Skip to content

Parashat BeMidbar 5772 – 05/23/2012

Parashat Bemidbar


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

These are the names of b’nei Yisrael who came to Egypt with Jacob… (Shemot 1:1)

…according to the tallying/telling of the names of the men… (Bamidbar 1:2)

He counts the numbers of the stars, He calls each one by name (Ps 147:4)

They’ve given you a number and taken away your name. (The Guess Who, Secret Agent Man)

Our book, which we begin reading this week, is called in Hebrew BeMidbar – In the Wilderness, ostensibly because it begins with Gd’s communication to Moshe “in the Wilderness of Sinai.”  In addition, most of the narrative of the 40 years wandering in the wilderness, including the reason for this wandering, is in Sefer BeMidbar.  As it was said of former Israeli PM Yitzchak Shamir, why does he not listen to what Pres. Bush (the elder) is asking him to do?  And the answer given is that the last time a Jewish leader listened to a Bush we wound up wandering in the desert for 40 years and settled in the one place in the Middle East that has no oil!  The other name given to Sefer BeMidbar is Sefer haPekudim, which roughly corresponds to the English Book of Numbers.

The second Book of Torah, by contrast, is Sefer Shemot, literally, the Book of Names.  As we have discussed, there is quite a bit of focus on Gd’s Names in Sefer Shemot, that is, the ways that Gd interacts with and controls His Creation.  With the exception of the incident of the golden calf, Sefer Shemot is a glorious story of Israel’s growth from a slave-rabble to a nation dedicated to the service of Gd.  On the other hand, the Book of Numbers sometimes seems to be a chronicle of one disaster after another – the Spies, Korach, Bilaam, the promiscuity at Ba’al Pe’or, Moshe Rabbeinu’s hitting the rock and being barred from entering Eretz Yisrael, etc.  Is there some contrast between Name and Number that might bear on the difference between these two Books?

To begin with we should note that we never number Jews.  When Moshe Rabbeinu is instructed to take a census, it is through a proxy, namely a half-shekel contribution from each person participating in the census.  The coins are then counted, but Jews must never be counted directly.  If you go into a traditional synagogue to pray and it needs to be determined whether or not there is a minyan (quorum), you may see someone ticking off the attendees as he recites a verse from Psalms that has exactly 10 words in Hebrew, but you will never see him going “one, two, three…” in any language.  The Torah tells us that the half-shekel proxy is an atonement offering for their souls to Hashem when you count them, so there will not be a plague when you count them (Shemot 30:12).  In fact, towards the end of II Samuel, Gd needs to punish the Israelites for their sins, so He incites King David to initiate a census.  Most commentators assume that the punishment comes because the census was conducted by a direct head count,  thus emphasizing the point that such counts are illegitimate and dangerous.  Ramban points out that nowhere does it state that David ordered a direct head-count, nor does his Chief of Staff, Yoav, mention such a command when he remonstrates with the Commander-in-Chief against taking the census.  This is not so surprising, as the prohibition and the punishment for its violation are both quite explicit in Torah; those commentators who assume that David did order a head-count have to explain how he made such an egregious error.  Ramban, on the other hand, posits that the census had not been commanded by Gd, nor was it done for any actual national need (such as preparing for battle) – Gd was angry because the numbering was gratuitous.  What comes out of this is, in Ramban’s words (Artscroll’s translation):

For the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not wish that all Israel should be numerically defined, because He will multiply them like the stars of the heavens, as He said to Abraham (Bereishit 15:5) “… count the stars if you are able to count them … so shall your offspring be.”

I think these words of Ramban’s bring us to the heart of the matter.  Gd does not want Israel to be numbered, because numbering something means defining it – making it finite.  Thus, all Western science is based on measurement – numbering things – and can therefore only deal with finite values.  Since the Western world has chosen to look to science and technology as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, and for solutions to our problems, we wind up with confused values and partial solutions to our problems – often the solution to one problem creates worse problems down the road.

Israel’s mission, on the other hand, is to reflect Gd’s infinite essence and to infuse that infinity into the finite, material world.  In Ramban’s words, Gd wishes to bless Israel with abundance befitting a people that is bound to the infinite source of all material creation and all abundance.  Whether it is possible for the material world to reflect infinity perfectly I don’t know; the material world is, by nature, finite and continually changing.  Our tradition tells us however that individuals can connect to Gd so closely and intimately, that their every thought and action reflects Gd’s infinity, which I take to mean that the structure of their lives and their activities is arranged with infinite perfection, even if their material forms eventually decay.

This mission, to open up the infinite essence of Gd and His Creation, is not suitably carried out on the level of number.  But perhaps we can say that it can be carried out on the level of Name.  There are those that say that parents, when they name their children, become possessed of something like ruach haKodesh (holy spirit) and choose a name that captures the essence of that child.  This was brought home to me most forcefully when we had our triplets.  Since they were premature they had to stay in the hospital for 6 weeks gaining weight and strength before we could take them home.  We knew what we wanted to name the little boy and the younger girl, and we knew that we wanted to name the older girl Eve (as her middle name) after her great-aunt who had just passed away.  But we couldn’t come up with a first name.  I was staying with friends in Iowa City with our older boy, who was 3 at the time.  One night, when they were about a week old, I sat bolt upright in bed, jolted out of my sleep, and said “Sharon”!  When we got to the hospital that morning, Mom met us and the first thing she said was, “The birth certificate people came by this morning and insisted I give her a first name.  I called her Sharon – I hope you don’t mind.”

Gd is One, and there is no Unity like Gd’s Unity (see Rambam’s Principles of Faith) – it is pure and infinite, not composed of parts, pure One-ness.  From that

Oneness comes multiplicity, the world of number; in that multiplicity there is the possibility of harmony, but there is also the possibility of conflict.  That conflict can never be harmonized on the basis of multiplicity – number.  It can only be harmonized on the level of Unity – the level of Gd’s great Name.  It is given to us to bring our individual names up to infinite status, up towards the level of Gd’s Name, to become each one of us a Master of the Good Name (Ba’al Shem Tov), as our Sages tell us in Pirke Avot (4:17): The crown of a good name excels all.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 7

Great is Torah, for it gives life to those who practice it in this world and in the World to Come…

Our esoteric tradition teaches that Torah itself is one of the great Names of Gd.  Therefore we are enjoined to study Torah and practice its mitzvot, for that is really the ultimate in Name-based life, life established in the infinite rather than life bound up in the finite.  R. Yisrael Meir Lau comments:

Now that we understand that the mishnah is referring to spiritual life, it is clear that such a life is sustained by the study of Torah and the performance of its mitzvot, which are the food of the soul. … When a person learns Torah, he is blessed with a multitude of elevated qualities, until he comes to cling to Gd on an unsurpassed level.

Gd is the ultimate Life, for which reason He is called the “living Gd.”  “With You is the source of life, in Your light we see light” (Psalms 36:10 – incidentally this is the motto of my alma mater, Columbia University, albeit quoted in Latin).  Gd sends life to the entire world.  However, only a person who is connected to Him can make use of that life.

In the expression “clinging” to Gd, the word for “clinging” is devekut, which has the same root as the modern Hebrew word for “glue” (devek).  Through Torah, that is, through Gd’s Name, we become “stuck on Gd” as it were.  Our mind expands and becomes infinite, and our heart and perceptions follow.  We begin to perceive everything in our environment in terms of Gd’s light.  This, and this alone, can truly be called life, and this kind of life is what Gd designed us for, for a person living such a life glorifies Gd and infuses Gd’s light into all Creation with his every breath.