Parshat Bamidbar: Diversity within Communities

Parshat Bamidbar describes the layout of the camp of the twelve tribes around the mishkan. This is a springboard to contemplate the value of community, without uniformity. 

The Torah states that Bnei Yisrael should camp according to his “standard” (דגלו), under the “signs” (אתת) of their ancestral house. Rashi comments that these unique flags highlight the diversity of the tribes. The midrash Tanhuma teaches that this layout determined which tribes could influence each other. Korah from Kehat was next to Reuven, who they pulled into their attempt to sow discord. The midrash calls this: “woe to the wicked person and woe to his neighbor.” Conversely, Levi, containing Moshe and Aharon, was next to three tribes who became “great in Torah” — “fortunate is the righteous person and fortunate is his neighbor.” Meaning, we are influenced by our neighbors and those we choose to be surrounded by. Yet, the people encamped together. 

A similar idea arises in the context of communal prayer. The Talmudic source for minyan is based on a verbal analogy in Torah. Vayikra states that God should be sanctified “among” Bnei Yisrael. The word “among” is also used when God instructs Moshe to separate from “among” Korah’s rebellious community (edah). The word edah is also used in the story of the spies, from which the number ten is derived for minyan. The basis for communal prayer is derived from two groups of wrongdoers. Furthermore, Rambam writes that communal tefilla is always heard by God, even when there are sinners among them. The Kuzari takes a more positive approach to diversity within communal prayer. He writes that the strengths and weaknesses of each individual can be balanced out when praying together – the individual is like one limb within the necessary whole of the community, the body. 

These sources encourage openness and inclusiveness within communities and allows for people of varying religious commitments, or who feel less worthy, to feel a part of communal prayer. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Bamidbar: Redemptive Counting

The Book of Bamidbar is also called by the rabbis “Chumash HaPekudim,” (loosely) the Book of Numbers, since it contains two lengthy censuses of Bnei Yisrael. Counting people is sometimes viewed positively in Tanach, while other times it is considered a sin. Why is there such a varied view of counting people in Jewish sources? 

Bamidbar opens with God commanding Moshe to count the males who are of age to be soldiers, in preparation for entering the land of Israel. Rashi comments: “Because of God’s love for Israel, He counts them often…” This is in contrast to when King David counts the people. The book of Divrei Hayamim states that God was displeased with this counting. What was the difference? 

In Bamidbar God commands the counting, whereas later, David counted from his own initiative. Moreover, Sforno explains that in Bamidbar they were counted “with names,” highlighting each individual for their unique contribution to the nation. Thinking of people as numbers is dangerous, as we know too well from Jewish history. One last interpretation: Ramban notes that there is a significant difference in language between Bamidbar and Divrei Hayamim. In Bamidbar, the word used for counting is from the root פקד, which can also mean redemption. In the David narrative it is ספר, which only means to count. Ramban explains that counting should be done rarely and only when necessary, for positive, redemptive purposes. David’s counting was not for any good reason.

Unfortunately, this is a particularly relevant message, as we try to process the news of so many young lives lost this past week. The parsha is a reminder that each one has a name and is an entire world. May our countings be only for redemptive purposes. Shabbat Shalom and Yom Yerushalayim sameach -Karen Miller Jackson