Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Bamidbar
To dedicate this lesson

Parshas Bemidbar


Rabbi Berel Wein

Iyar 29 5775
The main message that iscontained in this week’s Torah reading as well as in much of the content of the chumash of Bamidbar is that one does not only count numbers but that numbers really count in Jewish life. The Torah emphasizes for us the fact that without Jews there is no Judaism. Judaism is not an idea or a philosophy. It is meant to be a living organism and that requires human participation and numbers. We often think that individuals are not that important in the grand scheme of things. The Torah however teaches us otherwise and that is why it continually counts the people of Israel. The Talmud teaches us a halachic and philosophic principle that something that is counted acquires a status that does not allow it to be nullified by greater numbers or amounts. Counting one gives one status. Sometimes that status is extremely negative as it is numbers given to incarcerated prisoners on jails. Sometimes it is pretty much neutral as the numbers given to us on our social security cards and personal identification papers. And sometimes being counted and numbered can be a positive experience such as being the tenth man to constitute a prayer quorum. But all of us are aware that we are somehow being counted somewhere and somehow. And that this fact should be taken into account when we make decisions about our speech, behavior and outlook on life. We count and we are to be counted. The Torah reading of Bamidbar comes to reinforce that truism within our psyches and personalities.

On the High Holy Days we recite the famous liturgical poem regarding the shepherd having his flock pass before him individually to be marked for holy purpose. The poem is naturally based on the imagery of the Mishnah as it appears in tractate Rosh Hashanah. Each of the billions of people who populate our world is an individual and is so counted by the great shepherd of us all. No matter how fervently wish to melt into the mass of humanity and not be singled out for life’s tasks, challenges and inexplicable events. Part of the uniqueness of the Jewish people is that it has always been of relatively small numbers. The Torah itself informed us that we would be of limited numbers and that God did not choose us to fulfill our mission in human civilization because we would be many in numbers. Our limited numbers contribute to our sense of uniqueness and mission. To be a Jew is to be special, but only those who truly cherish and appreciate their Jewishness, their traditions and value system can achieve that inner sense of uniqueness and self-confidence and self-worth. And those who unfortunately opted out of Jewish life, assimilated, intermarried, never built families, etc. eventually have counted themselves out of participating in the great drama of the Jewish story. So we should not wonder why the Torah counts us so often and so carefully. It teaches us a great deal about ourselves and our future.

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