Bamidbar 5780 – We are… Bamidbar

By: Dr. Melissa Steiner

In Hebrew, Bamidbar means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness” but in English, we call this book of the Torah “Numbers”. This parsha represents both meanings. There is a focus on numbers in that God tells Moses to conduct a census. Once counted, the people broke camp and started out to the wilderness. There is a lot of instruction on who does what (to move the tabernacle) and where they should set up camp – a lot of attention is paid to the separation of tribes and how many in each.

So, why count everyone and then separate them?

  • You count the things you love. Think about counting or reviewing pictures of your family. Think of your family tree – it is not just who is related to whom but how many branches on that tree and how many people per branch.
  • You count so that you don’t lose track. Think back to going on a field trip in grade school… the teachers always knew how many kids were on the bus and who was paired up. They counted as you entered the bus, they counted as you moved through the museum and then counted again as you returned to the bus.
  • You count so that you can equitably divide up goods. You need to know how many people will be at your socially-distant yard gathering so that you know how many chairs to bring out and how many pizzas to purchase.
  • You count so that you can be adequately represented in political districts

And then why do you separate those who are counted?

  • You separate the masses in an effort to balance the resource load on the available space. Everyone cannot fit into exactly the same space… so there has to be some decision on who will reside where.
  • You separate people so that they get along. Think about all the decisions when assigning guest places at a sit-down wedding reception!
  • You separate the masses so that you can create some order (or at least you think you are creating order).

BUT… I thought Jews were not supposed to count other Jews. I learned to identify the presence of a minyan by count as not-one, not-two, not-three etc. OR you just nod once per person and don’t ascribe a number at all. I thought that counting people devalues the importance of the uniqueness of each individual.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains that within this command to count the people, God actually does still place an importance on each individual member of the Jewish people. The specific instruction is for Moses to count the Jewish people while “lift[ing] up the heads” of the Jewish people; lifting up their heads is to give them the confidence that each of them can contribute to society as a whole through their own unique gifts and talents.

In our current condition of separation, have you discovered any new gifts or talents for yourself? I know some people have taken to expanding their cooking skills, their skills with technology, their sewing skills, their ability to remain patient and thoughtful of others.

  • Did you know how to use Zoom 2 months ago? Look at the gallery view in Zoom – we are individual but we come together and we share. When we gather and participate in a class discussion, for example, we are sharing our individual thoughts; but when you put all of those thoughts into the same class event, we elevate the understanding of the entire group.
  • Have you given of yourself for the good of the community? – by sewing masks, by wearing masks, by shopping for others?

In 2020, we have been counted – by the 2020 Census

In 2020, we have been separated – by stay-at-home orders and social-distancing

In 2020, we have entered the wilderness – we have a lot of unknowns facing us as we venture out of our ‘encampment’.

I’ll close with some comments from Rabbi Sari Laufer

Allow yourself to be treated like a wilderness…. It’s a startling image, this one of being a wilderness. It’s an image that any of us, standing on the precipice of something new and unknown, might take to heart. Am I to be trampled by uncertainty? Yes. Tread upon by anxiety? Yes. Am I also going to be open to new people, new possibilities, new adventures? Yes, yes and yes. For the rabbis teach that if we are able to do this, if we allow ourselves to be a wilderness, then Torah will be given to you as a gift. Here, of course, the sages meant Torah in its strict sense — the five books of Moses…. But because the word Torah literally means “instruction,” I want to expand the definition to include it being the possibility of and vehicle for new learning, for a new way of looking at ourselves and the world, for a different direction entirely.


Shabbat Shalom

References & Inspirations




Text Messages – A Torah Commentary for Teens