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That Point When We All Were Nameless, Faceless

May 25, 2011 By:
Rabbi Joshua Runyan
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B'MIDBAR, Numbers 1:1-4:20

Ever felt like you were just a number?

It's a common complaint: In the hustle of modern life, many of us feel like we're lost in the crowd, nothing more than nameless, faceless entities wandering through time.

This week's Torah portion, however, turns the concept of numbers on its head, for in the Jewish way of life, it is precisely as numbers that our true potential is realized.

We begin the Book of Numbers in, as the name of the portion indicates, the midbar, or "wilderness." On the first day of Iyar, exactly one month after the erecting of the Tabernacle, the Almighty commands Moses to take a census of all of those fitting for military service. A second census, meanwhile, tabulates all of the Levites fit for service in the Tabernacle.

At this point, most of the Jewish people, as far as the Torah is concerned, are nameless and faceless. They're counted by the heads of their families and grouped together by tribe, and receive nothing more in the realm of identity than the location where each tribe is camped in the desert.

But in his commentary to the book's opening verse, the medieval sage Rashi writes that it is precisely out of the Jewish people's importance that the Almighty wants a census: "When they came out of Egypt, He counted them. When they fell at the Sin of the Golden Calf, He counted to know how many remained." So too, when the Divine Presence rests on them for the first time -- following the construction of the Tabernacle -- "He counted them."

In his Shulchan Aruch, the code that forms the basis of modern Jewish legal thought, Rabbi Yosef Caro rules that this week's portion is always read before Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah. So spiritually, we can view the events at the beginning of the Book of Numbers as a preparation for receiving the loftiest of Divine revelations.

It was precisely in the desert, aimlessly wandering on the one hand, but constantly connected to the Divine, that the Jewish people became a nation. Free from the influences of other peoples and modes of thought, that nation spent almost 40 years preparing to enter the Land of Israel, and in the process, transformed a surrounding spiritual wasteland into an abode for the Almighty.

How did they do it?

Their potential was rooted in the census: Just as a titan of industry calculates and recalculates the fiscal quarter's profit, the Almighty counted and recounted His chosen people. And at that level, all distinctions between individuals fell by the wayside.

An Infinite Importance

Yes, they were numbers, but they had an infinite importance. At the level of their souls, they were connected to the Divine.

That unique quality is present today. It manifests itself in such acts as the martyrdom of Rebbe Akiva or in the officer's falling on a grenade to save his soldiers. But it's also there in countless seemingly non-heroic acts.

When a person dons tefillin or prays from the depths of his or her heart or places a coin in a charity box, that person is reflecting the power of the soul. By ignoring the constraints of the outside world, that person is becoming a vessel for holiness.

The sum total of all such actions, undertaken by countless individuals, will one day transform the barren wilderness into a land of infinite promise.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is editor of Chabad.org News. Email him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.

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