Weekly parsha: May 24 2014

Torah portion Tuesdays: Parshat Bamidbar

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.

You can really count on this week’s Torah portion.

In Parshat Bamidbar, we mark the transition from all the picayune and minute details of the Book of Leviticus and start looking towards the future. The Torah is anticipating the next generation of Israelites preparing to enter the Land of Israel. In order to fulfill that important task, they’ve got some serious hiking to do.

For about 40 years, that is, through the wilderness.

So this Torah portion has two important names: In Hebrew it’s called Bamidbar, meaning “In the wilderness,” taken from the words of the opening sentence and describing where all the people currently are. But in English, we call this portion (and this book of the Bible) “Numbers,” because it’s all about how many people there were in this huge group of Israelites.

No doubt the only people who will be able to sink their teeth into the text are professional census takers. We read about each tribe, who the leaders were, and how many men (and yes, it was only men who were counted) belonged to each tribe. Why was this such a big deal? Why does the Torah dedicate so many pages to these details?

But really, after reading about leprosy, skin diseases, and oozing houses in recent weeks, does anything surprise us anymore?

This was basically a military roll call. The Israelites, as they prepared to wander through the desert for decades, had to face various indigenous and hostile tribes. Therefore it was important for them to know how many soldiers they had available that could bear arms. (That’s the main reason why the women weren’t counted. The Bible wasn’t big on Women in Combat).

I’ve always been a little mystified at the Torah’s obsession here about counting the Israelites. After all, we get the sense that God is not going to let the Israelites be defeated and obliterated. Regardless of exactly how many soldiers they have ready to go into battle, the Torah expects that they will vanquish their foes and enter the Promised Land. Maybe all this talk of numbers and counting is sending us a different message.

In fact, I think that many of us, and especially teens, are obsessed with numbers like:

• What’s the percentage of Jews in this town?

• I wonder how much money my neighbor has and what they paid for their house.

• Hey, I have 100 more Facebook friends than you.

• Look how many likes my Instagram picture got.

This is human nature, of course. But it’s not always healthy. In fact, the Torah gives us a hint of what it thinks about this sort of obsessive counting by telling us about a special tribe: the Levites. The Levites, which included Aaron and his family, were not to be counted or included in any battle plans. Instead, they and their descendants were to be the perpetual caretakers of the Israelite camp and its holy places. In return for fulfilling this very holy task, they would be provided for by the rest of the population.

I think the Torah is sending the message to all Jews, whether veteran members of the congregation or fresh b’nei mitzvah students, that the most vital contribution to Judaism doesn’t lie in a number, but rather in the quality of service that you can give to the Jewish people.

Previous week’s parshas:

Parshat Bechukotai

Parshat Behar


Parshat Kedoshim

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

Posted 12:00 am, May 20, 2014
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