(Courtesy: Rabbi Jonathan A. Schnitzer)
We live in a world in which numbers matter. Though over 6 billion souls stretch across the planet, ultimately each individual counts – as part of a family, a community, a religious culture, a society. Numbers assume a particularly compelling role in our parasha.
We are now beginning to study the fourth book of the Torah. In Hebrew, it is known as Bamidbar – “in the wilderness” – a reference to the journey of the Israelites over the course of almost four decades as they traverse the Sinai desert. But in English, Bamidbar is known as “Numbers,” a reference to the census Moses undertakes at the outset of the book in determining the readiness of the Israelites for the military campaigns ahead as they journey towards the Promised Land of Canaan.
Why does the Torah place so much emphasis on counting the individual? Nachmanides, who lived in 13th century Spain and settled in Eretz Yisrael in his last years, suggests: When you count the total number of people, be careful not to forget the uniqueness of each individual. Too often, in the rush of everyday pressures, we tend to ignore or diminish the inner soul that every human being possesses. Also, Nachmanides notes, the census reminds the Israelites that despite all the difficulties encountered on the road to freedom, their numbers remain vigorous. In our own era, we need that encouragement as well. While there are examples galore of loss and tragedy on the Jewish scene, in spite of everything there are many sparks of renewal, strength and vitality.
The census in our parasha results in a final figure: there are 603,550 Israelites – exactly the same number, according to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, as the total of all the letters in the Torah. Just as every Jew mustered in the census is infinitely precious, so, too, every letter of the Torah contributes to its overall impact.
Numbering offers another tangible message for us as Jews at this season of the year. Each evening of the 49 days between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot, we literally count time. The experience of “sfirat ha’omer” – counting the Omer – underscores that the physical freedom we celebrate on Passover, as crucial as it is, is not enough. We need spiritual freedom as well, which for us as Jews develops through our relationship with the Torah. On Shavuot, at the culmination of the counting of the Omer, we recognize that Sinai was not just an event of the distant past.
Through our awareness and our actions, Sinai continues to reverberate in us, inspiring and challenging us to use the values of the Torah as a resource for meaning and joy in our lives. Each of us counts in that process.
Jonathan A. Schnitzer, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is Senior Rabbi of B'nai Israel Congregation, Rockville, MD.