Bamidbar, in the wilderness, describes a time of counting people and days on our journey toward Shavuot.
Bamidbar, in the wilderness, is the name of this portion and the fourth book of the Torah. We begin this book every year as we make our way from Pesach to Shavuot, from standing on the shores of the sea to standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. We read this portion as we count the days of the Omer, and, with our ancestors, we travel from liberation to revelation. This is our book of wandering.
The portion begins by numbering the Israelites in a census, hence the English name of the book: Numbers. The wilderness is uncharted and threatening. How will we navigate it? Will we survive this journey? The text offers a powerful tool for dealing with uncertainty: Order the chaos by organizing and counting the people. Facing the unpredictability of nature, the Torah dictates culture. Moses appoints leaders for each of the tribal groups and rallies every male over the age of 20 who is “able to bear arms.”
The men are directed to go to a designated place and to stand under a banner with their tribal name flying above them for this enumeration of the Israelite fighting force.
In the second year following the exodus, after journeying without a clear sense of direction, the appointing of leaders and numbering of the men who could serve as soldiers might have indeed increased the people’s confidence in their ability to continue their journey. Yet we all know that there are perils in taking any census. The Talmud warns against counting the Israelites, for “the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, not to be measured.” Rashi explains that counting invites the evil eye. This is one of the sources of the tradition of counting people as “not-one, not-two, not-three … ”
As we read this portion, we are struck by the discrepancy between how the Torah and present-day communities understand who is included in a census. When we count only particular individuals, we see only a fraction of the community. “Men who bear arms” never fight alone. They need an army of supportive individuals who feed and clothe them, those who bind their wounds if they are wounded, those who remind them that conflicts can be resolved. Every day, we Jews pray for peace, for an end to conflict, for the strength to work toward a day when all soldiers will return to their families, to their communities, to their peacetime pursuits.
We read this portion on our journey toward Shavuot. Our sages certainly saw the connection between counting people and counting our days. When we attempt to measure an individual’s worth by a single criterion, we miss the power and the potential of that individual soul. Any community assessment must include the skills and talents of every member of the community, including those of every age, every ability, every gender.
The Psalmist teaches us to “Number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” This is the census we should take: Paying attention to and enumerating the days of our lives, making each day count. Throughout our lives, we face many wildernesses, uncharted territory, new and daunting experiences. Facing those challenges one day at a time, acknowledging our fears, but not giving them the power to stop us in our tracks, we can go forward. When we face each day with confidence and hope, celebrating the presence and potential of each of those who travel with us, we are counting.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, the editor of The Open Door Haggadah, serves as a spiritual director in Philadelphia.