Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1 – 4:20. Click here to read the previous portion, Parsha Behar-Bechukotai.
Welcome to Numbers, the fourth, yes the fourth book of Moses and the Torah. And we start off with a Parsha that’s about as exciting as you can imagine a book called “Numbers” can be.
Indeed, God and Moses are counting. They’re counting the members of various tribes of the Israelite people. There are names, there are lists, and yes, there are numbers.
Up to this point, I’ve been able to find something, even if just a phrase, that resonated with me in same way. Maybe it drew an interesting thought, a modern comparison, or it just made me laugh––Torah God with His yearning for pleasing odors and the ox in the habit of goring come to mind.
Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in feeling like I was at a table reading for a Sesame Street episode without any of the voices or, well, fun.
“This Parsha puts me in a little bit of a bad mood,” says Abigail Pogrebin on Parsha In Progress. “Every other Parsha, literally, virtually every other had spoken to me in some way and I this is like I scroll through verse upon verse and it’s just a list, it’s a fairly numbing list.”
“There’s a reason it’s called Numbers,” quips her co-host, Rabbi Dov Linzer.
So what is this Parsha? I had to really lean on this episode of Parsha In Progress to get anything out of it.
Torah and the Census
According to Rabbi Linzer, they’re counting the members of each Israelite tribe and how they will move forward toward the Holy Land.
Rabbi Linzer quotes Rashi, the renowned 11th Century French Rabbi, who said that this Parsha is about how much God loves his people, constantly counting them, which means you matter. This brings to mind the other ways people are counted in Jewish tradition, namely when we’re gone. During Yom HaShoa, the names of those who were murdered in the Holocaust are read aloud, we memorialize the loss of a loved one with a candle on their Jahrzeit (anniversary of their passing), or throughout Europe we have the Stolpersteine that mark where a Jewish person once lived and what happened to them during the war.
But it also brings to mind an obvious way we’re all counted in the secular world––the census. If the Torah, this ancient text that’s become incredibly influential in world history whether you like it or not, is saying that counting is the equivalent of God saying you matter, then look at that relationship in our secular lives. Do we not matter to the government if we’re not counted?
Census advocates are constantly imploring disadvantage people to make sure they’re counted in the census because it’ll force the government to acknowledge these groups of people matter and address their unique needs. Here’s the ACLU advocating the importance of being counting, in case you’d rather read smart people talking about it. But the gist of it is––make sure you’re counted.
Wait a second… Shit. Did I get something out of this Parsha after all?