This week we begin the Book of Numbers. In Hebrew, B’midbar, in the wilderness. The portion concerns itself with the taking of a census of men who would be able to be counted on in case of battle, as well as priestly issues. The image of the wandering in the wilderness, physical as well as spiritual, is a classic image of our tradition. However, for our generation, we can look at this portion in some other interesting ways.
Look again as the portion calls on us to count. This time, people. We are at an age when counting our days gets to be seen in a different light. We certainly are much more aware of those days than we have been. Recently I came across a very powerful rendering of what it means to count our days. Aviyah Kushner, a professor in Chicago, has written a wondeful book that deals witn Biblical translations. “The Grammar of God” (2015. Spiegel and Grau) looks at the various ways translations have impacted how we see Biblical texts. Kushner looks at the passage from Genesis 18 that describes an older Abraham and Sara. “And Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. “bah’eem bayamim” (Gen [18:11]). Kushner looks at this phrase and translates it as “coming in days”. She compares it to a variety of different translations of the phrase, usually seen as meaning variations of they were old. She then describes this phrase “bah’eem bayamim” in a way that seemed to speak to us. The sense of the Hebrew is that a lot of days came to Abraham and Sarah. Kushner writes: “The idea of days coming hints at the surprise of aging–in this case, the first description of old age in the Bible. Suddenly, one day after another, it happens. We focus on the day in front of us, the guest at the doorway, the meal to be made, and don’t think that a lot of days, or a year, or a decade–or several decades–are now behind us. It’s more reassuring to think human life as days coming and yet it’s also a haunting way of explaining the quotodian nature of human aging, the inevitablity of it.”
I discussed this with Kushner in a Jewish Sacred Aging pod-cast that will be posted in a few weeks. Her understanding of the lovely idiom, “bah’eem bayamim” I think reminds us that as our days come to us, we can , like this portion, take a sort of spiritual census. What days have been kind, What days have brought us challenges. What can we hope to do with the days to come so that they “count” for something as we traverse our own personal wilderness.
Rabbi Richard F Address