The Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, which we begin reading this Shabbat, tells of the long journey in the desert of our ancestors, the children of Israel. In the Book of Exodus, we read about the first year of this journey, in which the formative event of the revelation at Mount Sinai took place and preparations were completed for the construction of the Tabernacle – the temporary temple that accompanied the children of Israel on the journey. Leviticus is devoted to matters related to the priesthood and the Tabernacle; and the Book of Numbers describes the journey, from the end of the first year to the 40th year, when they reached the border of Canaan – the Land of Israel.
The first stage of this journey, to which this week’s Torah portion “Bamidbar” is dedicated, was a census of the entire nation, after which the Book of Numbers is named.
The Torah does not specify the purpose of the census, and commentators have made various suggestions.
Why were the Jews counted in the Book of Numbers?
Nachmanides (Moses ben Nachman, 12th century), for example, interpreted that the census was of a military nature and was carried out in preparation for the conquest of the Land of Israel. The Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, 13th century), on the other hand, suggested that the census was done for social benefit so that each family would come together, and the family members would help each other. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century) saw the census as an expression of God’s affection for the children of Israel, and He counts them every hour because of that affection.
Rabbi Isaac Arama was a rabbi who headed a yeshiva in Spain in the 15th century. During his time, Jews in Spain were obliged to go to church every Sunday and listen to Christian sermons. Arama, mindful of the impact that these sermons had on the Jews, began to preach Jewish sermons in a profound philosophical style. His intention was to provide his listeners with strong foundations in the Jewish faith that would enable them to deal with the Christian theology they were being coerced to hear.
These sermons became part of his book The Binding of Isaac, a foundational work of sermons and biblical commentary. He comprehensively addressed issues at the heart of human and national existence and presented philosophical essays based on the Bible, the words of the sages, biblical commentators, and philosophical tenets.
In 1492, Arama was among the Jews expelled from Spain. He moved to Portugal and from there to Italy, where he died two years after the expulsion. The tragic end of his life, which was part of the great national tragedy of the expulsion from Spain, receives a measure of consolation when we know that his book became one of the cornerstones of Jewish thought for centuries.
ARAMA PROVIDED a new interpretation of the census described in our parasha. The census, he says, carries a double meaning. On the one hand, it indicates equality. Each person is counted equally to the other. In a census, there is no difference between number 1 and number 10,000. The first and last are equal.
On the other hand, the census counts individuals, not families or groups. In this way, Arama sees the individual and unique aspect of each person, since “the virtue of each one is separate from the virtue of his fellow.”
He bases this on the midrashic comparison between the children of Israel and the stars of heaven. When we look at the stars, it seems to us that they are all small dots in the sky. The star in the east is no more important than the one in the west. But we know that each star has its own singularity in size, position and role in the astronomical system.
Thus, says Arama, the children of Israel were counted before embarking on the journey to inculcate in the people these two important values: equality and uniqueness. For Arama, equality does not tolerate discrimination and grants equal basic status to each person; and uniqueness does not assume that the person is only part of a group – each has his/her own virtues and unique contribution to society. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.