This week we’re starting the Book of Numbers. As is obvious from its (English) name, we will hear a lot of numbers. Each tribe will be counted. And counted again. Why? Who cares if the tribe of Judah had 74,600 people and the tribe of Benjamin 35,400? We know that the final count, without the Levites, was 603,550 (men, of army age), so let’s say “about 600,000” and call it a day! Why the details? Why the precision?
This is also the end of the Count of the Omer. For almost 49 days, we’ve counted each and every day. Is counting some kind of a sport we enjoy? Rashi explains: מתוך חיבתם לפניו מונה אותם – out of his love to them, he counts them. Counting is a sign of love. We don’t count things we don’t care about. No one says, ‘I have about so and so many kids’. If one is a teacher, you know how many are in your class. When traveling, one would never say (I hope!), ‘I might have left some kids behind, I don’t know how many’. Likewise, things we care about, we schedule with precision. We know when and where. If you really want to meet, you don’t say, ‘I’ll see you in CA sometime’, but rather, ‘can you do lunch next Tuesday’? Whether days or people, we count each one, because each one – counts. This continues with the precise date our portion opens with:
א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד: בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:
But then, why not just count the whole people together? Why that division into tribes? We’re out of Egypt, “free people”! Aren’t we done with it?
The Torah does the same “trick” we’ve seen before: yes, we’re one, but no, that does not mean we’re all the same. Oneness and sameness are – not one and the same. Our oneness is made of distinction. So we see in chapter 2:2:
ב אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ. 2 ‘The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own standard, according to the ensigns; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.
Each tribe with their own flag, symbol, colors; and each with their own location in the camp. And yet, all together “parked” around one unifying “center piece” – the mishkan. The verb used here, yachanu, camped (or as I translated, “parked”) can connect us to another place we saw the same root: When Israel stood at Sinai, that time the verb was in the singular: vayichan sham Israel (Exodus 19:2), while here – in the plural. Which was is it? Yes again. Our uniqueness has meaning as long as we have our togetherness; our togetherness has meaning as long as we have our uniqueness. This is still trוe today. The tension between the individual and the community (partnership, family, etc) will go with us throughout life, and balancing it – a work of art.
This opening of the Book of Numbers is always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. First, we separate between the curses /consequences of last week, and the Giving of the Torah. We are also in the desert, and the desert is an open, magical place, where bread comes from the heavens, and water – from the ground, in complete contradiction with how we’ll live in the Land and anything we’ll see later on. This is the mindset we enter as we near the Giving of the Law: that we matter as a whole, and as individuals; and that something amazing and important is about to happen; something without which we’ll never be who we are; something that will forever change human history forever.
אֵין לִי קִיּוּם בְּלִי הַבְּרָקִים וְהַקּוֹלוֹת שֶׁשָּׁמַעְתִּי בְּסִינַי
I have no existence without the lightning and thunder I’ve heard at Sinai
Zelda (Israeli poet) 1914-1984
Shabbat Shalom & Chag Shavu’ot Same’ach!