Parashat Bamidbar: No past = no future

In the first census, each person felt connected to the patriarchs and matriarchs; by the second, they related only to their biological parents.

census people 88 (photo credit: )
census people 88
(photo credit: )
"Count the heads of the entire witness-congregation of Israel..." (Numbers 1:2) The Book of Numbers opens with an optimistic picture of a nation poised for redemption. The Israelites had been freed from Egypt with great miracles, and received the revelation which provided them with a moral and ethical constitution for a soon-to-be-established sovereign state. They had also been assigned their mission in the world, and a structured order of 12 uniquely endowed and directed tribes united around a common sanctuary. A standing army had been organized, the tribe of Levi was trained to teach Torah and fulfill the sacrificial service, and all that seemed lacking was a necessary war to pave the way for settlement of the Promised Land. But what followed was a total degeneration, a descent from the radiant heights to a muddied pit. The Israelites became involved in petty squabbles and tiresome complaints, the reconnaissance mission advised against trying to conquer Israel, Korah, Dathan and Abiram stage a rebellion against Moses, and a prince of the tribe of Simeon publicly fornicates with a Midianite woman. Indeed, that entire desert generation dies in the wilderness, and only Moses' successor, Joshua, and the desert-born generation will get to live in the Promised Land. What happened and why? How can a nation so committed to becoming a "kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6) lose its sense of purpose and idealism, and gang up against the very individual who was their liberator and lawgiver? This fourth book of the Bible is called "Numbers" because of the two censuses described between its covers. Indeed, our book opens with this command to count the Israelites: "Count the heads of the entire witness-congregation of the children of Israel, in accordance with their families, with their household parents, with the number of names of each male body, from 20 years of age and above, everyone eligible for army conscription..." (Num. 1:2, 3). Such is the census at the beginning of this book, when the Israelites are still imbued with a vision of mission and "manifest destiny" and still expecting to wage a war for the land. However, just 25 chapters later, after the scouts' disheartening report, after the various rebellions against Moses culminating in Prince Zimri the son of Salu's public adultery with the Midianite Kozbi the daughter of Zur directly in front of Moses himself, a second census is ordered (before the war against Midian): "Count the heads of the entire witness-congregation of the children of Israel, from 20 years of age and above, with their household parents, everyone eligible for army conscription..." (Num. 26:2). Notice that the identification of each Israelite is radically different in the second census from the way it was in the first. The first time the count included "the families [providing tribal affiliation harking back to Jacob, Isaac and Abraham], the household parents and the individual personal names"; the second time, the tribal affiliation and personal names of each were missing, providing only the names of the household parents of each individual. Clearly, in these significant omissions lies the secret of the Israelite degeneration. This is why the midrash apparently names this the Book of the Censuses (Sefer Pikudim): to point us toward the different stipulations of each. In the first census, taken during the heyday of the exodus, each individual felt connected to his biblical patriarchs and matriarchs; by the second census, however, individuals related only to their biological parents. Allow me to explain. The Book of Exodus, describing our birth as a nation, is built upon the Book of Genesis, our origins as a special family. The patriarchs and matriarchs were chosen by God because of their commitment to compassionate righteousness and moral justice - traits and ideals which they were to "command their children and their households after them" (Gen. 18:19); this unique Hebraic culture was to be nurtured and expressed within a special land, the physical matrix of our eternal covenant with God. The towering personalities of Genesis develop, beget, falter, repair, sacrifice, persevere and ultimately prevail on these twin altars of commitment to land and law, to righteousness and Israel; they lay the foundation for an eternal nation through which the entire world will be blessed. Yichus, or pedigree, has little to do with privilege but everything to do with responsibility and ancestral empowerment. Grandfather Jacob/Israel blesses his grandchildren, the sons of Joseph, that "they shall be called by his name and the name of his ancestors, Abraham and Isaac" (Gen. 48:16). This involves not only naming them Abe or Jackie, but rather means linking them to their patriarchs' ideals, to their values, their commitments; it also means endowing them with God's eternal promise that their seed would inherit the Land of Israel and bring the world the message (and blessing) of divine morality and peace. Tragically, the desert generation lost its connection with its patriarchs and matriarchs. As a consequence, the second census no longer connects them to the tribal children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And the loss of connectedness to patriarchs results in a disconnect from the God of the patriarchs, from the promise and the covenant of that God, from the faith in one's ability to carry out the unique mission undertaken by our forebears. That generation lost faith in itself, became in "their own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were they in the eyes of their enemies," and lost the courage to conquer the land. By disconnecting with its past the generation lost its future; and so it did not even merit names linked to the proud names which founded Jewish eternity. Are we in Israel not struck with a similar disconnect today? The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.