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It’s All In the Name – Parshat Bamidbar 5774

For a printable PDF version click here: Parshat Bamidbar – Its all in the name

“The three ‘veterans’ with needles in their hands engraved a number on our left arms.

I became A-7713. After that I had no other name.”

Elie Wiesel Night

“Lift the head of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families,

by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls”

Bamidbar 1:2

As I have already discussed a few weeks ago the period of Yom Hashoa, Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Hazikaron always falls between the end of Sefer Vayikra and the start of Sefer Bamidbar. I think that this occurrence has deep significance in contemplating our essence as a people and individuals.

I will never forget the day Gilad Shalit was returned home. At the time we were based in London for a year due to work commitments and I was watching it on the BBC. I remember the excitement and sheer joy in my young daughters eyes as they watched the man they had been praying for every day at school and shul, the soldier they had been speaking about for years, being returned to his people, his home. I thought to myself, is there any other country in the world that fights for their captured soldiers the way Israel does? I will never forget the posters plastered in every city of Israel, reminding us that Gild Schalit had a birthday, parents, family, a name and a personality. He wasn’t just another ‘solider’ lost in the battle of war, he was our son, our brother, our friend and because of that we felt an absolute obligation to have him returned. It is a philosophy that has its downside, it opens us up to our enemies, it is our Achilles heel. But let it be so. Let us never become just numbers again, let us always remember to treat everyone with dignity, respect and worth. It is what Parshat Bamidbar is all about and what the Greeks and Christians didn’t understand when they named Sefer Bamidbar the book of Numbers.

Sefer Bamidbar begins a new narrative of the people of Israel. In reality the book is one that was never meant to be. The people had been freed from slavery, given the mandate of their holy mission at Har Sinai, built a sanctuary for the Divine presence and were ready to travel to the Promised Land. For numerous reasons which will be discussed in the coming weeks, this journey does not materialise till many years later and hence the book of Bamidbar recounts the narratives of failure and recovery of the People of Israel.

It is a book rich in thematic references and deep in structural frameworks that are effortlessly weaved together through the imagery and language littered throughout the book.   Paramount to a genuine understanding of this extraordinary book requires uncovering a very complex and intricate web of ideas and imagery. The book is one that records the journeying of our people and in doing so invites us the reader to follow a parallel journey; a journey that corresponds to that of Am Yisrael. We move from a people who cannot speak, that only know how to complain, cry and moan and to whom language is essentially futile, to a nation that has learnt the power of language, utilises it in the correct manner and, in the process, grows up. The development of language is a key theme in understanding this book and the people in the book.

Language is an expression of my inner world but it is refined by the way in which I relate to my outer world. To develop a language requires an extraordinary sense of self, and a mature authentic appreciation of my external reality. Language requires context, as well as process. A single word cannot be understood without a sentence and a sentence without a paragraph. Language requires that I consider the whole picture, that I live with a sense of my past, present and future. It demands an interpretation of reality that is comprehensive yet also allows for partiality. Language is something that is constantly being learnt, it is acknowledging my limits but asserting my understanding. This complexity of life and reality was something the first generation could not comprehend. Their slave mentality meant their relationship to reality and themselves was childlike in nature. Their language was foetal in its development and required a new generation born into freedom to appreciate the nuances of speech.[1] The People had been given their freedom in Sefer Shemot, but begin to adopt a true authentic identity in Sefer Bamidbar.

In this vein, I want to examine the ‘names’ given to the book, through which we can begin to discover the identity of the book and the people that live through it.[2]

The Book of Numbers/Sefer Hapekudim

The people who arrived on the shores of the promised land 69 years ago had been completely dehumanised. They had been the project of a dictatorship that sought to transform them into ashes and in the meantime into an abstract number, unidentified, lacking a past or future. Coming to the Land of Israel, we see through the famous pictures, faces of hope. Boys, girls showing off the number on their arms but with a sense of pride and knowledge that in this land, they have a significant role to play, a dream to fulfil, a nation to be part of and an identity to rebuild.

When the Greeks translated the book of Bamidbar into Greek they named it Arithmoi later translated from the Greek into English by the Christians as the book of Numbers. It is most likely a translation of the Rabbinic name of the book – Sefer Hapekudim, which could be translated as “the Book of Numbers” for the census that is taken at the beginning and end of the book. However the Greek translation looses much of what Chazal try to convey through their naming it Sefer Hapekudim. It is this mistranslation that I believe demonstrates a misunderstanding of the book itself and the Jewish attitude that permeates the book.

