Skip to content

Parashat Bamidbar 5777 — 05/27/2017

Bamidbar 1:1-4:20

The Western conception of the relationship between the individual and society, indeed between the individual and the universe, is different in certain fundamental respects from the traditional Jewish view.  In the West, especially in the US, we tend towards a “rugged individualist” view, where every person is an autonomous entity, and there should be minimal interference between individuals, and minimal regulation by society of individual action.  The schoolyard mantra when I was growing up was, “It’s a free country, you can do what you want.”  This was sometimes qualified with, “as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.”  This is, of course, an extremely important qualifier.  Along with this individualistic orientation, we pride ourselves on being a meritocracy, where accidents of birth do not matter and everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed or fail.  It is clear that our society is far from this ideal, but I think it is significant that we hold this idea as an ideal.  As we shall see, if we start with somewhat different premises, we reach very different conclusions.

Ramchal writes on the question of why the census at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar took place on the first of the second month of the second year:

Why did the count only take place in the second month of the second year following their exodus from Egypt rather than immediately upon leaving Egypt?  The construction of the Mishkan, representing the abode of the Divine Presence in our mundane world, was completed on the first of Nissan [RAR: of the second year – the Exodus was on 15 Nissan of the first year – the first Passover].  The count took place the following month of Iyar to allow B’nei Yisrael, rooted in the Divine Presence, to align themselves in their specific encampments around the Mishkan, which paralleled a spiritual order in the upper spheres.

Further on, in discussing the specific order of the encampments he writes:

Each individual is a unique element in the makeup of our nation, located in a place which parallels his spiritual essence. When a person is in his rightful place associated with his unique spiritual essence, he will truly be content with his lot. Being unaware that each person has a unique position can result in jealousy between one another. If we would only understand that our unique position is associated with our spiritual essence, we would have no reason or desire to covet our neighbor’s position in life. Thus, angels, who understand their role in the Divine Plan, harbor no jealousy for one another. When Hashem will remove jealousy from among our ranks then B’nei Yisroel will be able to attain the level of angels, for when man attains a high level of enlightenment and realizes his true place based on his spiritual essence – there is no room for any jealousy.

Ramchal appears to be describing a fairly rigidly structured society, one in which everyone “knows his place.”  Now in our country, the expression, “know your place” was, and still is, generally an expression of oppression, where the speaker tries to deny the hearer’s relative worth, and to preclude any advancement in society.  I don’t believe that Ramchal means it in this sense at all.  Rather, I think Ramchal is speaking of an ideal ordering of society, where each person has a unique place and a unique contribution to make.  The concomitant part of this idea is that each one of us is given a unique set of talents and abilities to help us to carry out our unique task.

This idea that every person has a unique role to play in the evolution of society, and that playing his or her unique role actually contributes to his or her personal evolution as well, seems to be common to many traditional cultures.  It is the basis of the caste system in India, and, as we have seen from Ramchal, appears to be the ideal for the Jewish commonwealth as well.  It is, in some sense, nothing more than “division of labor” writ large.

As an aside, there is an underlying idea – that has gone underground in modern times – that makes the apparent rigidity of this system more understandable.  This is the idea that the body is just the clothing around the real “self” and that we periodically get to change our clothes.  Once we are liberated from the idea that this life is our only life on earth, “upward mobility” takes on a whole different meaning.  The way we get out of our current situation is to perform our allotted task to the highest standards, and receive the results of our efforts as a “promotion” the next time around.  As I have mentioned before, this idea of reincarnation, or gilgulim (from a root meaning “to roll”) in Rabbinic parlance, is a part of normative Judaism.  Since this idea has fallen out of favor in the “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” West, it isn’t talked about much any more, but it is certainly there, and makes much more palatable the idea that doing our own job well is preferable to doing a more prestigious job perhaps not so well.

