Book of Numbers
May 26, 2017
The English name for the 4th book of the Hebrew Bible is Numbers (the Hebrew name is Bemidbar, the first major word in the book meaning “[in the Sinai] wilderness”). The reason for the English title becomes obvious in the 2nd verse of the book:
“Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.” (Num. 1:2-3)
The reason for this ancient census is even more obvious: to determine how many able-bodied men were available to form an army. To this day, the only effective means for understanding the strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, hopes and despairs of a community is a census. This task is performed once every decade in the United States and once every 5 years in Canada.
As individuals and communities we are constantly engaged in measuring our numbers even when we don’t realize it. For most, the notion of taking a census usually stops with the determination of a number. Just how many of us are there? Beyond the numbers, there is usually a particular need. For the ancient Israelites it was the raising of an army. For a Jewish community it may be the question of whether to build another school or synagogue. What about the individual? How often does one take a census of oneself? At the end of a day (or week or month or year!) how many people did I help? How many others did I hurt? How have my actions and words been received by those whom I have encountered? How have I contributed to a better community? What more can I do?
Among the famous teachings of Hillel the Elder (1st century b.c.e.) is the following: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” (Pirke Avot, Chap. 2:5) To be part of a community is to part of an ongoing census of ourself, and those around us.
Rabbi Howard Siegel