The Time To Pay Attention


Shabbat Shalom
Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:58 p.m.
Torah: Num. 1:1-4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-2:22
Havdalah: 9:05 p.m.   

Our parsha, the first in the Book of Bamidbar [Numbers], opens with a peculiar request to Moses: “You and Aaron shall tiphkidoo [to number them, to record them] by their groups, from the age of 20 years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” [Numbers 1:3]. The root verb used for “record” is p-k-d, which can mean variously to “pay attention” to “appoint,” to “commit” or “entrust.”

At the end of their bondage, it is with this verb that God lets the Israelites know their freedom will be ensured, “pakod pakadti” [Exodus 3:16], “I have taken note of you,” which echoes the request of Joseph to remove his bones from Egypt at such time that God takes note of the people [Gen 50:24-25]. Also, God’s promise of a son to Sarah is done through this verb, “the Lord took note [pakad] of Sarah…” The word echoes again in the Book of Ruth [1:6], with ”God’s taking note of Israelites to give them food again…”

The verb appears in numerous places in this week’s parsha [Num. 1:19, 44, 47, 50; 2:4, 33; 3:10, 15, 16, 39, 40, 42, and into the next, 4:23, 30, 34, 37, 41, 45, 46, 49]. The force of the verb seems to convey not just a counting but an awareness.

In fact, one of the rabbinic names given to the Book of Bamidbar is “Chumash Hapekudim,” the Torah of accounting [Yoma 3a, 68b; Sota 36b; Mishna Menahot 4:3]. Why do the sages place such a high value on this act of census taking? “Accounting” seems an oddly procedural and mathematical name for one of the five books in the Torah. The Sages’ alternate names for Leviticus, “Torat Kohanim,” (priestly teaching), and for Deuteronomy, ”Mishneh Torah,” (reviewing the Torah), seem clearly associated with their themes, as does the name “Sefer Hayitzirah” [book of creation] for Genesis; and “Sefer Hageulah” [book of redemption] for Exodus.

Although the census is taken twice in the Book of Bamidbar [literally “in the desert”], it seems that a name more closely related to the book’s theme, say “book of journeyings” or “rebellions in the wilderness” might be a better fit. 

This parsha is read every year on the Sabbath before Shavuot, the holiday when we received the Torah on the sixth of Sivan. As such, this portion is the last piece of Torah we hear, as a collective, before the momentous event of “matan Torah,” the giving of the Torah. In a sense, Bamidbar prepares us for Shavuot. But how that is so becomes all the more curious given the fact that according to Sefer HaHinuch, a book noting where each of the 613 commandments can be found in the Torah, not one is found in parshat Bamidbar.

Perhaps the kind of focused attention necessary to perform the task of counting is what we must be aware of as we prepare to receive the Torah. The process of counting prior to Shavuot is familiar through the counting of the Omer that is begun on the second night of Passover. This sustained awareness of the passing of time enables us to focus on getting ready for Shavuot.

In our modern world we are constantly distracted by electronic devices, voice mail, e-mail, texting and other forms of “connectedness.” The ability to stop, slow down and actually pay attention to what is in front of us without distraction is becoming increasingly rare.

For Passover the preparations are more obvious and physical. Yet, for Shavuot, to prepare to receive the Torah we need to be able to count, to pay attention, to be aware of what this moment in time can mean.

That sense is what, according to Genesis Rabbah [3:5], “separates those who left Egypt and those who came to the Land,” just as the fourth verse of Genesis [1:4] is where God separates “the light from the darkness.”

It is to be hoped that the taking note and the counting done while reading this Chumash Hapekudim will yield similar and significant transformations for those of us taking the time to pay attention.

Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis. She has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.