Bemidbar: Counting individual human beings or counting potential soldiers – how the text slides and why it should not

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר: ב שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם: ג מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַֽהֲרֹֽן: ד וְאִתְּכֶ֣ם יִֽהְי֔וּ אִ֥ישׁ אִ֖ישׁ לַמַּטֶּ֑ה אִ֛ישׁ רֹ֥אשׁ לְבֵית־אֲבֹתָ֖יו הֽוּא:

And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt saying: “Lift the heads of [count] all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their ancestral houses, in the numbering of the names, every male, by their heads.  From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go out to war for Israel. You will account them by their hosts, you and Aaron. And with you there will be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house”

So begins the book of Numbers, named in English for the two censuses that occur within it, but called in Hebrew “BeMidbar”, “in the Wilderness” We are only one year in to the exodus here, the people are expecting to enter their promised land shortly – this is before the rebellions and the refusals that led this generation (bar Joshua and Caleb) to end their days in the desert.

The narrative gives us detail as to place and time. God speaks to Moses and gives him an instruction that is equally detailed – “lift up the head of every one of the community of the children of Israel, according to their families and according to their ancestral house, in the numbering of their names, every male according to his skull.” The repetition of the head/skull of each person to be numbered, the fact that they are to be counted both according to their family membership and tribal ancestry makes us feel that every single individual is to be noticed and each one carefully recorded in a number of different and personal dimensions. That their heads are lifted means that the face of each individual is seen, this is not the estimation of a crowd but the naming and numbering of every human being.  The phrase “col adat b’nei Yisrael” adds to this reading – not just the children of Israel, a phrase which would have sufficed, but col – every, and adat – witnessing member. And even their names are to be accounted; the uniqueness of each individual clearly matters here.

 

The introduction leads us to the idea that every single person of that mixed group of ex slaves and accompanying rabble is an individual, each one joins and combine with all the others to create the whole people who will become known as “b’nei Yisrael”

So it is a little disconcerting to suddenly find the focus narrowing down, first to males, then to people over the age of twenty who are fit for army service. And the accounting is now to be done not according to families and ancestral roots, but according to ‘tzivotam’ – their groupings or regiments within the army.

War is traditionally seen as a masculine activity, although there is some evidence in the ancient world of female warrior deities, and we know for example of Ahhotep I the 16th Century BCE Egyptian queen who rallied the troops and preserved Egypt; 15th Century BCE Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut was also a warrior who led her troops in war, but these are rarities. As Margaret Mead noted, war is a male pursuit, culturally gendered, and emerges from a climate where young males need to validate their strength and courage. Their interests dominate society and obscure the interests of women, who become marginalised and expected to help behind the scenes in supporting the war effort. Ten years ago it was reckoned that 97% of the world’s uniformed soldiers were male, and in only six national armies do women constitute even 5% of the force.

So as soon as the census narrows down to focus on the young male resources towards the war, all of the other factors, the individuality, the names and family names and ancestral connections, those younger than 20 years of age, those too old to fight, and critically those of the female gender become irrelevant,

Reading the first few lines of this book, it seems that God is interested in knowing each and every participant in the exodus from Egypt by name, interested in Moses and Aaron encountering the humanity and individuality of the people they are leading. The language being used is different from previous times that the people were counted – we have been given a number of the people who left Egypt (Ch. 12) – “about six hundred thousand men as well as women and children”. Later in the book of Exodus  (Ch. 38) we find that there are “six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men”, over the age of 20, counted by their each giving a half shekel to the building of the mishkan. The language is terse and interested only in the numbers. Yet here in the beginning of Bemidbar there is detail and humanity in the way people are to be seen.

There are a number of words in Hebrew that could be used in order to count a group or calculate a number. The verbal roots:

מ.נ.ה.      ס.פ.ר.    ח.ש.ב.     פ.ק.ד.