The Book of Numbers as we mentioned recalls the count taken at the start of Parshat Bamidbar. Ostensibly, it appears to be yet again reducing the people to mere numbers, cogs in a larger machine, soldiers on a battlefield; goal in sight, identity diminished. It seems to represent the antithesis of God’s goal for his people.

In pragmatic terms, of course an army is needed. The people are on the brink of entering the promised land, without an army composed of men/soldiers one cannot possibly dream of entering a land, much less building it up. But the process seems so incongruous with the development of a people from freedom to slavery, non identity to identity. Almost an anticlimactic end to the Shemot narratives.

What I want to argue is that such a reading of the parsha and the book is an inauthentic reading of it. If one reads the text carefully one detects a message that is antithetical to the Greek name given to the book.

At the start of Bamidbar we are told

וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:  בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–לֵאמֹר.  ב שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם–בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם. ג מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, כָּל-יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל–תִּפְקְדוּ אֹתָם לְצִבְאֹתָם, אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן. 

מט אַךְ אֶת-מַטֵּה לֵוִי לֹא תִפְקֹד, וְאֶת-רֹאשָׁם לֹא תִשָּׂא, בְּתוֹךְ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  נ וְאַתָּה הַפְקֵד אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם עַל-מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת וְעַל כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְעַל כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ–הֵמָּה יִשְׂאוּ אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת-כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְהֵם יְשָׁרְתֻהוּ; וְסָבִיב לַמִּשְׁכָּן, יַחֲנוּ.

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying: 2 ‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls;3 from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: ye shall number them by their hosts, even thou and Aaron.

49 ‘Howbeit the tribe of Levi thou shall not number, neither shall thou take the sum of them among the children of Israel; 50 but appoint thou the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all the furniture thereof, and over all that belongeth to it; they shall bear the tabernacle, and all the furniture thereof; and they shall minister unto it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle.[3]

The second verse is strangely constructed. Instead of simply saying ‘Count all the people’, it administers a very specific method of counting. We are told שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל which loosely translated as ‘Take count of all the people of Israel’, but in a more literal reading really means ‘Lift the head of each member of the congregation of Israel’. It then goes on to tell Moshe how to count the people – according to their families, their households and their names. This pasuk provides the answer we have been looking for. By counting the people at the start of Sefer Bamidbar, the Torah is not backtracking on the philosophy of freedom and individuality it has conveyed until now, on the contrary it is administering the very formula by which such a mindset can be accomplished. Creating an army is a pragmatic need, but what kind of an army is to be created is dependent on the treatment of those in it. By commanding Moshe to count the people in the way he does, God instills in the people a profound sense of dignity and worth. He is attaching a context to the people. They are not an abstract number, they each posses a unique sense of self. If Bamidbar is a book about language and its development, we need to learn that it begins with the subjective context of each individual. It must also consider objective categories of perception and reality so as not to fall into cognitive distortion (like the objectivity of numbers!), but equally it must make space for self expression and subjectivity. The count at the start of Bamidbar makes room for both, without which we would either lose our humanity or lose our objectivity.

The command to ‘Lift the heads of the people’ imparts a fundamental lesson to Moshe and to the people. As a leader Moshe needs to learn that whilst there are practical concerns of the nation and times when it is imperative the people be counted as soldiers, they must always remain individuals. Every person has a family, a home and a name. Every person has a worth beyond their number in the army. The Seforno (Rav Ovadia Ben Yosef an Italian sixteenth century commentator) expresses this message beautifully:

According to the Number of names: For at that time every one of that generation was designated by his name which implies that every member of that generation was to be considered personally, for ‘name’ implies unique individuality and achievement as in ואדעך בשם And I know you by name (Exodus 33:17)….[4]

In the world of the ancient Greece, the city states (poleis) were of supreme importance. Armies were made up of citizens as opposed to professional soldiers. The defense of the state and the Greek empire came at the expense of many lives. The ‘man’ was insignificant in relation to the goal of maintaining Greek rule. As with most ancient civilizations the end goal of power came at the expense of the individual. The individual could only have one identity – a Greek citizen and hence his entire existence was tied to the end goal of the state. Hence when a count was taken the men were of course simply numbers utilized by the state to maintain power and control. Thus the book of Bamidbar, Sefer Hapekudim, would naturally be translated as the Book of Numbers.

The Torah presents a different philosophy, one that makes space for a dual identity: an individual and a collective identity; an individual uniqueness and a part of the collective whole. A conciseness of self that at times beckons me to hear and respond to the needs of the collective.

