This week, in Torah, we enter the Wilderness, the Book of Bamidbar. In B.C., we also begin a new phase of re-opening and re-entering, as we might go to places we have not seen for months now. We enter those new spaces carefully, avoiding risk where we can, and hopefully, we will continue to listen to moderating provincial guidelines.
In English this Book is called Numbers, as we begin our reading with a counting, a census. Interestingly, in the word for wilderness, midbar – we can almost hear the word for speaking, m’dabber. So this place of wildness is also a place for speaking, and speaking is a place of listening. Daily we get counts from Dr. Henry – how many cases of Covid, sadly, how many deaths. Counting is important. We count because people matter. As Jews we have many systems of counting: We count the Omer. We count for a minyan. We count the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
As we read through Torah we come to feel the insistent Presence of God: God speaking to, and giving instructions to Moses; a God Who will not be treated, as we learned last week, with an attitude of casualness; a God Who is demanding and present, and speaking. God demands both counting and listening, both to be documented in word.
In Judaism, we have a relationship between God and Israel that is then documented – Torah. And so too do we value word in all aspects of our lives. I am using word right now – communicating my intentions with blank space might be difficult to interpret! We have inherited millions of words: in Torah, 79,976 words; in the Babylonian Talmud 1,860,131 words. (Did I count these words? No.)
We are counters, but we are also namers! In the beginning of Bemidbar. B’nai Yisroel, the Children of Israel, are, “listed by their clans, ages 20 years and up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms…” (Num. 1:2). Rashi teaches this was the third of three censuses taken since leaving Egypt, while Nahmanides teaches that this counting was not merely numerical, but by “recounting/listing their names. Each one was to say his name when he was recorded…”
Just as we might search through an archive looking for familial names, we feel a sense of recognition with each found name. Even as we count back generations, we count with naming.
And thus, we think back with grief to the time when Jews were reduced only to numbers, during the Shoah. Their record of name, who and how each person mattered, was far less important to the Nazis than tracking people by number.
In Torah we learn each leader of each tribe by name. And in speaking those names we are also listening. These days as we attend services on Zoom, we are all too aware that only one person can speak at a time; if we attempt to also speak, both voices are confused and difficult to make out. The style of over-talking that is so common amongst us, is impossible on Zoom. As a result, we may feel silenced, we may feel we too have entered not a place of speech, but a place of silence. A place like Bamidbar. But even as we will come to read in the chapters of Bamidbar, in a place that must have seemed indeterminate and endless, people were named. They knew they counted.
Dignity of person, observing through careful listening, and naming ourselves in our becoming, is our Torah, words and counting that continue to guide us.