One of the most common issues that I continuously bump into while working as a rabbi is the difficulty in accurately translating Hebrew words. Sometimes there is truly no noun in the English dictionary that would accurately describe a ‘balagan’ or a proper congratulatory word that would express the true depths of a heart-warming ‘MAZAL TOV.’
In this week’s Parsha we seemingly have one of the most outlandish mistranslations from Hebrew to English. Bamidbar literally means ‘in the desert’ and is based on the opening words of this week’s Torah portion describing the Hebrews current location. However in English, Bamidbar is translated as ‘numbers’ thus canonizing the third book of the Five Books of Moses as ‘The Book of Numbers.’
A bit confusing no?
However, such a translation of Bamidbar is not entirely incorrect, in many ways it brings the true depths and inner meanings of this week’s Parsha and the Sefer as a whole.
The first commandment listed in Bamidbar is G-d instructing Moses to conduct a census on the entire Israelite population.
Censuses are to become a common theme throughout this book however this opening commandment comes off as a bit peculiar. G-d’s commandment at the beginning of this week’s Parsha is seemingly highly redundant being that it was the third time that year the Israelites were to perform a national headcount.
A bit confusing no?
Rashi, the celebrated medieval commentator attempts to answer this conundrum describing the divine commandment of census as being not for pure numerical and statistical value but rather an act similar “to a King counting the jewels in his coffers.”
In order to understand this seemingly obscure commandment it must be explained that a census essentially has two paradoxical truths. Firstly all individuals are equal without exception. Secondly all individuals are highly significant and important – without the individuals there is simply no census.
The later idea is what Hashem was emphasizing in this week’s Torah portion. From the lowest servant to Moses himself, all individuals are venerated and important in the eyes of G-d.
It is no mere coincidence that we begin reading Parshat Bamidbar so close to the three events of Sefirat HaOmer, Shavout and Yom Yerushlayim celebrated today 21/05.
Just like in the counting of the Hebrews in the desert which emphasized the importance of each individual, so too the counting of the Omer is aimed to instil within us an appreciation of each unique day.
Even though the Torah reading of the events of Mount Sinai are in Sefer Shemot, Shavout is celebrated next week while we are reading Sefer Bamidbar. Before the re-receiving of the Torah we read about this census in order to reaffirm the innate unity that is between all of us. As the Talmud states “the Torah only rests amongst those who are at peace.”
And lastly it was undoubtedly our national unity that enabled the victory in 1967 of the small Israeli army against the mighty Arab onslaught. Even though the state of Israel was less than 20 years old, this ragtag group of Polish-Yemenite-Anglo soldiers were able to defy and overcome the Arab armada.
Refusnik Natan Sharansky describes the effect of the 6-Day-War on him and other Jews living in the Soviet Union: “The call that went up from Jerusalem, that “the Temple Mount is in our hands,” penetrated the Iron Curtain and forged an almost mystic link with our people stuck in the USSR. Like a cry from our distant past, it told us that we were no longer displaced and isolated. We belonged to something, even if we did not yet know what, or why.”