Rav Aaron Lichtenstein discusses this idea in relation to the link between Sefer Bereshit and Sefer Shemot. He explains that the opening word of Sefer Shemot is ‘שמות ואלה – and these are the names’, employs a vav chibur – an adjoining letter vav that ties one book to the other. He writes:

Rav Yehuda Amital often distinguished between these two aspects, between ‘mispar’ and ”shemot’. A number is a quantitive assessment that relates to each element as part of a collective. In counting, the individual can get lost. Names, on the other hand, are about forging unique identities…

The juxtaposition of these two elements means that we need to speak of two identities- each person has a unique name, and each exists as a member of the Jewish people. Collective identity does not uproot personal identity, but adds to it. This is the meaning of the linking “vav” of “ve’eileh”; being a founding father does not uproot or substitute for the personal identity of the tribe, but adds on to it…The concept of dual identity is not limited to Jews. The question of division of identity concerns not only students of social history or philosophy, but those living in certain countries at certain times. In the Greco-Roman world, as compared to the modern world, collective identity occupied a very central place- are you a Greek or a Barbarian, and if you are Greek- from where? But the modern world- this is the heart of liberalism- does not like the collective identity, favouring instead individual predilection, orientation, self fulfilment, etc. The difference is partly that of outlook, but it is also existential.

Broadly speaking, there are two stages- the book of Genesis, before national identity is formed, and post facto, when we can put the national facet aside to focus on individual growth. In-between is the book of Exodus, the time when we need to focus on collective identity…

The important thing is to retain the linking ‘vav´- ‘ve’eileh. A Jew must recognise that the collective and personal are intertwined, no matter which he chooses to superimpose on the other. We do not have purely individual or collective identities.[5]

The Rabbis named the book Sefer Hepekudim, and in doing so draw our attention to the census taken at the start and end of the book. However as we have already mentioned ‘Lifkod’ does not translate as ‘to count’. It has a much deeper significance. The word ‘Tifkod’ is employed in verses 49 and 50 (see above) with regards to the Leviim and their role in the nation. The term ‘Lifkod’ doesn’t just men to count but also to be given a role – a tafkid.   To count is to know how many, to make the requisite calculations of men in order to organize the battle. But to be endowed with a role charges the individual with a sense of his unique purpose and importance in striving towards the national goal.[6]  Ramban, in a striking insight, links the term tifkod with the word pakad:

The idea of פקידה is a remembering and a turning of attention to something or someone. It is like the expression “Hashem had remembered Sarah as He had said” (genesis 21:1). This is the meaning of pakad everywhere without a single exception in my opinion. And also the word pikadon carries this meaning because its attending to and its safeguarding is incumbent upon the trustee. Thus when God commands Moses to count the children of Israel, He states the expression ‘you shall pakad them’ in order to intimate he should not count them directly rather they should each give an atonement for their soul, a half shekel, and through this Moses ‘will turn his attention to and be mindful of’ the peoples number.[7]

Ramban understands the word term pakad to mean the turning of attention to. In other words ‘counting’ the people does not turn them into a distant, abstract whole, but rather imparts to the people God’s concern and involvement in their destiny. This understanding is counterintuitive, yet the very cornerstone of the relationship between God and His people.   The word Pakad, as Ramban reminds us , is the term used to denote impregnation. It is the essence of creativity, individuality, subjectivity. No one person is the same, no one experience identical to another. The interplay between language development and the development of the individual within the national context is central to the Book of Bamidbar.[8] The people learn to speak, only after they learn to behold an identity. They learn to use language in all its complexity and framework, only once they perceive of reality and their relationships with each other and God as a process rather than as a means of satisfying instinctive desires. Bamidbar presents to us humanity in all its intricate paradoxes. It highlights the tension between national and collective goals versus the development of one’s subjective individuality. It tracks a nation fresh out of slavery, to a people ready to enter a land and build a new world order.

God in his unending wisdom, teaches the people that to have a national goal and united collective is imperative, but it cannot be at the expense of losing sight of our individuality. For to do so means we become numbers, lose our self value and worth and hence forget that we are an essential part of our nation’s development.

