Torah Portion: Bemidbar
Book of Numbers
June 10, 2016
Every so often (i.e. more often than not!), I come upon someone else’s writings that speak to my heart; express my thoughts in a more succinct manner than I could. This is the case with regard to the first portion in the Book of Numbers.
As the English title suggests, at least the first several chapters of this book deal with numbers: A census to determine the size and nature of the Israelites in the desert. The Torah writes, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its tribes, listing the names, every male, head by head.” (Num. 1:2) Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (not to be confused with Rabbi Harold Kushner!), in his book Five Cities Of Refuge writes the following:
“There used to be a TV show when I was growing up called Naked City. They showed an aerial view of Manhattan, played some weird music, and the announcer said something like, “There are nine million stories in the naked city and tonight we’ll tell you one of them.”
“This reminds me of what it is like for me to be the rabbi of a congregation. I sit up there on that bimah at the front of the sanctuary and watch everyone assemble for the High Holidays. One by one, they walk into the room-families with new babies, families where there will be an empty seat, old friends re-uniting, enemies trying to avoid one another, enemies asking forgiveness, someone who’s been told by his doctor that this will be his last Rosh Hashanah, you know-the whole circus. And they know one or two about you.”
“So what I’m saying is that after you’ve been the rabbi for as long as I have, you know a story or two about each person out there: something joyous, something shameful, a hope, a death, a secret wish. That’s simply what it means to take a census of the community and that’s what it also means to be in a community.”
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that to take a census requires the presence of a community. A community is more than just numbers on a page. Being part of a community means having a stake in the happiness, sadness, love, and enmity of its members. We are not just a congregation of 250 families, but the collective beating heart of a complex and intricately woven community of human souls.
Rabbi Howard Siegel