Counting In The Wilderness


Picture the following scene: Kol Nidre night. The rabbi of the packed synagogue walks to the Ark, declaiming, “Ribbono Shel Olam, on this holiest night of the year, I stand before you contrite, and declare I am a nothing!” The cantor follows, going to the Ark and booming, “Our God and God of our Ancestors, I, too, stand before you and say, I am a nothing.” The president of the shul walks in front of the Ark, saying, “I stand here and declare I am a nothing.” Whereupon, the rabbi whispers to the cantor, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

As we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, we see right from the start that from a Torah perspective there is no such thing as any of us being considered a nothing. Bamidbar begins with God ordering a census.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev teaches that there are 603,550 letters in the Torah, corresponding to the census tally of 603,550 Israelites. He reminds us to cherish each letter in the Torah; if even one letter is missing, the Torah is not fit for use. So, too, we must cherish each one of the Jewish people. If even one Jew is missing from our community, then our mission is unfulfilled. The Lubavitcher Rebbe adapted this idea, reaching out to Jews in the furthest corners of the world. As the Rebbe explained, if Hitler was motivated by hate to find Jews in every corner of Europe, then we, motivated by love, must seek out every Jew, as well.

The tribes were to encamp around the Mishkan (Tabernacle), under their tribal banners, in the order in which they were to march, moving forward. The Itturei Torah, quoting the Beit Aharon, tells us that having each person under his family banner teaches us that while we are part of a collective, we must be seen as unique. We each have a specific task, a unique destiny, as no person is exactly the same as another.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons Parshat Bamidbar always precedes Shavuot. While in English Bamidbar is translated as Numbers, Bamidbar literally means: “in the wilderness.” As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, the midbar (“wilderness”) represents no-man’s land. Quoting anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s idea of liminal space, the transitional no-man’s land between old and new, Rabbi Sacks connects this to the wilderness serving as the liminal space between slavery and freedom, between Egypt and the Land of Israel, a space where God and the Jewish people could bond in love. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein noted that the word used for taking the census, “Se’u,” literally means “lift up.” By being counted, we all get a spiritual lift; the simplest Jew counts as much as the most scholarly. It also is a reminder that all of us can lift ourselves up, seeking more Torah knowledge, more Jewish connection. The challenge is how to make that happen.

The following teaching about Shavuot can be one way to guide us: On Shavuot we will hear the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments. Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that the Ten Commandments were inscribed on two tablets. The Hebrew word for tablets, “luchot,” is spelled without the vav so that the word can be read in the singular, as if it were one tablet. Rashi explains that the two tablets were the same size; the Yefeh Toar says that on one side we find five commandments that are connected “bein adam l’Makom,” between humanity and God. On the other side, five commandments are connected “bein adam l’haveiro,” the relationships between people. Both sides are equal in size, the Torah teaching us that both sides are equally important.

Our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other, both reflect that we are created in the image of God, so we must treat our lives and each other with respect, dignity, and with Yirat Shamayim (the fear of Heaven) ever-present. By living integrated Jewish lives, being part of a collective while recognizing individual uniqueness, we, as a community, will be transformed from seeing ourselves divided to seeing ourselves united as one, echoing the words of Rashi, that we encamped at Sinai as one person, with one heart. In that way, we allow Z’man Matan Torateinu, the “Time of the Giving of the Torah,” to transform each day into a time of receiving and living by the message of the Torah, each with a unique mission, and never seeing ourselves as mere nothings.   

Adena Berkowitz is scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah, and co-author of “Shaarei Simcha-Gates of Joy,” a mini-siddur and the first liturgical work written by Orthodox women in the modern era. She is completing her training as a psychotherapist/psychoanalyst.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Candles: 7:51 p.m. (Fri.); 8:52 p.m. (Sat.); 8:53 p.m. (Sun.)

Torah: Num. 1:1-4:20

Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22

Havdalah: 8:54 p.m. (Mon.)