Bamidbar is the portion where Torah’s fourth book begins. Also known as Numbers this book is all about counting and counting and you guessed it more counting. Where Genesis appeals to those of us almost religiously flawed with a great collection of triumphs and tragedies of our collective Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Exodus speaks to the patriotic of the tribe with the founding of the first Jewish state, and Leviticus provides an argumentative source for the politically minded. For those who love genealogy and a complete and thorough document of the past Numbers will speak to you.
It is easy to forget the history and circumstances which led the Ancient Hebrews to forty years in the desert. Passover is such an important holiday that it makes it easy for the modern mind to delegate the memory of slavery to the observance and rituals of the Seder. Parsha Bamidbar is the first portion in a book specifically designed to make a people who where once illegitimate in the eyes of others legitimate.
This week’s reading gives a legal age limit of twenty years, lists each tribe’s Prince, begins a census which officially reestablishes recorded Jewish genealogy, divides Jewish land between tribes, demands a Tax of five shekels for any tribe with more men than the Levites, and . . .phew. . ..tells the Levites and the sons of Kohath the proper way to move the Tabernacle. For a new nation comprised of ex-slaves this is the moral and psychological encouragement they need.
On the surface being counted, told where to live and taxes for being fruitful and multiplying seems bizarre and unnecessary but look at it from their perspective. These were not first generation slaves, they were not second or third generation slaves these were people whose families had been slaves for hundreds of years. You just don’t rebound from that overnight. Their former masters were counted, taxed and granted land by Pharaoh this means being counted, paying a tax and having their land redistributed in their eyes made them free and equal. For the first time in their lives the Ancient Hebrews were not lowly, were not expendable, were not a diminishing investment, they were free and equal human beings.
Viewing those different from ourselves as equals is important but treating those same people as proper individuals is righteous.
Jeremiah@punktorah.org Twitter: @circlepitbimah