel, why did He wait, and not just give Torah to them immediately upon their exit from bondage in Egypt? Why did G-d not lead the people directly to the Promised Land through Philistine Territory after exiting Egypt? According to the sages, and Rabbi Isaac in particular, perhaps G-d wanted to make sure the people were ready. I would like to share with you a very relevant parable from the Talmud, particularly the Aggadic writings. There was once a king’s son who had just recovered from severe illness. The boy’s tutor asked the king to let the boy go back to school. The king immediately said no, because the boy’s “look of good health has not come back to him.” The king commanded that his son be given proper food and drink for three months, allowing him to fully recover before returning to school. Like the king from this story, G-d knew that His children (of Israel) did not have their “look of good health” back after having been slaving away with clay and bricks in Egypt for so long. He wanted them to be given time to recover in the wilderness and be fed manna and have their thirst quenched for a while before receiving the Torah and eventually marching readily toward Canaan.
What do we take from all of this? Certain factors must “add up” before we act in haste. Today, most schools around the country are closed for the remainder of this school year, and will hopefully not reopen until time has sufficed for our society to recover enough to make a comeback safe and worthwhile. The king from the parable knew not to rush his son back as soon as possible. G-d knew not to thrust the Israelites into Canaan, or give Torah to a people who likely needed time to prepare for such profound responsibility.
The Torah, in all of its beautiful insight, makes sure to list the names of every tribe being counted. Would our current leaders take a different approach to “the numbers” if they were to see families and names attached to them? G-d knew of the importance of humanizing, and our Torah portion takes the time to do so. We can hope and pray that our current leaders are using the numbers well before asking us to return our children to school, our loved ones to work, and those who know not better into the crowded streets of a city or aisles of a shopping mall.
Parshah Bamidbar ends with a phrase related to the breaking down and moving of the Sanctuary. “But they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die” (Num. 4:20). “K’valah et ha’kodesh” or “as they are being covered” might translate better to “as the (Sanctuary) is being taken apart.” What of this final verse? Many believed that if people were to see the Sanctuary and all of its pieces being disassembled, they would lose the great admiration that they had for the Sanctuary. During the time of this virus, we seem to have been given a glimpse “behind the curtain,” so to speak. Our leaders appear more prone than ever, and their strengths and weaknesses glaring. As they count and plan, hopefully meticulously, we can look to our Mishkan T’filah once again for a short prayer:
“Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance.
May they govern with justice and compassion.”
Our lives, and the lives of those we love must be protected as G-d protected our ancestors in the wilderness. The moment of truth is coming. History repeats itself. May we all travel safely in the wilderness–Bamidbar–thinking of our neighbors as our loved ones, and protecting the vulnerable with the spark of Divinity that eternally burns within ourselves. May the Shechinah rest within our midst as it did in the tents of our forebearers.