Sefer Bemidbar is known in early rabbinic terminology as Chumash haPekudim which translates as “the book of Numbers” (perhaps “numberings” would be even more accurate) the name by which it is known in the English-speaking world. However, as the saying goes, it ain’t that simple!
The Hebrew root פקד from which pekudim stems is perhaps the most versatile word in the Hebrew language. It has a wide variety of meanings depending on context. As well as to number it means: to visit (particularly a Divine visitation), to examine, to take care of, to appoint custodian over, to look after. All these nuances have one thing in common – namely connection.
With this in mind, we shall appreciate the very first comment of Rashi in Bemidbar all the more. Because Israel is so dear to Him, He counts them at every opportunity! Numbering the people is an act of Divine love. As Ramban adds: when Moses and Aaron, as G-D’s agents, “lift up the head” (se’u, the euphemism used for ‘numbering’ at the start of the Book) of every member of Israel, they will assuredly bless each one too. The close and unbreakable bond between G-D and his people, reinforced in the Haftara, endures despite our numerous failings.
G-D’s love for and His connection to every individual soul of Israel is unconditional. But it stems from the love He bears for our nation as a whole. Me’am Lo’ez (Ex. 30:11) cites an extraordinary Yalkut Shimeoni to the effect that the phrase “lift up the head” means just that. G-D said to Moses “if you wish to know the total of each tribe take the head letter of each!” Resh for Reuven has a gematriya (number-value) of 200, denoting 200,000, Shin for Shimon is 300 (300,000) and so on. Reckoned in this way, the tribes (excluding Levi who were counted separately) total 597,000 denoting the circa 600,000 adult males who exited Egypt (Ex 12:37) less the circa 3,000 who died as a result of the golden calf episode (32:28).
What is this piece of ‘crazy’ arithmetical wizardry teaching us? We know that in a literal sense Moses did not number the people in this way. These were not accurate tribal totals in any of the biblical censuses. Let us remember, however, that Midrash serves to inspire us with deeper, supra-literal homiletic insights.
I believe this Yalkut is teaching us that no matter which way we reckon it, whether comprehensible to us or not, our Divinely-protected nation is firm and indestructible. Bein kach u-vein kach banai heim! The numbers of individual tribes may vary, some tribes may disappear altogether for millennia – and they have done. Within Sefer Bemidbar itself, two censuses taken forty years apart show vast losses for the tribe of Shimon and prodigious gains for Manasseh, Binyamin, Asher and Isaachar. Yet the national totals – 603,550 and 601,730 – are remarkably similar. Divine Providence on an individual level (hashgakha p’ratit), inestimable to be sure, is nevertheless dwarfed by the tremendous manifestation of His providential care of us on a national scale (hashgakha klalit)
If the Yamim Noraim is the prime time for individual stocktaking, Shavuot, when our nation received the Torah, is the key opportunity for communal cheshbon ha-nefesh. It is when we stood at Sinai k’ish ekhad b’lev ekhad, as one man with one heart (Rashi, Ex. 19:2).
In today’s world, individual rights and needs often trump communal responsibilities. Notions of self-discovery and personal development pervade secular society. In the Torah world too, refining one’s own neshama is rightly seen as a vital concept. Yet selfishness can manifest in ruchniyut, spiritual matters, too. While it is essential to develop one’s own level of Torah learning and living, we are expected – as we declare each morning – both “to learn and to teach others”.
My abiding memory of the trip my wife and I took to the (then) USSR in 1984 to visit refuseniks was seeing how those who had only just learned bet were nevertheless prepared to teach aleph. It was an inspiration. And, thank G-D I have been able ever since to echo R’ Yisrael Salanter’s maxim “the most I have learnt is through my students!”
Let us all undertake this Shavuot to seek out one or two fellow-Jews more spiritually challenged than ourselves and draw them a little closer to their Torah heritage whether by learning with them, engaging with them or – Covid rules permitting – inviting them to our home. In this way we will be forging a connection and a bond with our co-covenantees and, in so doing, imitating our Covenantor. And that surely cannot be a bad thing!