Parashat Bemidbar: Not Just Numbers
Written by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang — 4 June 2020
Most of you have probably attended someone else’s prize-giving or graduation ceremony at some point. The few I have attended felt at the time like some of the longest days of my life: sitting for ages on an uncomfortable chair listening to long lists of names, most of which meant nothing to me – each person in turn getting just a few seconds of glory as they shake a hand, receive a certificate and sit down again …
It’s a strange kind of ritual, yet it can feel so important both to the graduate themselves and to their proud relative or friend, that that person’s individual achievement is marked and acknowledged in this way. How awful it would be if someone was left out by mistake.
Bemidbar, this week’s parasha, is the first one this year from the book of Numbers. Later in the book there will be plenty of excitement, but the first few chapters really are what it says on the tin: lots of numbers.
Try to imagine us as the Israelites, in the desert. It is about a year since we left Egypt. We hope we are over the worst, but we have a long way to go before we reach the Promised Land, and may first have to fight some battles on the way. So this book opens with a census, a head count of the adult men who could serve in an army.
Our selected verses today only give us the bottom line, the grand total, but the earlier verses in the chapter list each tribe in turn, giving the name of its leader and the number of its men, in a precise formulation. First Reuben, then Simeon, and so on. It’s all very formal and repetitive.
The portion explains how, wherever we camp, the Tabernacle or Mishkan will be at the very centre, and each of the tribes will have a fixed position in relation to it. The text will then go on to list every single tribe, and its position, and its headcount, all over again.
We also heard this morning “Don’t count the Levites” as part of the fighting force; they have separate and special roles. And much of the rest of this week’s sidrah is devoted to setting out exactly which family in the Levite tribe is going to look after each aspect of the Mishkan.
It’s a very different world from ours, and yet I think there are important things we can learn from it.
This is not the only census in Torah, and rabbis have been commenting on the issues it raises for hundreds of years. I want to focus on the Italian rabbi Sforno in the early 16th century. He pointed out two crucial words in the Hebrew text of God’s instruction to Moses and Aaron at the beginning of Numbers: it doesn’t just say ‘count them’, it says בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת ‘list them by name’ – and Sforno also interprets a later verse to mean that Moses and Aaron personally counted each man. In other words, Sforno says, unlike some armies, the Israelites were never to be anonymous ‘cannon fodder’ (or in this case spear and sword fodder), but each man had a name, their individual skills and their own role. This was not just a numerical stocktaking. Every single person mattered.
Or rather, every man who could fight mattered. What about those who were not counted, who were not on those lists? How did they feel? Those Levites (OK , they had other jobs, but still…) The men who might have wanted to fight but could not? The women, the younger people, who might have been able to fight but didn’t count? No one wants to be just a number, but how did it feel not to be on the list at all?
My very first day at primary school was a long time ago, but one particular incident from that day sticks in my mind. There were lots of children running about in a playground, then someone blew a whistle and told us all to line up. I didn’t know which line to join, I didn’t know how or whom to ask. They then called a register for each class, after which those children filed indoors. Then the next class, and the next. I waited for my name, but it was never read out. I felt very small and very lost. In the end I tagged on to the last group of much bigger children and followed them in. Someone must have sorted me out, sooner or later, because most of my time in that school was quite happy, but I have never forgotten that feeling of being omitted, forgotten, invisible.
Years later, I was working as a junior doctor on a special care baby unit. I was always one of the conscientious ones who showed up early each morning to make sure that as much as possible was sorted before the ward round. One day, I was utterly exhausted and made the momentous (for me) decision to arrive “on time” instead of early. I’m not sure what I expected, but no one had even noticed my absence. It was as if all my previous efforts counted for nothing. That really hurt.
And to bring us to the present time, in the early weeks of lockdown, when we were all appropriately extolling the efforts of NHS workers, there was some justified resentment on the part of social care and other essential workers who felt that their roles were just as important but were being ignored and undervalued.
Sometimes when rabbis and students prepare material and discuss it, we each choose a different focus. One of the things that has struck me this week as I prepared for today has been how many of my colleagues have been emphasising exactly the same ideas about this week’s portion (including Rabbi Josh last night!).
We are all doing a lot of counting at the moment. Since Pesach, we have been counting the Omer each day, and we have nearly made it to Shavuot. Whether we like it or not, it’s hard not to become obsessed with the statistics of the pandemic – how many sick, how long it takes to recover, how many tests …
We need those lists and those numbers in order to know where we are, in order to formulate strategies and plans. But let the beginning of this book of Numbers act as a reminder for each of us:
We must make sure that every single person is “on our list”, whether that is for the job they do or for what they need from us, so that no-one is forgotten, ignored or left out. And we must also never forget that every number on every list represents a real person with a name, a part to play and a story.
 Numbers 1:44 – 54