Two Halves of a Whole
There is more than one meaning behind the counting in B'midbar.
This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
when Pharaoh let the people go at last,
but round-about, by way of the wilderness-
pillars of fire and cloud marking night and day
to the edge of the flood-tide--uncrossable and vast.
If God had led us by the nearer way,
we cried, we would not die here; let Egypt oppress
us as it will; let us return to the past…
God did not lead us by the nearer way,
but into rising waters, which do not part unless
with an outstretched arm we step forward, and stand fast…
– Dan Bellm, "The Crossing: Geulah"
This week's parashah, and the penultimate book of the Torah it begins, narrates the experience of the Israelites negotiating the round-about way of the wilderness. The two names given to the book, Numbers in English and B'midbar in Hebrew, tell different stories about the mission of the fugitive slaves as they move from Egypt to the promised land of Israel.
"Numbers" was chosen as the book's English title because of the census-taking that occurs at its beginning. In the opening chapter, the people are counted in preparation for war. Counting the people is a move toward stability and order: each clan is named, given a place in the camp, and reckoned.
This counting exemplifies human action and organization. Its purpose is communal protection. Given the dangers of the wilderness, especially its other inhabitants, the traveling Israelite camp must be secured and armed to protect itself. Numbers tells the story of control and the need for security.
The Hebrew name for the book, "B'midbar," means "in the wilderness." Unlike Numbers, "B'midbar" connotes chaos and disorder. The very definition of a wilderness is that it is untamed. Yet, it also connotes an interim space, a knowing-where-you-want-to-go-and-not-yet-being-there period of transformation. It was into this kind of wilderness, generations earlier, that God sent Abraham on his revolutionary journey, away from the place he knew and toward one he would be shown, telling him that his descendants would be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).
"In the wilderness" suggests the situation of the Israelite people: they are escaped Egyptian slaves moving toward physical and spiritual freedom. Their round-about detour into the wilderness provides opportunities for the Israelites to learn how to become a blessing in the world.