 

would all be more normal than to say “lift up the head.  To lift up someone’s head requires paying attention to that person. The only way to physically do it is to approach them face on and to look into their eyes as you raise their heads.  This may be the reason why Rashi comments that “Because they [the children of Israel] are dear to God, God counts them often. God counted them when they were about to leave Egypt. God counted them after the event of the Golden Calf in order to establish how many remained. And now God was about to cause the divine presence to rest on them God counted them again. (Rashi ad loc)

If the numbering at the beginning of the book was in order to express God’s love for the people, and engender loving respect from the leadership for them, then the elision towards counting young men for warfare is tragic, made the more so because of the people now made irrelevant to the narrative, side-lined from the warmth of divine love into becoming people whose contribution is valued as ‘less-than’ the warriors’ is.  When we see that the people so displaced and demoted are the women, the children, the elderly, we can only weep for how the society has diminished and disregarded the people. Yet again the women have been erased from the narrative because it focuses on military might – even though arguably our best biblical general was Deborah. And people at either end of the age spectrum are also devalued, precisely at the time one might argue an awareness of their humanity is most critical.

Margaret Mead argued that “warfare is only an invention” and a bad one at that, and she suggested that it is time we changed our social systems which nurture all the criteria that bring about war. That may be an impossible ask, but it must surely be possible to return to the first few words of God’s instructions to Moses – “raise everyone’s head”. To extend the comment by Rashi, “look into every person’s eyes, see the uniqueness of each person’s humanity, and then, rather than selecting for military power, simply encounter the other person exactly as they are”.

As military might is elevated above humanity and vulnerability;  As the power to fight is valued more than empathy or nurturing or the emotional and mental work needed to keep families or households going, we will always find that some people are marginalised either because of their gender or because of their age. There is a dislocation in the text at the very beginning of the book of being in the wilderness, a choice that wasn’t made or that was made without deep reflection, and the result was forty years in the wilderness for that generation who relied on a model of military might, and yet were anxious it was not going to be enough when it came to the crunch.

In the tiny, almost imperceptible dislocation in the text, from raising the head of each individual and knowing them, their families, their roots to seeing only those who could contribute to the military prowess of the group, a tragedy is seeded, one which resonates with us to this day. And now the wilderness beckons, the place to reflect on the choices made. Maybe one day we will be confident to make the choice of knowing each other’s humanity, and journey together to our promised destination.

Parashat Bemidbar:counting a community not calculating for the individual

 

We are in the time of the counting the omer – the days between Pesach and Shavuot – which give an awareness of, and a prominence to the link between Freedom (Pesach) and Responsibility (Shavuot).

Counting is something that has long roots in Jewish tradition- we count days and weeks of the omer, we count the days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we count the years for the shemittah year and we count the multiples of shemittah years for the Jubilee year. The scribe will count the letters written in a Torah scroll in order to check that there are none added and none removed accidentally.  We even count the days till brit and the “white days” in the menstrual cycle.  But counting people has always been a problem in Jewish tradition – it is forbidden to take a direct numbering of the people of Israel and plague was often the result for those who tried. The Talmud tells us “Rabbi Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” [Hosea]. R. Nachman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: ‘Which cannot be measured or numbered’.

Counting people can be said to take away the uniqueness of the individual, turning them simply into a number, dehumanizing the person. At the same time one could argue that as every number is different, the person is stripped not so much of individuality as of community. Yet community power resides within numbers. The development of the three patriarchs to the seventy souls who went down with Jacob to Egypt, to the over six hundred thousand at Sinai show how the community, the peoplehood, grew.  We still understand a community to be the number we can count on the fingers of two hands – a minyan is ten people. Numbers bind us into community and they bind us to our roots. The traditional way of counting a minyan is to recite verse 9 of psalm 28 – the ten words of which being “hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha ur’eim venasseim ad ha’olam – Save Your people, and bless Your inheritance and tend them, and carry them for ever. Another traditional way is to say “not one, not two, not three etc”

The fear of counting people and thus separating them from the community and possibly from their own humanity has long roots in Judaism – only God is really allowed to count us, only God is seen as having the ability to count without discounting so to speak. Yet the need to understand the community and to be able to count people into the community continues.  And the way that bible recommends is that we ask for a contribution from people and each contribution is counted.

It isn’t so odd as it sounds. Effectively the half shekel poll tax in order to support the Temple was both a fundraising activity and a way of measuring the numerical strength of the community. But I particularly resonate to the requirement that asks of people that in order for their presence to be recognised, they should offer some basic support to the community, and with this support they will be counted in.

