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Parshat Bamidbar: The hostages or the war?

There are many today who frame our current reality as either/or. Either the hostages OR the War. Either we save those suffering unimaginable conditions in the Hamas dungeons or we keep focused on the ‘greater’ goal of destroying Hamas and winning the war, most likely, at the expense of saving the hostages. At the heart of this dichotomy lies a classic sociological dilemma – what is more important, the face and life of the individual or the claims of the whole?   I believe the entire book of Bamidbar, but in particular our Parsha, speaks to this tension.

The Book that wasn’t meant to be: On unimagined possibilities

Sefer Bamidbar has always intrigued me. In its essence it is a book that was never meant to be. The plan was, having redeemed us from the shackles of Egyptian slavery, God would deliver us into our land. The desert was an interim place and space; a passage-way to the Promised land. Instead, however, the people show themselves to be ill prepared for the journey and they remain in this liminal space for forty long years. In that time, they move from dependency to inter-dependency. In the silence and vulnerability of the desert landscape they retrain their ears and eyes as well as their minds away from slavery towards the responsible life. They learn to speak not just cry and moan, and they understand that miracles cannot be the modus vivendi of a functioning society and nation.

This unexpected journey generates the most profound life lessons. In this book that was never meant to be, we learn the secret of our humanity and national calling. Sometimes what looks like failure, insolvency, or simply the wrong turn in our life journey, turns out to hold the key to our redemption. In a world in which expediency has become the greatest value, Sefer Bamidbar teaches us that authentic freedom can only be won through the slow and painful process of character formation and sustained effort. Like a child who is learning to walk, there will be moments in which we fall and rise again. Liberty is more than unbridled freedom. It is a journey towards a deeper understanding of self and purpose. It moves beyond the childlike desire for immediate gratification and demands we ask hard questions about life, meaning and existence. It is, as Emmanuel Levinas termed it, a ‘difficult freedom’.  

The wilderness narrative is perhaps one of the most important manifestoes on nation building and at its heart stands a central question: How do you create a nation with a common purpose and mission out of a multitude of individuals? How do we navigate the needs of the self with the demands of the whole?  Throughout human history mankind has leaned towards one of two responses. Either an emphasis on the individual or a sustained focus on the whole. Marxism, Socialism and Fascism chose the latter. Capitalism, Liberalism, and Postmodernism chose the former. The first enforced boundaries on the individual to ensure obedience to a common goal/ideology. In the latter, a breakdown of boundaries led to the individual pursuit of pleasure rather than purpose in which society serves the interest of the I rather than the requisites of the We.  In each of these ideologies something was lost and ultimately both the individual and society suffer. For society to serve both the needs of the ‘I’ and show responsibility to the calling of the ‘we’ a certain vision is required.  Sefer Bamidbar sets this vision at its helm. What is this vision?

Words: Construction or destruction?

Both the imagery and themes of the book help us to understand what the vision is. The central narratives are all framed around the importance of ‘words’. In fact, the books name – ‘Bamidbar’ comes from the word ‘ledaber’ to speak. The narratives of complaints, The Spies, Miriam’s lashon hara, Korach rebellion and the mouth swallowing him, the story of Bilaam, and the redemptive speech of the daughters of Zelofchad all carry the motif of speech. Speech is the primal mechanism of development. In learning how to express our needs and translate our inner world to an external reality we make the movement from the self to the other. A word set in the wrong context can  yield radically different meanings. Language requires context and an interpretive eye. Language acknowledges the limit of parochialism but the need for universal apprehension.

This complexity of life and reality was something the first generation failed to appreciate.  A slave mentality has a childlike orientation focusing on immediate results and self-gratification it cannot see beyond the contours of its own existence. Language mirrors this mental apperception and is in a foetal stage of its development. Only a new generation born into freedom, could appreciate and apply the nuances allied to mature speech formation.   The People were set freed in Sefer Shemot, but only begin to adopt a true authentic identity in Sefer Bamidbar. The ‘space’ and ‘silence’ of the Midbar generates the vacuum into which language is born and they learn to ledaber- to speak.  In doing so they transcend the immediacy of the self and move into a space that includes the ‘other’ and his/her needs. It is this ‘in-between’ space, much like the wilderness, that relationship can take place and becomes the mechanism through which the ‘I’ engages with the ‘We’ and transcends the immediacy of his/her own needs towards a life of responsibility. That is why the Torah places such an emphasis of words, vows, language. Through it we can make or break worlds. Through it we can meaningfully create connection or maliciously destroy it. In this war, at this time, words have been used to rub salt into already bleeding wounds. Words have been weaponised creating more suffering and pain amougst a people already dealing with so much trauma. Every person is entitled to an opinion in a War whose solution is impossibly complex. But we must learn how  to use  our words to create connection and heal rifts rather than create even greater fissures and ruptures.

