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Parashat B’midbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

“I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all their first-born,
the first of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.” (Numbers 3:12)

Parashat B’midbar (in the desert) is called chomesh hapikudim (the book of those numbered) in the Talmud and simply “Numbers” in English (both the portion and the entire book). It begins with a census (a numbering) of the Israelite nation. The parasha, or portion, is short on plot but long on statistics, tallying the 603,550 Israelites of military age. This causes some commentators to infer the census is preparation for the conquest of the Land of Canaan. But surely God already know how many Israelites there are; why is the census needed?

Rabbi Isaac Arama (1420-1994; Spanish rabbi and philosopher) answers that question by explaining the detailed counting highlights the importance of each individual: “…They were all equal in stature.” But Arama also acknowledges the diversity of the people: “…The stature of each one was different.” Rabbi Israel Horowitz (~1565-1630; Ashkenazi scholar and mystic) extends this idea by claiming the 600,000 Israelites correspond to the 600,000 letters of the Torah. This has two implications: the Torah is incomplete without each individual’s presence and that each individual’s contribution is unique. That is why Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1810; central leader of Polish Chassidism) interprets the word vayifk’dem (“As the Lord had commanded Moses, vayifk’dem, so he recorded them.” (Num. 1:19)) as limed, he taught. Moses teaches Torah by adding each individual Israelite into the unfolding text.

B’midbar presents a model and a challenge to today’s world: since diversity is a reality and inclusion a choice, how can a census maximize the ability of each individual to contribute and make the community whole?

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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