“Chosen By Name” Parashat Bemidbar 5774

The word “Bemidbar” literally means “in the desert”. The Book of Bemidbar tells of the travails of Am Yisrael during their forty-year sojourn in the desert. And yet the Book of Bemidbar is most commonly translated not as “The Book of the Desert,”, but, rather, as “The Book of Numbers”. This name is used by our Sages[1] and subsequently in the King James Bible[2]. A cursory look at Parashat Bemidbar can enable us to understand the reason for this translation: the entire Parasha is essentially one long number. The Parasha contains no less than three censuses. First, Am Yisrael (minus the Tribe of Levi) are counted tribe-by-tribe. Then the Tribe of Levi is counted family-by-family. Finally the first-born of Am Yisrael are counted. This census is not the only census in the Book of Bemidbar. Parashat Pinchas also contains a census[3]. So it is fair to say “The Book of Numbers” is a valid name for “The Book of Bemidbar”.

But is it the best name? Parashat Bemidbar contains some of the most seminal episodes in our history, episodes that shaped and continue to shape our nation. To this day we are punished for the sin of the spies who spoke out against the Land of Israel. To this day we begin our prayers with the words spoken by the prophet Balaam in his abortive attempt to curse Am Yisrael [Bemidbar 24:5]: “How good are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel!” Why, then, should the Book of Bemidbar be named after two censuses whose results have not been relevant for thousands of years?

And what is so wonderful about a census, anyway? From a psychological standpoint, people have an inherent fear of “being reduced to a number”. It impinges upon our sense of humanity. For example, the statement “Six million were murdered in the Holocaust” rarely elicits emotion. But an emotionally healthy person listening to the names of the children murdered during those horrific years, read one by one in a monotone in the darkness of the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, cannot stop himself from crying. From a religious standpoint, it is halachically forbidden to count people. The Torah commands that a census be performed by counting coins, and not people. King David counted people and was punished with a horrible plague. Even using coins, censuses were performed rarely, and only when absolutely required[4].

Parashat Bemidbar is not only about numbers. After Hashem commands Moshe to count the people, He nominates a group of twelve men, one from each tribe, who will help Moshe and Aharon to perform the census. These men are hitherto unknown. One of them, Nachshon the son of Aminadav, is mentioned indirectly in the Torah as being the brother-in-law of Aharon. A well-known Midrash tells a story of how Nachshon was the first person to enter the Red Sea, which only parted after the water reached his nose. All the other men on the list are completely anonymous. Why does Hashem choose them? The Malbim answers that these men were all accomplished Rabbis. They sat on the courts and therefore it was appropriate for them to serve on the census committee. The problem with this answer is that it has no clear source in the Torah. The Torah gives but one small hint as to why these men were chosen. We are told [Bemidbar 1:17] that they were “chosen by name” (“nik’vu b’shemot”). What does this mean?

We can acquire some useful insight by looking at another group of twelve men in the Book of Bemidbar. These are the men chosen by Moshe in Parashat Shelach to spy out the Land of Israel in preparation for its invasion and capture. They are also unheard of before they are chosen. The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [34b] notes this fact and comments that while these men were unknown, they were “named after their actions”. The Talmud brings two examples: “Setur” – who destroyed (satar) Hashem’s works – “the son of Michael” – who made Hashem appear weak (mach), and “Nachbi” – who hid (hechbi) Hashem’s words – “the son of Vofsi” – who trampled (pasa) upon Hashem’s goodness. Not too many children out there today with the names “Setur” or “Nachbi” or “Vofsi”, and for good reason. The names of the other spies aren’t much better. One is the son of “Susi” – a horse – and another is a son of “Gemali” – a camel.

Given their names, it is difficult to understand why Moshe chose specifically these people. An answer lies in a philosophical question that we have asked multiple times in these shiurim: What is a name? The answer we have given is that a person’s name is more than “what he is called”. A person’s name is actually a part of his persona. It is an expression of his inner spirit, such that when a parent gives a child a name, he is, in some way, being prophetic. But this only strengthens our question: these spies were born to be mean. What was Moshe thinking by choosing them?

Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in the “Torah Temima”, asserts that it is inconceivable that the parents of the spies would name their children after evil deeds that they would one day perform. Rav Epstein steers us to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [7b] that teaches that “shema garim” – “the name causes [a certain kind of behaviour]”. This Talmud can be explained, in turn, via the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [156a] that asserts that a person born when the planet Mars dominates the night sky will become either a murderer or a doctor. Disregarding, for the moment, the astronomical associations, the Talmud is aware that each person is born with certain personality traits. While these traits, within themselves, are neither good nor bad, they can be expressed in ways that are either good or bad. For instance, “Setur” was not born to be a slanderer. He was probably a no-nonsense person from birth. He was result-driven and did not like excuses. This is why Moshe chose him. But when Setur saw that the Land of Israel was inhabited by people who had larger armies and better weapons, he felt that the military option was unfeasible, and he said so.

This brings us back to the men chosen to help Moshe count Am Yisrael. These people were chosen not “by their names”, but “because of their names”[5]. Let’s take a closer look at their names. Nearly all of them have one of Hashem’s names incorporated into their name. These names include “Elyasaf” – “Hashem has added”, “Elitzur” – “Hashem is my rock”, and “Avidan” – “My [Heavenly] Father has judged”. The three people who do not have Hashem’s name incorporated in theirs do have names have names with a similar motif. These include “[the son of] Aminadav” – “given by my nation”, “Achiezer” – “my brother’s help”, and “Achira” – “my brother’s close friend”. All of these names are associated with attaching one’s self to something greater than one’s self. And this was precisely the goal of the census. The importance of the census was not the number of people in Am Yisrael at that particular time It was the mere taking of the census that was important. Am Yisrael could not traverse the desert without attaining the identity as a nation. While a census risks blurring the self-identity of the individual, it demonstrates that the existence of Am Yisrael as an entity transcends that of the individual. And so specifically these twelve men, men whose names, and hence, whose inner being, extended beyond their own boundaries, were chosen to assist Moshe in the census.

It is no mystery why many children today share the names of these twelve people, including my son Elyassaf. May they all merit leading Am Yisrael in the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1]They called it “Chumash Pekudim”.

[2]The King James Bible is based on the translation of the “Seventy Elders” from Hebrew into Greek some 2300 years ago; see the Talmud in Tractate Megilla [9a].

[3]While Parashat Pinchas is read only seven weeks after Parashat Bemidbar, chronologically it transpired nearly forty years after the census in Parashat Bemidbar.

[4]The Torah contains four censuses. Rashi feels a need to explain why each and every one was needed.

[5]Both translations are valid.