Bamidbar 5778 – It’s All in the Numbers

By: Alan Bach

Today we begin the reading of the book of Bamidbar or In the Wilderness of Sinai.

Bamidbar is also known in English as The Book of Numbers because it begins with the census taken of the Israelites at the beginning of their 40-year wandering through the wilderness. In Verse 2 G-d is speaking to Moses, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.  You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, of all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.  Associated with you shall be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house.”

And thus began the lineage of the Jewish people as 603,550 males over the age of 20 were counted in the census.  Why only count the men and not the women?  It made practical sense that only the adult males should be counted to know the potential strength of the Israelite army.

Have you ever stopped to think how much in our lives revolve around numbers?  It takes ten people to make a minyan, we work for a salary, we live at an address, we look around the room to count how many people are here. Numbers are a convenient way to both differentiate us and group us into units. Moses and Aaron grouped the Israelites into the 12 tribes based on their ancestry.

Many events throughout the Torah encompasses numbers.  The story of Bereshit counts the days of creation, Noah took two of each animal, the building of the tabernacle goes into meticulous numerical and geometric details, Larry mentioned the Shmita last week which takes place every seventh year.  The involvement of numbers in our lives is ever present.

There are numbers that leave us with lasting impressions.  Six million is a number we remember all too well.  During the Holocaust, one of the darkest periods of our time, names were replaced with numbers tattooed into arms. Shaved heads, prison uniforms and yellow Stars of David took away any sense of individuality.  In his d’var two weeks ago, Bill spoke about the victims as those that died as Kiddush Hashem, for the sake of G-d’s name.

It is estimated that only 400,000 Holocaust survivors remain and most are eighty or ninety years old. A recent study published by the New York Times reported that 41% of Americans and 66% of millennials do not know what the Holocaust is.  We just celebrated the 70th birthday of Israel.  What will the general population remember about the Holocaust in another seventy years. Who will make sure their story continues to be told.

Our news today is unfortunately filled with numbers. Seventeen high school kids killed at Parkland;  59 people killed by a sniper in Las Vegas, twenty-seven people killed in a Sutherland Springs Church and just yesterday in the 22nd school shooting of 2018 ten people were killed at Santa Fe High School near Galveston. Will it ever end?

This week we celebrated the official opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.  What a glorious day to see our country acknowledge that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, there were adverse consequences of this embassy move that the world focused on. While we celebrated, sixty-two Palestinians were killed in Gaza during their violent “protests”. The move of the embassy may have initiated the uprising, but the source of the hostility goes much deeper.  We have seen this story of hatred of the Jews played out not only in recent history, but for thousands of years.  Most likely, it will never change.

While the movement of the embassy provided the Palestinians backed by Hamas a reason to express disdain for Israel and hatred of Jews around the world, it does pain me to see how Hamas uses women, children and the disabled as pawns.  There was an excellent opinion piece, Gaza’s Miseries Have Palestinian Authors, written by Brett Stephens in the New York Times on Wednesday of this past week.  If you did not have a chance to read the article, a link will be included in the text of this d’var posted on the website after Yom Tov. In his piece, he summarizes the recent history of the Hamas led insurrections in Gaza and references the statement by a Hamas official that 50 of the 62 people killed were Hamas operatives and three more were claimed by Islamic Jihad.

Moses and Aaron took a census to make sure there were sufficient numbers to fight off the enemy. Today, thousands of years later, we are still building armies to fight off our enemies.  But this census was different to the census taken in parashat  Ki Tissa where a half shekel was collected and the coins were counted to determine the size of the population.  The key element of the census taken in this week’s parashat is the census is a “listing by name”.   Ramban comments that the essence of this census taken is that each person is recognized as an individual as they are counted before Moses and Aaron.

It is too easy to take human lives and turn them into a statistic.  Each and every one of us are individuals.  In any tragic loss of life, it is the lives of individuals that make up the referenced group.  It is not the 6,000,000 Jews killed in the Holocaust, but individuals, our relatives.  It is not the seventeen victims of Parkland, but individuals including Alyssa Alhadeff, Jaime Guttenberg,  and Aaron Feis.  It is not the fifty-nine victims in Las Vegas, but individuals including Heather Alvardo, Carrie Barnette and Jack Beaton.  And it is not sixty-two innocent Palestinian victims killed in the protest, but fifty-three terrorists and nine unfortunate civilian casualties, each with their own unique identity.

We belong to the Jewish people, a people that have survived despite continual attempts of annihilation.  Even though it is important to maintain our individual personalities and our unique place in the world, we have survived because we collectively remain members of the Jewish people.  And we will continue to survive as long as we remain עם אחד – one people.

Shabbat Shalom.

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