Can You Count On Me?
by Rabbi Jonathan Taub
Rabbi Jonathan Taub, originally from London, lives in Har Nof, Yerushalayim. He is privileged to have the opportunity to teach in a number of Yeshivos and Seminaries in Yerushalayim. A fan of the Malbim, he wrote “The Malbim Esther” and co-authored “The Malbim Haggadah”. His teaching aim is to show the “wow” in Torah.
It is not a coincidence that the festival of Shavuos occurs when we are in the middle of Torah readings from Sefer Bamidbar.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 428:4)
“We always read Parshas Bamidbar before Shavuos”
Why is it important to read Bamidbar before the festival commemorating Matan Torah?1
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In non Jewish circles the five Chumashim are called Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
I want to focus on why we call the Sefer by the name “Bamidbar” and not “Numbers”.
It is true that the opening Parshiot of the Sefer describe the counting of Bnei Yisroel. However the name “Numbers” is not one which expresses a Torah outlook. Let me explain why not:
In an article written by the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, he pointed out that for every Jew there are more than 180 Christians and 100 Muslims. More than three thousand years after Moshe said following it is still true:
“It is not because you are more numerous than all other nations that Hashem had affection for you and chose you – but because you are the fewest of people. (Devarim 7:7)
There is a fascinating passage in the Torah:
“When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay Hashem ransom for his life when they are counted. Then no plague will affect them when they are counted”. (Shemos 30:12)
There is a clear message – it is dangerous to count Jews. Centuries later Dovid Hamelech ignored this warning and disaster struck the nation. Why is it dangerous to count Jews?
Rabbi Sacks put it beautifully:
“Nations take censuses on the assumption that there is strength in numbers. The larger the people, the stronger it is. That is why it is dangerous to count Jews. If Jews ever believed that their strength lay in numbers, we would give way, G-d forbid, to despair. In Israel they were always a minor power surrounded by great Empires. In the Diaspora, everywhere they were a minority.
Where then did Jewish strength lie if not in numbers?
The Torah gives an answer of surpassing beauty. G-d tells Moses: Do not count Jews. Ask them to give and then count the contribution. In almost every age Jews have given something special to the world…
The simplest explanation is that to be a Jew is to be asked to give, to contribute, to make a difference”.
To call the Sefer Numbers would be to miss the point. Why, though, is it called Bamidbar?
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The Medrash at the start of Bamidbar Raba (1:7) teaches:
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe in Midbar Sinai” – anyone who does not make himself like a Midbar – open to all – cannot acquire wisdom and Torah – as it says “in Midbar Sinai”.
The Torah is given in a Midbar to teach us that we have to be totally open to those around us – the Midbar is not an enclosed area – anyone can enter. Torah is only for those who understand that they have to care about those around them. Before the festival of receiving Torah we have to learn the message of “Midbar”.
I have every confidence that the Torah you have learned here in Eretz Yisroel was not just for yourselves, but will help each of you make your contribution to the world.
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So we don’t read “Numbers”2! We read “Bamidbar”!!
We know – although we don’t count Jews, every Jew counts!
Wishing you every success,
1 – This year is a rare exception – we read Bamidbar and Nosso before Shavuos. This only occurs in a leap year when Rosh Hashana falls on Thursday.
2 – In truth our Rabbis call Sefer Bamidbar by the name “Chumash Hapekudim” – (Mishnah Yoma ch. 7), which many translate as “The Book of Numbers”. However “Pekudim” is perhaps better translated as “appointments” – each Jew was counted to be given his role and purpose in Hashem’s world – plan (see Rashi in Bamidbar 1:50). This fits beautifully with the idea of contribution that we are learning. (See also the introduction of the Netsiv to his commentary Ha’Emek Davar on Sefer Devarim.)