The second idea underlying the Jewish conception of one’s place in society is that each person has a specific tafkid or assignment, a specific role to play in the unfolding of Gd’s plan for the world.  Corresponding to that tafkid, each person is given the unique tools – skills, talents, character traits, material and spiritual resources – to fulfill that task.  For example, if one’s tafkid is to be a carpenter, one might be born into a family of carpenters, so he can learn the trade from a young age.  If one is supposed to be a king, he’ll have to be born a prince.  If a singer, he’ll have to be able to carry a tune.  Our tradition tells us that we are all born with certain skills and talents to allow us to fulfill the roles we have been assigned, and to face the challenges that our soul needs to grow most effectively.  When we recognize that what we have been given is exactly what we need, then there is no room to envy or covet what someone else has – it is useless to us, and may even impede our evolution, especially if we use illicit or immoral means to get it.  According to ibn Ezra, this is the meaning of the 10th commandment: “Thou shalt not covet [because you know you have everything you need].”

I would like to make one other point about the individual’s place in society.  We form a society by our interactions with one another.  The society will cohere based on the nature and the strength of those interactions.  In physics, a system of many different objects may have strong interactions between the objects, or weak interactions.  If the interactions are weak, the behavior of each object can be considered on its own, as the behavior of the other objects barely affects it.  If the interactions are stronger, then we begin to find feedback loops, where the behavior of each object affects strongly the behavior of every other object, and the behavior of the system as a whole is primary, rather than the individual behaviors of the various component objects.  One can no longer derive the reaction of the system to an outside stimulus by considering just the reactions of the objects to the stimulus.

We see this difference in the different relationship between the individual and society in places of denser population vs. places where the population is more spread out.  In Japan, for example, the emphasis is very much on ensuring that society functions in an orderly manner.  Many interactions, particularly ones that have the potential to disrupt harmony, are ritualized in a way that defuses tension.  Because there is a strong interaction between individuals, the need to maintain harmony may predominate over the need for individual expression.

Our country, on the other hand, was very sparsely populated at its founding.  Interactions between individuals were more sporadic, and the range of individual expression could be rather large without impacting seriously on one’s neighbor, or on the smooth functioning of society.  I believe that some of the difficulty we are having in finding the proper balance between social needs and individual needs is the result of the fact that our population is largely urban and dense, and our thinking (and our laws) has remained stuck in the previous mode.  We are trying to run a strongly-interacting system with weakly-interacting premises, and it is not working well at all.

John Donne wrote: No man is an island, entire unto himself.  We must all function as members of society.  Our Tradition gives us a vision of a state of life where individuals and their society are mutually supportive, so that both can reflect the Divine Intelligence of our Creator.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Bamidbar

Rashi and many other commentators observe that a census is a way to show each person that he counts. They also view the commandment that the census not be taken directly as a way to ensure that people are not reduced to numbers; each one is an individual and important to Gd and to fellow humans for exactly what he is, not just as one of many needed for a task.

In this parshah, Gd commands Moses to take a census of all men who are able to go to war: why only of them? Why not women and children? Surely they count; why are they not counted? In the Orthodox shul, they are not counted in a minyan and they do not get to read from the Torah.

In an article on, Sarah Esther Crispe presents a point of view that women are free to pray as they will, no minyan, yarmulke, tefillin required; they are trusted more then men who need particular guidelines.

Chana Weissberg, also on, presents the view that Gd counts those who are on the outer path, the men, because they are vulnerable; women, protecting the inner path, revealing that Gd is everywhere, are protected by and given confidence by this role; they do not to be shown that they are valued by Gd; they know it.

I like these thoughts but let’s consider what happens if we try to apply this census to our lives today: certainly when we take a census in our nation, we count everyone. When we count the number of guests we invite for dinner, we count every one. I don’t feel I understand Torah or this parshah sufficiently to know how this census of military men only applies to my life or to the lives of our congregation, nation, world. I will do my best to see more deeply into Torah to see what Gd says about separate roles for men and women and whether the roles need to be equal in all synagogues, all Jewish flavors of worship and how the principle of limited census applied to life at the time of Moses and to our lives today.

I very much invite any thoughts anyone has on this topic, especially any Torah references.

Baruch HaShem