The idea of being in a community by virtue of what you are offering to that community – not life changing amounts of money per se as the half shekel was a deliberately small amount designed to be possible for everyone to give, but a contribution nevertheless is the expression of an ancient idea that you are part of the community if you choose to offer something of yourself to it, if you partake of it, if you participate within it. You are part of the community if the community can count on you.

Listening to the emotive and emotional arguments about the wider community issue on the agenda today – the arguments about whether we should remain in the European Union or leave it and forge a new path– we hear a lot of words but can discern very little useful information to help frame our thoughts. One recent analysis of the words used most by the two campaigns show that Remain repeatedly use the three words “Jobs”, “Trade”, Businesses”, while the Leave campaign use “controlled” “NHS” and “Money”. It seems clear that the argument for economic stability sits with the Remain campaign, the argument for autonomy with the Leave. But as we move from Pesach to Shavuot, from Freedom to Responsibility, and into the book of Bemidbar, of the transitional neither-here-nor-there liminal space of the wilderness on whose other side will be the border with the promised land I find myself more and more cross that the language being used is of self-interest and self-regard, of “what can I not give to the community” and “what can I get from the community”.

Where is the rhetoric of commonality or of shared aims and aspirations? Where is the language of supporting each other, of helping each other to make a better world?

All I hear is calculation, and I am reminded of a quotation attributed to the architect Daniel Libeskind that “Life it is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.”

Life is best lived in relationship, in community with others, sometimes taking and sometimes giving but always associating with the other. The more I think of how we count a minyan – with the formula “not one, not two, not three”, the more I like the reminder that we are bound together, that while we may be individuals with our own self-interest and self-regard, what is most important about us is that we together can rise over our individualism in order to form something much bigger and much more nourishing for us all – we can  form community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bemidbar: Shaped by our daily choices we are in a dynamic state of becoming.

Politicians are fond of describing their wilderness years when, unwanted by the electorate or maybe by the new leadership of their party, they languish unlistened to and alienated on the borders of the important events until they can be brought back into the mainstream and be useful once more

This week we enter the wilderness years – the book we are beginning to read is called “Bemidbar” –“in the desert”, but the reality of the Hebrew midbar is not one of emptiness and alienation from life, quite the reverse.

 Bemidbar takes us to a place rich in meaning and profound in experience. Not a place of biding out time while the inadequate and unaspirational generation of Exodus dies out, allowing a new braver generation untainted by the experience of slavery, to emerge. But a place of construction and development, of encounter and learning, of creating a people with a shared understanding of themselves and their context, and a shared vision of who they will become. The midbar is a place of preparation, a gestational place where the forming and shaping and becoming takes place.

 To be a religious person is not an absolute finished state. To be a Jew is not a once and for all event. It is a daily set of choices about how to behave, what principles to prioritise. Just as every morning we choose to get up and to face the world and what it might bring, so we choose to express ourselves as Jews on a daily basis. Some days are better than others of course. Some days the choices are clear, other times they are a struggle. We proceed from choice to choice and the time in between is not empty time, it is the time we use to help us to proceed, to digest and process what is happening.

 Bemidbar – the wilderness years – are just that for the children of Israel. They are not able just to move from 430 years of slavery in Egypt to freedom and autonomy in the land of Israel. They need time to learn, to explore their new identity, to consider and think about and digest all the implications of building a Jewish society in its own land for the very first time.

Some are afraid and effectively paralysed, unable to make any choice at all. Some want to return to the safety of what they knew regardless of how bad it was for them. Others want a society they can control, their priorities acted upon. Some will follow for a reward of some kind. Most need time to get their heads around it.

Throughout the period in the desert, from the middle of Shemot (Exodus) to the end of Bamidbar (Numbers) we are not in empty time and space but in liminal time and space. We are between two stats of being; we are in the dynamic state of becoming. We all need such times, be they to contemplate how to cast our votes, or time to understand and respond to a life change – a new birth, a change in status be it marital or professional, a time to grieve a loss. There are any number of changes we deal with on a regular basis. We need the space between one reality and another, time to locate ourselves in the new reality and to say goodbye to the old one. Every day we make choices, to live, to do (or not) what we need to do. We don’t randomly drift through the world, whether we admit it or not we live choice filled lives.

