My Berlin side of the family should have loved the Torah portion opening the Book of Bamidbar, or Numbers. To the “un-yeke” eye, this might look as a boring section, but there is much more. On the surface, nothing happens. We’re presented with a tedious count of how many men over 20 years of age are in each tribe (except for Levi), and a descriptive map of the camp set-up, in a most orderly manner.
The details are almost painful. Why can’t the Torah just give us a rough estimate? Does it matter if there were forty five thousand, six hundred and fifty men in the Tribe of Gad and seventy four thousand and six hundred to the Tribe of Judah? What if we just say, there were a lot of people, about six hundred thousand in total?
The Midrash understand that “because of His love to them, (He) counts them every hour”…
G-d here seems like a giant mother goose, constantly counting the eggs in her nest, making sure no one is missing. Elsewhere, it is noted that Shechina, the Divine Presence resides only through positive, loving feelings, which has to do with attention to details. This idea might be strange to us because we live in an excitements-chasing-society, bombarded by ads and other marketing messages that promise us happiness if we just take the “trip of our life”, the “vacation of our dreams”, the “once in a life-time” opportunity, entices us the lottery and on and on… When confronted with the detail oriented Judasim, we want to shrug it off: ‘who cares which blessing I said, big deal!’ but let’s examine this idea for a moment. No one ever says: “I have some kids and a wife or two”, “my flight leaves in the spring”, “I live on some street and some numbers”, “yes, I connected my computer wires; who cares which went where” “I sent you the email. Who cares if there was a “@” in the address?? We don’t slide the hand on the wall; we make sure we touch the light switch and in the exact place and motion. Shortly, in things we care about, we pay close attention to every minute detail, and vice versa.
Judaism is big on details: how to tie shoes; which blessing to say upon leaving the bathroom; why the blessing for an apple is different from that of ice cream, and the one over a beautiful sunset is different from that over pretty trees. Life is made of a collection of small details, not giant occurrences. The Giving of the Torah was amazing, but it happened 3500 years ago. Shabbat, on the other hand, was just here last week, and will come again tomorrow. What makes us who we are is not a “wow” thousands of years ago but the details of what we do today.
Six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty is the final count. That is a huge group!! If (on average) each man was married with one child (again, on average), that would mean close to 2 million people!! How did such a group travel? This Torah portion gives a careful description of the camp, which tribe was next to which one; which one in the east, west etc. Symbolically, it teaches us about the order in creation, and how for each and every one of us there is a place within that order, just like in the journey through the desert. But what’s so nice about this lesson here is that we’re mobile! See, we might think that “order” means being stationary, like when we’re done cleaning the house. As long as no one moves any dishes, tracks in any dust, we’re good!! But no. The Torah teaches us that no matter where, not only each one of us matters, but each of us has a role within the whole, sort of like a 1000 piece puzzle, where we can’t exchange two pieces randomly. Rather, each has its unique spot, its unique presence and role. Isn’t it amazing how through counting and mapping we can express love?