To count or be Counted on

We all want to count. The fact of our mortality leads us to search for ways to immortalising our short time on earth. In the ancient Greek world, they used the term kleos, which means glory, renown, extraordinary or what others think of you[A1] [TW2] .  In the face of man’s mortality and short-lived life, what mattered in Greek culture was the legacy you left behind, “the extraordinary” - the glory of your actions as reflected through the approval of the masses. Mortality can be conquered through fame.  This sentiment pervades our contemporary culture in the same way. If once it was expressed in statues structures and acts of heroism, today it is manifest in social media and pop culture. The question our book asks is do we want to count or be counted upon? Do we lead a life who’s sole purpose is to have our name in lights or a life of responsibility from which the individual serves the needs of others and higher values and goals.

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 translate as the book of numbers, for the census that is taken at the beginning and end of the book.  However, the Greek translation loses 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 an the particular Jewish theology that underpins it. 


The book of numbers as we mentioned, recalls the count taken at the start of Parshat Bamidbar.  Ostensibly, it appears to reduce people to numbers, cogs in a larger machinery, soldiers on a battle field; identity diminished fighting for the goal of the mass. Whilst conquering a land necessities an army the census seems incongruous with the goal of nurturing individual liberty. Moving from the book of ‘names’ in which the people win back identity, the book of ‘numbers’ seems to reverse that trajectory.

However, if one reads the text carefully one detects a message antithetical to the Greek name of ‘Numbers’.

In the second verse of the Parsha 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 proceeds by telling Moshe how to count the people - according to their families, their households and their names. Creating an army is a pragmatic need, but the kind of army it will become will be dependent on the way in which the soldiers are treated.  In commanding Moshe to count the people in the way he does, God instills a profound sense of dignity and worth to each individual soldier. Like language that we mentioned at the start he sets each soldier into a context.  Rather than becoming an abstract number, they are shown a unique sense of self.

By 'lifting the heads of the people’ there is a parallel transformation. Moshe, as the leader, is forced to see the faces of each person, he is forced to understand that a solider is not just a number, but an individual with a name, a family, a tribe and a human face. At the same time the soldier whose head is lifted gains a sense of importance and purpose, a feeling that he/she matters.

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. Hence a census was nothing more than a show of strength, power and control. It is easy to understand why the book of Bamidbar, that begins with a census was translated into the Book of Numbers. But in actuality the term ‘lifkod’ means far more than a census, instead it means, as the Ramban reminds us, a turning of attention to something or someone, just like God ‘remembered’ Sara and gave her a son. Rather than ‘lifkod’ meaning to ‘number a person’ it means to ‘count on a person’. When we give someone a ‘tafkid’ we telling that person that we are counting on them to live up to our expectations of them. We are endowing them with a sense of responsibility towards a goal bigger than themselves.

The Torah presents a unique position that makes space for a dual identity – both collective and individual. A individual uniqueness as part of a collective whole.

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 if we do we become numbers, loose our self-value and worth and hence forget the unique role and responsibility we hold as individuals.

Our soldiers have showcased this unique biblical wisdom to us in the last 9 months. In unprecedented numbers they have sworn their loyalty to their fellow comrades, their people, their land, their heritage. They have put thoughts of individual needs aside and kept their eyes on the national goal. In doing so we have witnessed some of the greatest acts of human heroism and bravery. Their names live on after them in their individual legacies. In living for something bigger than themselves they have been part of the eternal legacy of the Jewish people.

May Hashem grant insight, wisdom, courage and clarity to our leaders to be able to balance the needs and faces of our individual hostages, soldiers and those suffering and in need, with the demands of the collective whole and find the path towards a solution that upholds  both these Divine and religious imperatives.

 Shabbat Shalom

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