We begin the fourth book, Numbers, B’Midbar! As we begin this book, our collective souls, weary after almost a year and a half of pandemic, cry out for strength. The news of our world shakes us and confounds us. Our policial system is chaotic, our infrastructure attacked, our climate in peril and now, as we write, we see again the horrible pictures and news from Israel. It IS as if we stray and wander in a wilderness of the unknown. We question so much and, so often, receive so little in return.
The book of Numbers opens with a call to take a census. The Israelites are to be counted, ordered and organized so as to be able to march to the Promised Land. The tribes are to be organized, men over 20 “who are able to bear arms” (1:3) Moses and Aaron begin to organize the community. There are many commentaries about the nature of counting and how, in these comments, there is a danger when you just deal with numbers, the person gets lost. Rabbi Jonathan Saks (z’l) in his commentary on this portion points out very important point. He looks at 1:2 and the phrase s’oo et rosh which is translated as “take a census” but really can mean lift up a head! Saks points out that this is a particularly powerful phrase as it means that as a census was taken, each individual was noticed, it was the message the community is made of unique individuals and that Judaism is a civilization that understands that each individual is tzelem elohim and, as being in the image of God, unique.
We have lost that sense of uniqueness now. We tend to categorize and generalize people. We forget that indivuals have value, have a universe of family and friends. When we lose that sense of individuality, we lose a sense of humanity. Maybe what we need to remember is the uniqueness of each human being and to celebrate that uniqueness. If we can do that, maybe we can overcome the tendancy to reduce people to mere numbers. Maybe we need to follow our portion and lift up each person and look at them.
Rabbi Richard F Address