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Parashat Bemidvar

Not just Statistics

Maybe you know the joke about the teacher who wanted to catch out a pupil in front of the class. She asked him to stand up and asked him a very difficult question in Mathematics. The boy knew the answer. The teacher asked, "And where is Zimbabwe?" The boy knew that too. "In what year did Colombia declare independence?" Again the boy gave the right answer. "Tell me," continued the teacher, "How many people live in China?". The boy thought for a moment and said, "One milliard, 300 million, 600 thousand, 281." Then the teacher said, "Names! I want names!".


We know well how important our name is in our identity. Our name gives us uniqueness, a special place in society. For example, a slave is just a slave, cheap labour.

At the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Bemidbar) Moses is commanded to count the people of Israel again so as to know their number: "Take the sum of all the congregation of Israel by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names; all adult males" (Numbers 1, 2). This is the third census within a year since the exodus from Egypt.

The first commentary of Rashi on this portion says: "Because they are dear to G-d, He counts them again and again. When they left Egypt, He counted them. When they succumbed to the temptation of the calf, He counted them to know how many remained. When He caused the divine presence to dwell among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan the tabernacle was erected and on the first of Iyar He counted them".

Reading the data of the census that appears in our portion is boring only to the reader. But to those who were counted the census returns their names, their identities and their honour.

That is where the love lies, according to Rashi.

A poor man counts coins, for example, because each coin is precious to him.
A child counts candies to know how many he has to eat. The nobility count their horses so as to show their wealth. However, here we speak of a much deeper affection.

G-d doesn't count His sons just to know how many He has or how many remain, but also so that each one will feel special. He wants to emphasise the importance of each individual after the hard and bitter experience of slavery in Egypt.

A census is not only statistics.

Weekly Torah Portion

Old Hebrew Prayer Book
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