A census of names

By Cantor Sheri Allen

This Shabbat, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, B’midbar, otherwise translated as “in the wilderness.” B’midbar chronicles the next 38 years of the Israelites’ journey from Sinai to the Jordan River, with G-d safely guiding them and providing for all their needs. Our parashah is also known as Sefer Ha P’kudim, the book of the Census, as it opens with G-d’s command to “take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head….from the age of 20 years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.”

The census was crucial in order to determine the number of able-bodied men who would be able to fight in the impending conflict to claim their land. The Levites are counted separately, as their job as guardians and porters of the portable sanctuary exempted them from fighting with the others. 

The medieval commentator Ramban offers the following explanation: As opposed to the previous census, this time the people were counted by name. They were recognized as individuals, not as numbers. And this census was further verification that, despite the overwhelming challenges they faced from other nations, they survived, their numbers intact. The total count was taken to be 603,550, which is also said to be the number of letters in the Torah. And just as a Torah is rendered unkosher if so much as one letter is missing, so too the loss of even one life is a profound tragedy. 

The Israelites are also recognized within their own tribes, perhaps signaling the unique contribution that each tribe brought to the collective community of Israel. It certainly is important to acknowledge the worth of each human life, but Judaism also emphasizes the importance of coming together as a group, to pray, to celebrate, to mourn, to support and strengthen each other. And each one of us, while bringing our personal history into the mix, serves to enrich our history as a people. The census taken in B’midbar achieves the purpose of naming each individual, as well as confirming their place within their tribe.

There is no doubt that numbers can dehumanize. The Nazis certainly banked on it. And even today, it’s hard to conceptualize what 6 million looks like. It’s hard to comprehend the tallies of those who were lost in tornados or earthquakes, 9/11 or COVID-19. What can help us to understand and process these numbers, what gives meaning to them, can simply be hearing even one survivor’s personal testament, or reading the names and seeing the faces of those who have suffered. Then, it hits home. Then, it becomes real. 

The fact that Parashat B’midbar is almost always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot is also significant. As we read about the counting of the Israelites in the wilderness, we are currently counting the days until our ancestors reached Mount Sinai and received the Torah. As we count the Omer, the days in between Pesach and Shavuot, we celebrate our physical freedom from slavery and look forward to the spiritual freedom that is ours only when we are in possession of G-d’s greatest gift to us. Counting each day causes us to pause and reflect on that day’s events, our actions and our gratitude for the blessing of being given another day of life. In this case counting, or rather, making each day count, can rescue us from being B’midbar, in the wilderness of anxiety that can threaten to consume us when life becomes a bit too overwhelming. 

As we all look forward to celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, may we continue to count our blessings, and may we always be able to count on each other.

Sheri Allen is in her 12th year as cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington.

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