By Rabbi Evan Moffic, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1−4:20)
Bamidbar opens with a census of the Israelite tribes. The purpose of the census was to assess military strength. More numbers meant more strength. But subsequent rabbinic tradition questioned this assumption. They compared G-d taking a census to a person assessing their jewels. This person took out their jewels to be reminded of their beauty and preciousness. It was not the quantity of jewels that mattered. It was their quality. Similarly, G-d has little interest in our numbers. G-d, so the Midrash suggests, cares about the beauty and depth of our character.
The rabbis were right to question the assumption numbers signal strength. Jews are, compared to other ethnic and religious groups, a relatively small people. Writer Milton Himmelfarb once quipped that the entire world Jewish population would be considered a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet, few doubt that we have had a tremendous impact on world history.
Strength, in other words, comes not only from numbers. It comes from ideas, from spirit, from culture. It comes from commitment and vision and purpose. It comes from different places for different people. For Jews, our strength comes from a culture of learning and creativity, and from our sense of mutual responsibility. It comes from the conviction that Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh l’zeh, all Jews are responsible for one another. For Americans, our strength comes from our entrepreneurial spirit, and from our faith in freedom and progress.
Every individual also has unique sources of strength. At my synagogue, we had all of our staff take a “strengths-finder” assessment where we learned our top five strengths. It was an extraordinarily helpful exercise that led us to work more productively and joyfully with one another.
By questioning the assumption that numbers equal strength, the rabbis opened up a whole new way of thinking. They also helped us avoid a dangerous way of thinking because when we see numbers as the sole source of strength, we begin to dehumanize people. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, “The numbering of a people is the most potent symbol of mankind-in-the-mass, of a society in which the individual is not valued in and for him- or herself but as part of a totality whose power lies in numbers. That is precisely what Israel is not.” We are a people who never confused size with strength. We never built a massive empire. We never sought to make everyone believe in the same way we did. We know every individual is created in image of G-d, and unlike any other.”
This truth helps explain the unique verb used to describe the act of counting. It is se’u et rosh, literally, “lift the head.” The Torah could have used other verbs. There are plenty of Hebrew ways of saying “to count.” Yet, it calls on the ancient Israelites to “lift their heads.” Every individual stands tall. Every person counts. The goal of a census is not simply to arrive at one number. It is to call upon the strengths of every individual.
I often think of the Torah portion of Bamidbar in connection with the Torah portion of Shemot. Shemot also opens one of the books of the Torah. Shemot is also one of the Torah portions where the Hebrew name differs from the English name given to the book of Torah that it opens. But what truly connects the two for me is the link between numbers and names.
Numbers conceal names. When we focus on numbers, we can easily forget the names behind those numbers. But G-d never forgets our names. G-d doesn’t even forget the names of the billions of stars in the universe. As Psalm 147 says, “G-d counts the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” Names signify our uniqueness. They remind us of who we are and can be.
Rabbi David Whiman tells the story of a adult woman studying to become a Bat Mitzvah. She told him that her Hebrew name was “Shaynah Punim.”
Rabbi Whiman laughed when she told him this Hebrew name. “That’s not your Hebrew name,” he said. “Yes it is,” she replied. “That’s what everyone called me when I was a kid.”
Rabbi Whiman said, “They may have called you that, but “shaynah punim” means ‘beautiful face.’ It’s an expression, something like ‘cutie pie.’ It’s not a name.”
“No,” she insisted, “that’s my Hebrew name.” He complied with her request, and remarked later about how happy he was to do so.
He said to her during the Bat Mitzvah service, “My hope, my prayer is that you will live your life in such a way that when others see you they will see in you the light of loving, ethical and compassionate concern that we Jews call the face of the Divine, and see in your actions the image of G-d implanted within us, so that when you are called by the Divine to render account for the way you used the gift of life entrusted to you, G-d will reach out and, touching your face, call you ‘shaynah punim’ as well.”
Rabbi Evan Moffic is rabbi at Makom Solel Lakeside Congregation.