Shabbat Shalom

Some additional thoughts:

Mulling over the parallel between the Tower of Bavel narrative and the opening of Sefer Bamidbar got me thinking about the idea of scattering across the globe and unity. In Parshat Bechukotai we are told that as a punishment for not keeping God’s ordinances, He will scatter us across the lands. It reminded me of the ‘punishment’ of the generation of Bavel. I began to contemplate the idea of scattering and diversity versus joining together in one place and unity. Are they mutually exclusive? Does distance and diversity mean unity cannot exist and does the concentration of a people in one place necessarily mean they will be united? In order to understand the narrative of Bavel we would need to follow the text in a detailed fashion and show how its ambiguity naturally leads to a plethora of interpretations which I believe in itself is a central message of the story (the need for a multiplicity of approaches to one idea/narrative); but from a very brief and simplified analysis it is easy to see that it was not necessarily the unity of the people that God did not like, but rather the way in which they governed the people and the city that was not favourable. The fact that they took initiative in building , developing, creating a city and a tower was not the problem, rather that through the extreme centralisation of the goal, an ambivalence to change, dynamic interaction, creativity, human ideas and language (and through that human dialogue) was created. Hence by scattering and changing their language to continue working unified towards their common goal they must listen to each other, learn to respect the other and find a common language without losing the beauty of each ones’ differences.

I find it fascinating that when we were scattered as a nation into exile, each community developed its own unique identity, practices and historical narrative which was formed from the historical and cultural conditions in which they lived. Overall however in retaining their Jewish roots and Halakhic underpinnings, there was a covert unity between all the Jewish communities, whether they realised it or not. In returning to the land, there was a strong movement towards unifying the people into the classic Israeli model of man. There were those that were embarrassed by their roots in exile and wanted to forget their identities from a time gone by. There were of course voices that wanted to retain the beauty attached to Kibbutz Galuyot (the ingathering of the exiles), but the former voice often won over the latter. There have been moments in the short history of the modern State that saw a deep respect for otherness and consequently an undeterred unity. In an eyewitness account of the liberation of Jersualem in 1967 the unity of contrasts is expressed beautifully:

“Every section of the population was represented. Kibbutz members and soldiers rubbing shoulders with Neturei Karta. Mothers came with children in prams, and old men trudged steeply up Mount Zion, supported by youngsters on either side, to see the wall of the Temple before the end of their days. Some wept, but most faces were wreathed in smiles. For thirteen continuous hours a colorful variety of all peoples trudged along in perfect order, stepping patiently when told to do so at each of six successive barriers set up by the police to regulate the flow.” [9]

Today the lack of respect for the other, the intolerance to difference, the inability to find a common language within the differing voices, is causing an intolerable situation of dissonance.   We may be united in one place, trying to build our tower, but the fact that each group wants the other to conform to their standards, to be like them is preventing us from fulfilling our Divine goal. The fact that there is no respect for the individuality of the other, there is not even an attempt to listen to the voice and language that the other is speaking, is a recipe for being once again scattered with our languages changed. Where there is unity and respect for diversity, as we are taught in Sefer Bamidbar, there is a Godly kingdom. Where there is no attempt to see the uniqueness of the other or even tolerate their particularity, we are returning to the generation of Bavel.

[1] The entire book is composed of imagery attached to language. The people’s complaints, Miriam’s lashon hara, Korach’s eida being swallowed by the mouth of the earth, the mergalim’s lashon hara, Bilaam’s blessing, Moshe hitting and not speaking to the rock and the incident of the Benot Zelofchad.

[2] My original intent was to explore all the names of the book, in particular ‘Bamidbar – The Wilderness’ whose implications and undertones touch at the very heart of our nationhood, but once I began to develop the notion of ‘numbers’, I realised that an exploration of the ‘wilderness’ will have to wait until a later date.

[3] Bamidbar 1

[4] Seforno Bamidbar 1:2

[5]Aaron Lichtenstein: Individual and National Identity in Torah MiEtzion: New Reading in Tanach: Shemot p xxi

[6] This leads us back to Bereshit and the Tower of Bavel where we saw that God wants individualism as part of the whole – not that man is a number and must bow to the greater good but that he is an individual, part of a family and a nation but an individual nonetheless with a unique role and personality that is intrinsic to the whole.

[7] Ramban Bamidbar1:3

[8] I want to suggest that in many ways Bamidbar follows on from a much earlier narrative about the interplay of language and identity. The story of the Tower of Bavel is replete with references to the danger of conformity. The text suggests both implicitly and at times explicitly that the conformity of language has led to a coerced conformity of the individual. Though the people seem united in their goal of building a tower and creating a universal name, the uniformity of language (as implicit in the repetitive words of the narrative and the explicit relaying of ‘one language and one thing’) led to the universalisation of mankind into a group of soldiers that neither think for themselves or challenge the status quo. Mankind lost the individual in all its beautiful diversity and multiplicity and hence God must scatter the people and change their languages, since only through our differences do we value ourselves and others.

[9] From a report in The Jerusalem Post June 16 1967

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