10 Jun 2016

Bemidbar – Shabuot 5776: Names and Meaning

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“The Jews started it all—and by ‘it’ I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings … we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.” 

– Thomas Cahill, The Gifts Of The Jews

After a year at the foot of Mount Sinai, absorbing the new Torah that they had received and contemplating the new framework within which they would now begin to live, the book of Bemidbar begins with the Children of Israel leaving the mountain to embark upon the path that will lead them to the Promised Land.

The first order of business was to perform a census.

Now G-d spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai…saying: ‘Take up the head-count of the entire community of the Children of Israel….’ (1:1-2)

But people were not simply to be numbered. Names were of the essence in this census:

By their tribes, by their Fathers’ Houses, according to the number of names…and the entire community they assembled…they declared their lineage…as numbered by names.

Thus were the sons of Reuben…as numbered by name

Thus were the sons of Shimon…as numbered by name… (1:2,18, 20, 22)

We can imagine what the procedure must have been like: names being spoken, one by one, carefully inscribed, each one representing a soul, a whole unique individual. Taking account of names sent a clear message: you were not a number but an individual. This meant that one had a life that belonged to them and was theirs to fill.

This was the beginning of the journey away from Sinai. But knowing that one’s name counts was only the beginning. The real work was in backing that name up with a meaningful identity.

Liberty was achieved when we stepped out of Egyptian bondage. The opportunity to find meaning in that liberty and accomplish a full-fledged freedom was gifted to us in Torah. The Torah’s framework provided our people with rubrics and systems for discovering meaning in all aspects of life and reality, not the least of which, our own lives.

It is no wonder then, that the Talmud — the great compendium of centuries of Jewish thought and discussion emerging from the framework of Torah — treats all aspects of life and reality as valuable subjects for discussion. Whether it is markets, music, biology, medicine, neuroses, idiosyncrasies, sexuality, digestion, exercise or superstitions, if it is part of G-d’s world it is worth speaking about and exploring.

During the darkest ages of humanity when human beings were restricted, by those in the seat of power, from learning, thinking and, therefore, from cognitively and spiritually growing, Jewish children were contemplating subtle and sophisticated ideas from as early as 5 years old; this allowed the Jewish soul to soar out of darkness and into light.

This did much more for our people than simply ensure education. It presented a framework of thought and perception through which discovering meaning became an integral aspect of their world experience. For the Jewish people Sinai is not only the source of our national thought and enlightenment, it is where the world’s value was born to us. From that time, for thirty centuries, we have been contemplating what things mean over and above what they are.

This endeavour is what promises to bring each and every one of us the opportunity for living a life of value and discovering that our lives are filled with significance. Bemidbar begins with our names, and this year when we read it just before Shabuot, it fills our names with the value and light of Torah. Torah has taught the Jewish people, regardless of the depth of the individual’s connection to it, that we are not just entities that can be counted but individual souls, with names, that count. It is because of this acceptance and awareness that we have, and always will, deem every individual life profoundly precious.


Rabbi Joseph Dweck


Parasha Perspectives


I  Bamidbar

1a  Counting the number of names  (1:1-19)

Men, 20 and up, able for war counted. God names man

from each tribe to assist Moshe and Aharon.

1b Reuven           46500    (1:20-21)

2   Shimon          59300    (1:22-23)

3   Gad               45650    (1:24-25)

4   Yehuda          74600    (1:26-27)

5   Yisakhar         54400    (1:28-29)

6   Zevulun         57400    (1:30-31)

7   Efrayim          40500    (1:32-33)

8   Menashe        32200    (1:34-35)

9   Binyamin        35400    (1:36-37)

10  Dan                          62700    (1:38-39)

11  Asher            41500    (1:40-41)

12  Naftali           53400    (1:42-43)

13 Total number: 603550, excluding Levi.  (1:44-47)

14  Job of Levi tribe: Levi’im look after, camp around

and carry the Mishkan  (1:48-54)

15a  Arrangement of Camp: order of th march (2:1-9)

Eastside: Yehuda leads. Group contains

Yisakhar and Zevulun. Total = 186400

15b  Southside: Reuven leads. Group contains

Shimon and Gad. Total = 151450  (2:10-16)

15c   Levi in the middle. They camp like they

journey – in formation  (2:17)

15d  Westside: Efrayim leads. Group contains

Menashe and Binyamin. Total = 108100  (2:18-24)

15e  Northside: Dan leads. Group contains

Asher and Naftali. Total = 157600  (2:25-31)

16   Total number excluding Levi 603550. Everyone

did as commanded  (2:32-34)

17   Descendants Aharon and Moshe: Nadav and

Avihu dead, Elazar and Itamar to work  (3:1-4)

18  Job of Tribe of Levi: work in Mishkan  (3:5-10)

19  Levi’im chosen over firstborn; firstborn belong to

God because of ‘Egypt’  (3:11-13)

20a  Levi counted and given their jobs:

Gershon 7500, westside (3:14-26)

20b  Qehat (8600, south) Merari (6200, north) Moshe,

Aharon and sons (East).  22000 altogether! (3:27-39)

20c  Counting of firstborn: Men from one month.

(Levi’im to replace firstborn) 22273   (3:40-43)

21 Levi in place of Reuven: 273 extra redeemed: 5

shekels each given to Aharon = 1365 shekels  (3:44-51)

22  Job of Qehat: Count of 30-50year olds. Cover and

carry ready wrapped Mishkan  (4:1-16)

23  A plea for Qehat: Don’t die through negligence so

only see stuff when wrapped  (4:17-20)


Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS