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B’midbar ~ We Count

May 14, 2010

We are in B’midbar, the book of Numbers.  There are some wonderful commentaries on this portion.  The word B’midbar is the name of this whole book, as well as the name of this particular portion, the first verses of the book.  It means “in the wilderness” and, predictably, there are lots of discussions of that phrase and its many meanings and applications to our lives, then and now.   The last time I wrote on B’midbar, a year ago (wow!) I wrote about the journey into faith, a wilderness sort of discussion.  This time, the notion of counting took me.  In this portion the people of Israel are divided by tribe into four groups of three.  Only the Levites are excluded, for they will serve the priests and the house of worship.  The rest are each divided by their father’s houses, their tribes, and are assigned a specific place in the encampment around the Tent of Meeting, the Mishkan, that they take with them everywhere; it is the house of worship, the place of the priests.  Not only is each group ascribed a  camping place, they are ascribed a job, a function that is theirs alone within the society.  So before we get to camping… having had much discussion of the more individual rules and rites in Leviticus, we are now involved in rules regarding groups within the larger group.  I have to digress to talk about rules again. One commentary I read says that this “dividing” of the people gives a perception of disunity but in reality does precisely the opposite.  The idea is that when there is order people not only have the perception of well being, that things are good, but there is a practical advantage in the absence of chaos.  That order preserves unity of the whole by defining role, direction and purpose within the group.  But later.  The very beginning of this portion is G-d counting the people Israel, again.  G-d counts us and counts us and counts us.  Another digression… is this how G-d expresses love for us as a people?  What is interesting about the counting is that there is this notion that it is not the “individual” counting but the aggregate totals that matter (Rashi).  So everything is given in the totals of people, first born, members of a tribe.  What is important about this?  Perhaps that same notion of unity.  As a whole we are far more important, stronger and more capable than any particular individual.  As a whole we are just more than we are as each individual.  In the individual we value creativity, individuality.  In the group, we value consensus and the achievement of the whole.  As individuals we are not a society, a congregation, a family.  Counted together, we are.  G-d’s count, it seems to me, values each of us individually because we are to be counted; and values the aggregate for what we can be together that we are not by ourselves.  So there is unity in order, and there is unity in being counted.  Together, we count for something larger than our individual selves; our social, congregational and family values are promoted and strengthened by our numbers.  And isn’t that G-d’s work?  Shabbat Shalom.

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