By Rabbi Joel Oseran, Vice President, International Development, World Union for Progressive Judaism, Jerusalem
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself the question – why do we call the 4th Book of the Torah by two different names? In Hebrew we call it Bamidbar (in the Wilderness/Desert) whereas in English we refer to the 4th Book of Torah as Numbers? The simple explanation comes from the fact that Bamidbar begins with the account of the census of the 12 tribes of Israel – it is all about numbers and counting. Interestingly, in some rabbinic texts, the Book of Bamidbar is called “The Book of the Census” (Sefer Ha’Pekudim). Yet, we know that its proper Hebrew designation, from its first significant word, is Bamidbar, in the Wilderness/Desert – the physical context wherein the Israelite tribes are located as they make their way from Egypt to the Promised Land (with an ever so important stop at Sinai).
Clearly the act of counting, the determination of how many members there are in our various family tribal groupings, seems to be the key focus of our weekly Torah portion, Bamidbar. The purpose of the count was most likely related to the needs of war and preparations for the inevitable future battles which would confront our ancestors as they journeyed to their Homeland.
We Jews still occupy ourselves with numbers, with counting. We seem to thrive on taking surveys and finding out how many of us are we. Whenever we visit a new place, especially a country outside our home country, we always ask – how many Jews live here? We are fixated on numbers, on counting who is inside the family. And in a most profound way, we still measure ourselves, understand our security and ability to face our future challenges (survival is a type of warfare wouldn’t you agree?) by referring to our numbers.
Just a short while ago the State of Israel, our national Homeland, celebrated its 66th birthday and with it, the national census was revealed. The number of Israelis according to these latest figures is 8,180,000 of which 75% are Jews (6,135,000), 20.7% are Arabs (1,694,000) and 4.2% are non Arab Christians, Bahai, and others (based on Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics). And oh how we know that all numbers are not alike. To say there are today 6 million Jews living in Israel has a meaning far different than 5,999,999. We are today 6 million and counting – upward towards a future. What special meaning this census, this number, has for Jews everywhere.
Yet, we all know that not all members of our 12 family tribes are living at Home (in Israel).The Jewish family today numbers approximately 13.8 million souls, with the largest number outside of Israel living in North America (5.8 million). Demographers tell us that in another 15-20 years, the number of family members living at Home will be equal to the number of family members living abroad (the Diaspora). The trend is unmistakable – each year more family members live at Home and fewer family members live away from Home.
Perhaps the question which might help us to best understand the meaning of numbers in our Jewish world today, is the question – who really counts. No, I do not mean who is counting the Jews today, i.e., who is the census taker, but rather, who makes a difference – whose presence inside the Jewish camp really counts? The census in our weekly reading, Bamidbar, provided valuable information for our leadership to use regarding who could be counted upon for service to God and the people/family. Each tribe brought special attributes with the Levites assuming special responsibility for everything pertaining to the Tabernacle.
In our day, we need to be clear as well regarding who can be counted upon for service to the Jewish people/family and to our Homeland, Israel. Haredim in Israel are counted in Israel’s national census but few are counted upon for national service (of any kind) to the State (time will tell whether recent legislation requiring Haredi army service will actually change this situation). Interestingly, the census in the Torah was based on all those men, 20 years and above, who were eligible for service in the army (a paraphrase of the Hebrew: Yotzei Tzava). In modern Israel, women as well as men at age 18 are required to serve in the army.
But what about the Jews (members of the tribe) living outside the borders of the Homeland, the State of Israel? We are certainly counted in the census but can we be counted upon to serve our people/family and our Homeland? Do Jews living in the Diaspora, women and men alike, carry any special responsibility to serve the Jewish people/family and our collective Homeland, the State of Israel? Are only members of the family (tribe) living at Home required to serve the family and Homeland?
This question is answered later on in the Book of Numbers, in Parshat Mattot (Numbers 32:1-40). As the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan river and enter their Homeland knowing full well the battles which await them, two tribes, Reuben and Gad, come to Moses with a special request. Since these two tribes owned large numbers of cattle and since the land on the Jordan side of the river was excellent cattle country, would Moses permit these two tribes to remain outside the Land of Israel and raise their cattle there. In what is surely one of the most profound responses ever made by Moses, he answers the tribes of Reuben and Gad: “Will your brothers go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6). In the end, the two tribes agreed to leave their cattle and households on the Jordan side of the river, but go together with their fellow family members across the Jordan to help secure the Land. Only at such time as all the Israelite tribes were across the Jordan and securely at Home, would the tribes of Reuben and Gad return to their families outside the Land (Diaspora).
What a powerful example of being counted! The tribes of Reuben and Gad found life in the Diaspora to be more suitable and accommodating for them and their way of life. They had a dilemma – how to fulfill their own personal destiny while at the same time be counted upon to help their larger family secure its future in its land. They ultimately reached a compromise which enabled them to both be true to their tribal needs while securing the destiny of the larger family.
In today’s Jewish world, we members of the Children of Israel (the remnant of the 12 tribes) are as diverse and pluralistic as can be. We live different lives, speak different languages, eat different foods, hold different views on nearly all issues of importance. And we live in different places – some at Home, some away from Home. How can we who live in the Diaspora be counted upon today, as the tribes of Reuben and Gad were counted upon in ages past, to provide the necessary service and support to the family living at Home? Today Diaspora Jews are not expected to literally fight the battles which still rage in the Homeland (though the stories of how Diaspora Jews have volunteered for army service in Israel from the War of Independence to today are inspirational beyond belief). But Diaspora Jews can and must find personal ways to connect with their Homeland, give of themselves and of their resources to strengthen our Homeland, and take responsibility for what happens in our Homeland because Israel is no less your Home than it is our Home – the family who live in Israel.
The census taken in the Torah is predicated upon the basic principle that all members of the family of Israel (12 tribes) will be counted upon for service. It is a unifying principle. That is the fundamental meaning of family, and in the end, it is that principle, more than any other, which just might preserve the unity of the Jewish people.