COUNTING AND CONNECTING: PARSHAT BAMIDAR
Shira Smiles shiur 2022—OU Center, Yerushalayim
Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein
Beginning with Parshat Bamidbar, Sefer Bamidbar is called in English The Book of Numbers, for the Book begins and ends with counting Bnei Yisroel. Although on a practical level, as Rabbi Mintzberg explains in Ben Melech, we could say that this count was necessary to properly arrange the camp formation, the question of repetition still remains. After all, we already knew the numbers of Bnei Yisroel from the previous count when Bnei Yisroel left Egypt.
To this, Rashi explains that Hashem wanted to count us because He loves us, as one keeps counting the things he values, most often money. In fact, Rashi begins his commentary on every one of the five Books of the Torah with an observation of Hashem's love for Bnei Yisroel. For example: Bereishit/For the beginning, for those who would be designated as Reishit/Beginning/for Bnei Yisroel did Hashem create the world.
This census differs from the other two censuses by its emphasis on individual names, along with the numbers, and in addition to the families and tribes, notes Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter. With each detail, the individual was able to gain a clearer understanding of the role of his tribe, of his family, and of his own unique purpose in fulfilling the mission Hashem had set for His chosen people. The sojourn in the desert was the training ground for Bnei Yisroel's mission in the world. In this respect, Bnei Yisroel were like an army of individual soldiers, tzivot; the "army" has a mission to complete, but each tribe/platoon covers one of the logistics, each family/unit is responsible for one function, and each individual has his own appointed task/tafkid within the common goal in this service.
Rabbi Mintzberg points out that this counting was not for Hashem's benefit, but for our benefit. If Hashem wants to know each of us by name, it means that Hashem is connected to each of us and cares for each of us individually. In whatever situation we may be in, He loves us, each tribe, each family, and each individual. Calling someone by name validates that person's identity and shows personal attention, adds Rabbi Pincus. And Rabbi Reiss emphasizes this point by reminding us that the Torah, generally so terse in language, spends so many verses in recounting the names when perhaps just the numbers would suffice. All this to illustrate the deep love Hashem has for us. Perhaps the Book should be renamed The Book of Love. [This idea of giving renewed identity and value to individuals is no better exemplified by the project Names Not Numbers implemented in so many schools to validate the experiences of Holocaust survivors. CKS] Every person constitutes a complete world.
Why was it so important for us to know that Hashem loves us, asks Rabbi Frieman? When you know you are loved, you have a great incentive to reciprocate that love, and to do what you know will please the beloved. That's why whenever possible, Parshat Bamidbar, so full of Hashem's love for us, is usually read before Shavuot, if possible. [As Rebbetzin Smiles explained, although we had opportunities to double up on parshiot this year and keep the rest of the world in sync with the readings in Eretz Yisroel, we kept the parshiot separate so we could keep this parsha right before Shavuot at least in parts of the world.] Hashem showed us His love, and we reciprocated by accepting His Torah. That's why before we recite Shema in our morning and evening prayers, before we declare our undying belief in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, we remind ourselves, "Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu/You [Hashem] have loved us with a great love." If we know Hashem loves us, we are inspired to love Him back.
When we know we are loved, writes the Siach Mordechai, we can accept the challenges before us not as punishment, but as tools Hashem has given us to help us grow. In Shir Hashirim, the beloved continues to search for her Lover in spite of being beaten and injured, for she is sure of His love. In the desert, when we faced so many challenges, the reassurance of Hashem's love helped us grow into the nation Hashem envisioned for us. [May we again feel Hashem's love and grow to realize that potential as we navigate the challenges of the current world situation. CKS] Therefore, feeling and internalizing this love should not lead us to haughtiness, but to an understanding that our specialness is meant to serve a purpose.
Hashem does not count us as one counts money, impersonally. The counting is a method of Hashem's remembering us for the purpose of blessing us, as we say in Hallel, "Hashem zecharanu yevoreich/Hashem Who has remembered us will bless," suggests Reb Yerucham.. The counting was an embrace, a lifting us up, as He brought us closer to Him at Har Sinai, an embrace that "would have been enough for us" to feel His love. As every single Jew passed before Hashem, he felt his specialness as an individual before Hashem, not merely as a cog toward an end goal.
As each person came before Moshe, Moshe was able to penetrate his soul and bless him with the blessing that matched his unique gifts and character, writes Ramban. Then Aharon and the leaders of his tribe would bless him as well. He was uplifted and encouraged to strive to live up to these blessings, and to the value the others saw in him, a uniqueness that no one else possessed.
We are commanded to emulate Hashem. What better way can we do this than by regularly uplifting others around us as Hashem uplifts us, teaches Rabbi Friefeld. Acknowledge others by name when you can, and bless others as Hashem blesses us. When attending a simchah, give a meaningful brachah, not just a perfunctory mazal tov. [My mother a"h would bless each new couple, "May you live out your lives together in great joy, and may you each understand the other." The Yiddish is much more effective, as the "understanding each other" is reflexive and reciprocal. CKS]. And why not, as the Saba of Slabodka did, bless the house you pass as you remember the person within it.
In Jewish tradition, we do not count people. In the census, Bnei Yisroel used a half shekel donation from each person and counted the coins. Now we use other devices, like reciting a ten word verse to verify a minyan is present to begin davening. As Rabbi Zeichick explains, every time we meet a human being, encountering a new soul, we are meeting an image of God, of grandeur, beauty and holiness. we may be overwhelmed and unable to move, as we contemplate that grace. Vayechan ha'am does not mean just that Bnei Yisroel camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, but that each soul found chen/grace/favor/love in the eyes of his fellow Jew, explains, R. Chanoch Henech Hakohen Alexander. That was the experience of these numbers and this counting. We are bidden to take that same love, infuse it into others, and uplift them as Hashem did for Bnei Yisroel in the desert through Aharon, Moshe and the leaders of the tribes.