Parshat Bamidbar

The book of Bamidbar is also termed sefer hapekudim, the book of Numbers, and opens with appointment of tribal princes and a census in readiness for the entry to the promised land, which was sadly delayed for forty years, by the incident of the spies. Bnei Yisrael were actually counted four times, firstly at the departure from Egypt, then with a half shekel at the building of the Tabernacle, here in Bamidbar, and finally at the end of the forty years in the wilderness.

Rav Yosef Shapira, notes how each count is presented differently, and shows the progress of the creation of our nation. He opens with a comparison of the philosophies of communism and capitalism. Communism which attempted to define all as equal with little emphasis on the individual, and ultimately has collapsed. On the other hand, capitalism that stresses opportunity for every individual to realise their potential, and is the main focus of the modern world.

R Shapira then compares this to two of the counts. The first at the Exodus is just one brief sentence “There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.” We are given an approximate number, at the start, a collective, without any individualism. Even at Sinai, Rashi tells us “they camped – as one person, with one heart.” In contrast, here in Bamidbar, Hashem tells Moshe “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their tribes and families, listing every man by name, one by one.” Here every individual has a name and is an essential part of the community.

Continuing this theme, we can look at the four counts as a progression from the overall, through to the tribes, the families right down to the individual. The first count is just a rounded figure to give us a feeling of the mass of people who left Egypt and the challenges faced by Moshe. At the second count by the half shekel for the Tabernacle, Hashem is providing the people with the first chance to work together for a common purpose, contributing together. Here we see for the first time, talented individuals contributing and everyone wanting to participate with their special skills. In our count here in Bamidbar, we see the count and creation of tribal loyalty, not just in numbers but also the pride of marching together under their own flag, as we are told “The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own standard, according to their emblem.”

The final count, at the end of Bamidbar, in anticipation of the entry to the promised land, is detailed with the names of each family, and co-ordinated with the division of the land, all with an opportunity to live and prosper in the new society. In many ways, Bamidbar is the book of transformation from the whole to the individual. All the way through the story we find individuals, who influence the progress of the journey, for better or worse, from the spies, to Pinchas, the daughters of Zelofchod and more. Bamidbar closes with the demands of the tribes of Reuven and Menashe, who wish to exercise their skills as shepherds and receive suitable land on the other side of the Jordan. Israel has evolved from a faceless mass to a community of individuals aspiring to work and use their individual talents. From communism to capitalism, however with Torah guidance for a fair and just society, as we are told “every man under his vine and under his fig-tree.”

We went out to our first concert on Tuesday evening and five minutes into the concert, the siren blasted, fortunately we were all safe, but of course the concert was postponed. A shame as we were listening to an amazing pianist, Orit Wolf, a classical pianist with an amazing ability to improvise. We are great fans of hers and she does things like playing Bach in Elton John style or the Beatles in Mozart mode. Perhaps I can connect this to the concept of individual talent and recommend you search for some of her work on the Internet.

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