 But to make such choices we need time, space, information, support, challenge, external and internal expectations.The bible reflects this in the midbar, in the desert, where there are all the above and more. Before we leap to decisions we may live to regret – be they political or personal, ethical professional or relational, we should inhabit the liminal space, take our time and reflect, and see ourselves not as alienated and removed but as engaged in the religious activity of the thought-full, mind-full awareness of how our lives are lived.

Bemidbar: the richness of the wilderness

This week we begin to read the fourth book of the five books of Moses, the one whose title in English is known as ‘Numbers’ because of the censuses which take place within it, but which in Hebrew is ‘Bemidbar – in the wilderness’.

It is in the wilderness that most of the story told in the scroll is set. It is in the wilderness that most of the people meet God. It is in the wilderness that Revelation takes place – in ownerless and structureless land.  The midrash tells us that wilderness is a necessary condition for every revelation: “Whoever would wish to acquire Torah must make themself ownerless like the wilderness”(Bemidbar Rabbah).  In other words it is important to be able to cast off the set ways of thinking, to free oneself from the patterns and rat runs of our usual thought processes, and open ourselves up to the new world, new directions and also maybe even to an apparent lack of direction.

The midbar, the wilderness of ownerless land, is the space that exists in both place and time in which we too can search for revelation. Unlike the more frequent use of the image as being dry, arid and hostile to life, the midbar is a place full of potential, where anything can and does happen. Far from being deadening and moribund, it is a challenging place, complex and spacious, with freedom to explore in any direction. Midbar is a place of preparation and encounter, the niggle on the tip of our tongue and the nagging sense of connection we can’t always quite identify that hands on the edge of our consciousness. It is the meeting point with the unknown, the place of encounter with the divine.

            We all live within a web of socially conditioned thinking and perceiving.  We learn to see the world just like everyone else sees the world, to understand what is going on around us according to a limiting set of rules and agreed vocabulary.  It is a rare human being who is able to rise above the received wisdom of the surrounding community, and to shift the perspective, to see the world with fresh and untutored eyes. But the wilderness provides the space and the impetus to enable us to see the world differently.  It subverts the settled society and reminds us again and again that we have merely made one choice from among an infinite number of choices, that we have been influenced by the surroundings in which we live, the other people and cultures and philosophies we encounter, yet it is always possible to strip away those influences, and find the core of our human existence, the spark that animates our humanity. One just has to go into the space, to create the midbar, the place of freedom and possibilities. 

It sounds simple, to strip away all the outside influences which have formed our thought and our behaviour. It sounds simple, and of course it isn’t.

But it is possible. 

The mechanisms we use in the Jewish tradition are found within the revelation given in the desert – the mechanisms of mitzvot and of prayer.  We create a structure of behaviour – the mitzvot are purely a way of behaving (almost without thinking about it), in an ethical and socially enabling way.  The fact that tradition sees them as coming directly from God, the commander or Metzaveh, gives them a weight of authority and validity, but of course one doesn’t have to believe in God to do the mitzvot – rather the mitzvot may have the effect of leading to a belief in God.  Meanwhile one behaves appropriately.

Prayer on the other hand is a way of reaching out to God as an individual, and to do it one has to try to create the space, the wilderness, in which one is ownerless.  Influenceless, standing alone before God has the effect of de-socialising us. When we pray we are releasing our consciousness of our own behaviour, not thinking about other people or how we are relating to them, or of ourselves and how we look in the eyes of those around us. 

            In prayer we break the norms of social behaviour.  We step outside the civilising influences of our society, We use language in a different way, we may speak in complete silence, or sing or move about or listen to someone or something else.  We may move our lips with no sound, or shout out loud – there are no rules, that is the main rule of prayer.  Only a sincere striving, a creating of space which we can then occupy without anyone else but God.  It doesn’t really matter how we create the space, as long as we do.

The midrash teaches “whoever would wish to acquire Torah must first make themselves ownerless like the wilderness”  It doesn’t mean that we must remove ourselves from all the civilizing influences upon us, or from our responsibilities to each other, but that we should be aware of them and be able to release ourselves from what controls us and stifles us so we can encounter and become, rather than close ourselves down and starve our being and bImageecoming.