By Rabbi Steve Fisch
This week, we begin reading the book “Bamidbar,” translated as “In the wilderness.”
How, then, did the book gain its English name of “Numbers”? When we look at the Greek translation of the Torah, the “Septuagint,” compiled in the third century BCE, we find our answer.
The name of the book in Greek is “Arithmoi,” translated into English as Numbers.
The authors of the Septuagint arrived at the name “Numbers” from the content of the first few verses of this parashah.
Moses is told to take a census of the people of Israel. The Torah goes into great detail on how many members compose each tribe. We have 25 verses describing in great detail those counts.
(An aside — the census described the number of men over 20 “who were able to bear arms.” That is, however, an alternative d’var Torah for another year.)
As an example of the census: We learn that Dan had 62,700 men and Asher had 41,500.
As we read the Torah this Shabbat, what relevance do all these numbers have to do with us today?
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, who serves as rosh yeshiva of Toras Chaim of South Shore in Woodmere, New York, provided an account of a young Walter Cronkite.
At the outset of his career as a journalist, Walter Cronkite worked as a copy editor for the Houston Chronicle. His boss, City Editor Roy Rousell, was a stickler for detail and accuracy, who would raise a ruckus for the slightest error or inaccuracy. There was a price to pay if a Mr. Smythe was spelled as Mr. Smith.
Cronkite was responsible for a two-line item carried every day on the front page of the final edition, “Bank Clearings.” Each day a small line simply read, “Today’s Houston bank clearings were,” followed by a large monetary figure.
One day Rousell called him into his office. He was clearly enraged. “You had the bank clearings all wrong yesterday,” he snarled.
Cronkite had the clearings at $3,726,359.27, but the correct amount was $3,726,359.17.
He was off by 10 cents, but the city editor was adamant and visibly distraught.
Cronkite thought, “Why did his editor have such a stern reaction to a 10-cent mistake on a multimillion-dollar figure?”
When the young Cronkite walked back toward his colleagues, they looked grim.
“How are you going to fix this one?” they jeered. Are you going to hire bodyguards?”
Cronkite was baffled and indignant.
“What’s all this fuss about a 10-cent error on a 3 million-dollar clearing?” he exclaimed.
The other reporters looked at him in shock when they realized he truly did not understand the severity of his trivial mistake.
The local columnist explained. “Do you think anybody really cares about the amounts of the bank clearings?
“But …the numbers racket in Houston pays off using the last five digits of the bank clearings.
“Yesterday they paid off based on your number. The mob doesn’t like paying off on a bad number.”
For the next few weeks, Walter Cronkite lived in literal fear for his life for his seemingly insignificant 10-cent error.
What do the censuses in Numbers and Cronkite’s mistake mean to our lives today?
In a census, we are assured that every one of us needs to be counted.
Cronkite’s mistake teaches us that even a small difference is important.
That leads me to understand that each one of us is different.
A popular midrash tells us that the world began with only one person to teach us that if we save a life, it is as if we saved the entire world, but if we take a life, it is comparable to destroying everyone on our planet.
I recently met with a bat mitzvah student to discuss her address to the congregation. As part of our dialogue, we discussed how she was unique and onlyshe could provide her exclusive gifts to our world.
A modern (must have been Jewish) psychologist said, “G-d gives each person only one portion of worth — no one gets more and no one gets less.”
And finally, we Jews gave the world monotheism — there is only ONE G-d.
Numbers count, but in my humble opinion, the most important number is ONE.
Rabbi Steve Fisch is interim rabbi at Adat Chaverim and a member of RAGD (Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas).