Thought for the Week: The Book of Numbers (Lynette Sunderland)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 May 2015

This coming Shabbat, we begin the Book of Numbers.  This was, in fact, my own bat mitzvah portion. There are many aspects of the day that I remember and it was definitely a defining moment in my Jewish identity.

The Book of Numbers begins with the counting of all those who are 20 years old and above in every tribe except for the Levites – those whose job it was to look after the newly built Tabernacle.

Counting in Judaism is a bit of a taboo!   The direct counting of people is forbidden and in biblical times was usually done by the giving of a half shekel which were then counted accordingly. When King David counted his people directly, a great plague descended and in places where a minyan is counted – rather than count the number of people, a sentence from one of the Psalms totalling exactly 10 words is recited allocating each word to a person.

A thought is that when a group of people is counted, everybody is equal.  No person is counted twice and everyone is included.  Being counted as part of a larger group tends to show that we are standing side by side ensuring that we identify with a belief, a cause, or a group of like-minded people.  Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, a 17th century scholar states, “the individual does not stand alone, but as part of the whole.  The entire world depends on him.  By being counted, he knows his place and worth to the community at large”.

At Alyth, we are so fortunate to have one of our community become bar or bat mitzvah practically every week.  Each bnei mitzvah that I have the privilege of teaching at this moment in their Jewish journey is taught that not only are they bringing their individuality but that they are also expressing their identity and standing together with their community.   There is no-one who is not able or capable of taking their place in the community.  It is important to be counted.  Giving each bnei mitzvah this sense at this point enables the majority of them to go on and become the mentors and leaders of their community.  This is why it is important to give each student the best individual experience in order for them to begin to define their Jewish identity and encourage their place in the community.

This weekend we also celebrate the festival of Shavuot.  It celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, when individuals stood together ready to be counted as one community, identifying together that they would “do and they would hear”.  The Book of Numbers is also known as b’midbar, which means “in the wilderness”.  The task of a community is to ensure that no-one flails in the wilderness and that each and every person is “counted in” as part of the whole.

Shabbat Shalom / Chag Shavuot Sameach