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Count Down in the Wilderness

Parshat Bemidbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

We begin a new book of the Torah with this week’s portion, Bemidbar. We begin the book of Numbers which is how this book gets its English name. The Hebrew name means in the Wilderness and the narrative of this book tells of the years of wandering from Sinai to the Promised Land.  But the English name of the book, Numbers, comes from the accounting in this week’s portion.  This week God tells Moses to count the Children of Israel and take a census.  This is exactly what is happening in the U.S. right now.  We are in the midst of the every decade census.  Forms were sent to each household to be returned to the Census Bureau.   But for those households that did not return their Census2010 form, home visits are now taking place trying to collect the necessary and very basic information about the size of each household and number of people in a household. 

The every decade census is important because it determines the shape of our government and captures very important information about our people.  I sat this past year on the California Complete Count Committee which was a statewide, governor appointed committee that tried to ensure that every resident of California was counted. We devised strategies and did outreach in all kinds of communities to make sure that California would not have an undercount. This happened in the 2000 Census.  Estimates are that California was undercounted by more than 8 million people! Ouch!  This impacts everything from Congressional representation to federal funds for schools and roads. 

That is why if a census worker comes to talk with you it is important to answer her or his questions.

So too in our Torah portion it was important to know how many Israelites there were and in particular as the Children of Israel made their way to the Promised Land how strong an army they would have.  Thus this counting of the men over the age of twenty becomes critical as the Israelites transform from a group of slaves into a nation and into force to be contended with as they make their way north toward Eretz Yisrael.  The census is necessary to also figure out the taxation base that would support the priesthood and the tabernacle service. An undercount would have severe implications for the Israelites.

The numbers they come to in the Torah are staggering; over 600,000 male Israelites over the age of 20! This would mean that if you added the women and children—are there over a million or two million people that were part of the Exodus?  And the census in a later part of Numbers gives different figures for the same tribes.  These kinds of numbers would intimidate every enemy.  And would fulfill the Egyptian notion that the Hebrews were fruitful and multiplied.

But 600,000 is still a huge number and one theory explains that the word elef-which means thousand in Modern Hebrew –may not mean this in the ancient dialect.  The word elef might simply mean tribal unit and then the numbers of the Israelites on the journey dramatically decrease the numbers of those in the wilderness. Nevertheless it would put the fighting force of men at over 5000.  Still an impressive army in the ancient world.

The divine counting recorded in this week’s portion helps set the stage for the organizing of the Israelites into troops and into a nation.  Moses and Aaron and the representatives of the chieftains have their task before them.  And out of this chaos of the wilderness will come a nation-and an organized force, echoing the Creation—out of the tohu v’vohu the chaos and void came the Universe.

So for those of you who have trouble with organized religion—remember-it comes out of the chaos and void and is the attempt by both the Divine and humans to make sense of the world around us.  Is it perfect? No.  But it is an attempt.