Numbers or BeMidbar: What we call something demonstrates our values

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel

May 23, 2020

For generations, Jews have been called the people of the book. In exile, property could not always be inherited or kept within the community, but the insights of the mind can always transfer, can go without you anywhere. Education is essential to who we are. Words themselves are holy. We speak of Torah as bread, as water, as life itself. Therefore, I see great meaning even in the title of our parsha, of our Torah portion.

This week we open a new sefer, a new book of the Torah. Sefer Bamidbar is the fourth book of the Torah. It opens and closes with a census of the people, making its English name “Numbers” seem appropriate. While the Sages of the Talmud occasionally called it Chumash Ha-Pekudim (The Book of Countings), it is more commonly called BeMidbar, (in the Wilderness), an apt name that covers 39 of the 40 years of wandering on the way to the Promised Land.

I am drawn to the different names of this book. How do the different names reflect our values? The title “Numbers” seems stark. Yes, it is descriptive of the census, but it is a name that feels cold. Numbers by themselves have no humanity. To turn statistics and numerical data into something meaningful we need the context, the stories, the narratives. Raw data has no meaning until we analyse it and contextualize it. Stalin is reported to have said “one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic”.

In this moment, of Coronavirus, that is a powerful thought. In St. Petersburg, we are very fortunate. At CBI, we have been blessed. We may know the occasional person who has been afflicted by this disease, but the numbers have been favorable. That is not the case in the Jewish community nationally. In the tristate area, dozens of rabbis and ultra-Orthodox scholars have died. Every rabbi I know there has done funerals of people killed by COVID. My parents, thank GD, are recovering, but their supposedly mild cases have lingered for weeks. My brother-in-law’s father finally seems on the road to recovery after weeks in intensive care, supported by a ventilator. He had to learn to talk with a trach tube and will need extensive therapy to return to his “normal” life. We have followed his story for weeks that turned into months. Barry has been a devoted member of his Jewish communities, a social worker who has worked in Jewish family services as a therapist and now as an executive director in his city. Barry has been in the midbar.

Being in the wilderness, Bamidbar, implies a story. We need to know what wilderness? What happened? Why were we there? What were we doing? What was before? What comes after? Bamidbar demonstrates the value of narrative, of humanity. It is not just a simple count, but the connection of generation to generation. Read always before Shavuot, we have left Egypt, we are receiving Torah, NOW we can make our way to the Promised Land. Bamidbar is about growth. Rabbi Jonathan Kliger of Woodstock, NY wrote that “beyond the realm of history, the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the wilderness are a spiritual journey, from the dehumanized, fragmented condition of slavery to the restoration of our full humanity as a holy community in conscious relationship with the Source of Life.” (1)

There is nothing I want more in this moment than to return from the wilderness, from the midbar. Emulating the language of my colleagues, CBI has not been closed, so it cannot reopen. Our kehillah has been active in so many ways. Our classes, minyanim, social endeavors have all continued in new and different ways. I have been in constant contact with our kehillah, with so many congregants, sharing spiritual, emotional and even financial support through my discretionary fund. We all know this time is challenging. Even as the doors of this building have remained closed, our community has been open. In recent weeks, Dorothy and Joel convened a task force to discuss our physical return to the building. In consultation with doctors, lawyers, minyainaires, and other members, we are planning the best (SAFE) ways of returning to normalcy. We want to ensure that as we slowly open our doors, all will be done with the utmost care and concern for our Jewish values.

Statistics and numbers are part of our story, but they do not define it. As we continue, we must be clear about our values. Every single member of our community is valuable. We count our community to better understand, to discover our names, our stories, our blessings, to serve Gd. We must count for holy purpose--otherwise we find ourselves in trouble.

Speaking about the census, Rashi, our dear 11th century friend, writes:

“Because they were dear to him, He counts them every regularly:” This is in stark contrast with David. While both the biblical and Davidic censuses seem to be for military purposes, the census here connects us to our families, to our tribes, to our peoplehood. David cares only about the number. He does not want to know more. Gd wants to know each and e

very one of us, to have a relationship with each and every one of us.

Looking at this pandemic, we must remember that the numbers on health department websites are human beings. We must count with care and affection. We must see the people behind the numbers? What are their stories? Who do they leave behind? How can we affirm their humanity in this moment?

In a midrash about our parsha, BeMidbar Rabbah 4:2, speaks of a “parable of a person...who had a collection of beautiful pearls, and he would count them each time he took them out and put them away…[Similarly Gd says to Israel] ‘You are my children...and therefore I count you often.’” (2)

To Gd, every one of us is a precious pearl. Let us call this book BeMidbar, sharing our story of the wilderness. Like our ancestors, we will reach the Promised Land. We will come together for many smachot. I know it. Shabbat Shalom

(2)  From Yitzhak Bronstein at Mechon Hadar “We are Each Pearls: The Impossibility of Counting”

The Promised Land