By Rabbi Arnold Saltzman
This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, Numbers: 1:1-4:20.
Bamidbar, while speaking literally of wilderness, offers us a remarkable number of rich images and ideas: The taking a census of all males between the age of 20 and 60; the responsibilities of the Levites; the responsibilities of the Kohathites for assembling and taking apart the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary.
Most commentators translate midbar as desert, but that is a surface description. As with studying Torah, when we examine a desert and wilderness, there is frequently more life than we might expect. The desert can be brutal, yet it offers a lesson about survival in a difficult environment. Less literally, can the Torah be an oasis for us on a life’s journey?
Unlike the U.S. Census count, the census in the Torah was for the purpose of military service. Women were omitted because they did not fight in battle. The census emphasized equality, as it was a man’s half-shekel that was counted, not his person. And the half-shekel was the same for every man.
All are equal in God’s law. This is an impressive beginning to a guide for a people’s survival for wandering, new beginnings and an unchartered future.
The half-shekel also did what no other census accomplished. It gave atonement to the person being counted (according to Ramban), as they were blessed by Moses and Aaron. This was part of the motivation for being counted: Some might prefer to be anonymous, yet giving atonement and recognition are reasons to line up and give your name.
During the Holocaust, Jews were tattooed with numbers on their arms as a way of dehumanizing them and ultimately allowing the destroyers to rationalize that they were just erasing numbers, not human beings.
In contrast, the Torah emphasizes the names of leaders and tribes, giving them responsibility, and never speaks of an anonymous person or group. The Torah humanizes, records, gives purpose, requires responsibility, counts on us.
The tribes’ tents surround the Mishkan, protecting it. Later, temple and synagogue, and then the Torah, became the substitute for the Mishkan. This idea brings us together as a community. Even in a time of political divisions, the centrality of Torah, in content and as symbol, serves as the dibur, the spoken teaching of God to us, in the midst of bamidbar (the wilderness).
Coming together to be counted, to seek atonement and to recognize how we surround the Torah, which draws us together as a people united in our tradition, is an appropriate conclusion to the counting of the omer and the Revelation at Sinai, which we celebrate following Shabbat Bamidbar. The Torah offers us a spiritual landscape of life, which we will not notice if we look at the surface of wilderness.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland, Beit Chaverim of Calvert County, and Shaʼare Shalom of Waldorf.