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Counting in the Wilderness

by Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

We soon begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. In Hebrew, bamidbar means “wilderness” or “desert.” In English, the title Numbers derives from the multiple censuses taken throughout the book. Bamidbar is a much more apt title for the journey that we will be taking together, as we enter the liminal space and state of being that the Jewish people inhabit as they continue to negotiate their relationships to themselves and one another.

We also read this Torah portion most years on the Shabbat before Shavuot, as is the case this year. Shavuot is the holiday on which tradition teaches that we received Torah collectively on Mount Sinai. Our journeying these seven weeks of counting the Omer parallels in some respects the journeys that the book of Bamidbar will guide us through over the next few months. Just as on Pesakh/Passover we move from narrowness to expansiveness, from slavery to freedom, so, too, as we move through these weeks of counting the Omer, we are moving, day by day, toward the ultimate revelation of Torah in all of its fullness, challenge, complexity, and joy.

The opening parashah of Bamidbar in its opening census introduces us to the messiness of the book as a whole. Only men from the ages of 20 to 60 are counted, tribe by tribe. It is from this and other similar censuses in the Torah that the Jewish people have developed traditions and ideas about how to count, and who counts. We have a longstanding custom not to count people directly, as counting people is a means of commodification—of flattening their humanity. When we count, we tend to obscure the unique and irreplaceable individuality of those whom we count. Think of the statistics we encounter every day, and how it is far easier for the human mind to grasp numbers than to grasp the enormity, and often the tragedy and heartbreak, those numbers contain.

Traditionally, when a minyan for prayer is being assembled, we recite a verse from the Tanakh that contains 10 words, understanding a minyan has been gathered once the final word rings out. Each of those 10 individuals forming that sacred community and container are infinitely needed. So, too, is each one of us. In a world in which the enormity of human suffering and violence are too hard to bear, it is essential, now more than ever, never to forget that those numbers we encounter represent human beings—universes unto themselves, all of whom are infinitely precious to G-d, if not, G-d-forbid, to us.

The census that opens Parashat Bamidbar is quite dry and to the point, listing men of military age according to their tribal affiliation. When we liturgically read that census, are we nodding off or asking questions about the individuals whose names ring out year after year? Who are they? What were their lives like? Who loved them? Who cradled them in their arms at times of trial and at times of joy? What was their journey out of Egypt like? What stories do they carry with them? And what about the lives of those whose names we will never know, whose stories we have lost? How can we use the sacred gift of storytelling to unearth, with humility, that which is not found in the peshat, or simple/straightforward read of the Torah’s text?

Let us use our capacity for curiosity and wonder, in a world so desperately lacking both, so that we may never forget, in our times of assumed knowing all that we do not know, all we must learn.

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