What does a number mean to you? Technically a number is a mathematical object used to count and measure. Yet we use numbers to represent important times in our lives, to role dice in a game or even play a lucky lottery. This week we enter the fourth book of the Torah Bamidbar. Our Sages know this book as Sefer Hapikudim – the book of Numbers.
On first thought we understand the book is so called after the beginning of our Parsha which deals with a population census that is taken of the Jewish people at the time.
Yet when we think of it, why is a whole book named after such a one off event? Wouldn’t it have been better for our sages to keep the name as the book of Bamidbar, especially seeing as most of the book deals with occurrences in the wilderness?
Furthermore on inspection the Torah states: “Take a census…..according to their fathers’ house, BY NUMBER OF THE NAMES, every male according to their head count.” (Bamidbar 1:2).
The expression “Bmispar Sheimot” [by number of the names] seems contradictory. What does it really mean? The term “number” and “names” are almost mutually exclusive. When we talk about numbers we imply anonymity. The word “names” has the exact opposite connotation. A name gives a person singularity and a quality of being special – more than just a number!
Which is it – was the census concerned with the overall numbers (the “Klal”) or was the census interested in the individual names (the “P’rat”)?
Have you ever been in a synagogue searching for a Minyan? When people arrive in the synagogue the Shliach Tsibur has to wait till there are ten men. The Halacha is that he may not count these people directly.
Rav Mordechai Gifter zt’l, explains that numbers by their very definition are finite. Stating a number, one quantifies an item such that the quantity is no more and no less than the number stated. A human being, by his very definition, is not finite in this sense. He has a soul and strengths, and characteristics. He has unlimited potential to grow and expand his capabilities. Trying to put a number on an individual limits him and restricts his ability to reach untold heights. Therefore, when we speak of a “Minyan” we are not speaking of a “mispar” [a number]. We cannot just “count” Jews. When we enumerate people and treat them as numbers we in effect say they are defined and limited. This is certainly not the way Hashem wants us to view the Jewish people.
Thus when there is a census of the people, the aim is to work out the number, but they are not counted by numbers, rather they are counted through names. Each name represents an individuality, an unlocked potential – each person has a separate task in life. The end number is the sum of all the physical bodies, but it in no way measures the awesome infinite power of all their souls.
Getting the Jewish people to unite nowadays isn’t easy.
But lets think about it 3323 years ago, when the Jews left Egypt. How easy was it for them to unite?
The Midrash states that when the time was right to leave Egypt Hashem gathered the Jews from all over Egypt. They all set out and followed Moshe into the wilderness. Imagine, a people that had been scattered across a vast land, there were no technological communications, and yet they all went following one leader into the wilderness.
Forty nine days later they stood at Har Sinai – and they encamped united – KeIsh Echad Belev Echad. Millions of people, a whole nation, and within 49 days they had achieved unity!
What is the secret to this unity?
Chazal explain that Moshe had already told them that the whole purpose of Yetsiat Mitsrayim was Taavdun…Al Hahar Hazeh – receiving the Torah. The people had a goal, they were excited and had a goal to work towards. They united behind this goal, and worked on themselves for 49 days each day improving their characters and unity, until they were able to completely unite to receive the Torah.
The Torah could only be received by a united people!
Similarly we find in this weeks Parsha. Moshe was worried. Each tribe had a different flag, each tribe had a different Avoda (work) set out for them. How would they all be able to integrate? Perhaps some of the tribes would complain about their flag and tasks?
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky explained that Hashem reassured Moshe, and told him so long as they are encamped around the Mishkan all will work well. So long as we are unified in our ideology, we understand the important things in life and set these as the centre of our attention – the Holy Presence of Hashem – then we will be successful.
The Netsiv explains that book of Numbers, is so called, because it begins with a census and ends with a census. The census at the beginning refers to a census shortly after leaving Egypt. A nation that had received the Torah, built the Mishkan and was ready to start their voyage. It was a show of how we value each Jew individually, yet at the same time, how we value the whole nation as a united entity. It is only through unity that we can have the Mishkan and Hashem’s presence within us. The census at the end refers, a generation later, to a newborn nation, about to enter Israel. The message being sent to them is clear. To inherit the land of Israel, there must be unity. A count of the people is taken, each exists on their individual level, yet each must know the centre piece must be Holiness.
Am Yisrael are a successful nation when we are united.
Let us focus on our heritage, focus on our individual goals and unite in His service to merit the coming of Mashiach Bimhera Byamenu Amen.