B’midbar, the book of “Numbers” in English, literally means, “in the wilderness.” Speaking to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, God commands him to bring some semblance of order to the chaos of Israelite community wandering b’midbar. This is accomplished by taking a census, a count, of the people by their ancestral tribes. It reminds me a lot of being back in elementary school, where the teachers would count heads when we went out for recess or a fire drill. It wouldn’t look good if the class came back missing anyone!
These careful counts remind us that every person, every soul, is precious to God, and should be to us. It’s not lost on me that in 2020 the US is taking its census, and that proper and careful reporting is the key to funding services that will benefit the population.
Here in our Torah reading, the count is initially to determine how many men “from the age of 20 years up in Israel, all who will be able to bear arms” will be available to amass an army if needed (it was, and will be). The Levites, descendants of Moses and Aaron, are counted separately, as they will be responsible for transporting and maintaining the Mishkan and its furnishings.
For decades, companies have advertised themselves along the theme of, “you’re a name, not a number,” and our Torah reading reflects that, with the commandment to s’oo et rosh kola adat b’nai yisrael l’mishp’chotam, l’vet avotam, b’mispar sheimot, “to lift up the head of the entire congregation of the children of Israel by the families and their ancestral houses, by listing their names.”
The Torah may give us mostly numbers, but God gave everyone a name. May we be blessed to live up to our names.