Parashat Bamidbar – Erev Shabbat 14 May 2021
Week 9-15 May 2021
Torah portion: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22
Theme: Raising the morale of slaves
The first chapter of Bamidbar answers the following questions: how can one rehabilitate a person after so many years of heavy slavery transforming him into a servant of defeated spirit; and how does one sow in the slave’s heart a minimum of self-esteem and a little freedom and pride? Here are a multitude of slaves from whom cruel overseers plucked out all traces of personal or national identity – how does one raise the morale of these people? First of all, by taking them out of the place of slavery and taking them…into the desert. Yes, precisely: the desert – a place where they can isolate themselves, avoiding contact with other peoples who have already lived long periods of relative freedom. So, this crowd could get away for a while and treat themselves properly. In the isolation of the desert, a census is taken, telling everyone, in a kind of exercise of identity formation. This count gave shape and consistency to the slave camp, previously deformed and without personality. This census was accompanied by the grouping of people into tribes and families.
Who ordered this census to be carried out? God, the Omniscient, who knew in advance the exact number of people. In reality, He did not need this count. It was ordained for the benefit of the children of Israel, to increase the self-esteem that was beginning to spring up in the soul of each one of them, making the value they had as individuals and as people noticeable for he tells them “due to the esteem that God has for them”.
Slowly, the children of Israel were freed from the slavery that was embedded in their hearts by years of suffering in Egypt. During the counting, they breathed the lungs’ clear air at the top of their personal identity, the mother of the soul’s freedom. The people were not counted as livestock or as prisoners in a penitentiary. The count was directly related to “their families, according to their parents” (1:2). Generally, slaves do not have a family in the usual sense of the term. Israel’s ancestors, now freed slaves, needed family structure, in the noblest sense of the word, at the beginning of their journey as free men. Therefore, this was not a count of cattle, but of thinking heads, relating each person to their respective family. This was another element that contributed to the construction of the personality of individuals, through the strengthening of their relations with the collective.
The text stresses that the counting should be done “according to the number of names” (1:2). What is the meaning of these words? “Each one said his name, and wrote it down in a book; then they counted the names and knew the number of people” (Malbim). The reason for choosing such a complicated way to perform the counting lies again in the principle of contributing to the mental health of the people: “Each one in that generation was counted by his name, which indicated his personality and virtues personally. Analogously to what was said (by God) to Moses to demonstrate the affection and predilection that nourished them for God: ‘I will know him by name’” (Sforno). They had to be recognized by name. As the days went by, this name of Israel and its sons and daughters became eternal.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How do you apply this Parasha in the sense of raising people’s morale in our pandemic context? 2. How can these thoughts on desert isolation reflect our time of social isolation and help us in the exercise of the formation of the identity of human beings better today?
Bibliography: Grylak, Moshe, Reflections on the Torah (Brazil: 2015).
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Fernando Gross, Brazil, Bat Kol Alumnus 2017-2019