Parashat B'midbar

Naming Names

Conducting the census by naming each Israelite teaches us the importance of recognizing the uniqueness of every individual.

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"Take a census of the whole Israelite community…b'mis'par shemot"--literally, "according to the number of names." What is the meaning of "according to the number of names?" Everyone said his name and wrote it in a book, and afterward they counted the names and knew how many people there were. (Malbim on Numbers 1:2)

"Take a census [S'u et rosh--literally, "Lift up the head"] of the whole Israelite community." The word s'u is only used when the intention is to indicate greatness [that is, holding high one's head]. (Ramban on Numbers 1:2)

"According to the number of names…" For at that time, every one of that generation was designated by his name, which indicated and reflected stature and character. (Sforno on Numbers 1:2)

Your Guide

As Rashi indicates, the census was clearly done not for God's sake but for the sake of the Children of Israel. In what way is the carrying out of a census a sign of God's love for Israel?

The manner of conducting the census as described in the Torah and as further explained by Malbim is enormously cumbersome. Why have everyone write his name in a book rather than simply have all the people line up and do a count?

According to the Rambam, in what way does the census contribute to the "greatness," that is, the self-esteem, of the people of Israel?

D'var Torah

The first census in human history was ordered by God as a sign of God's love and concern for the people of Israel and as an instrument for enhancing their confidence and feelings of self-worth. Not a single person was to be forgotten. A mass of oppressed slaves, who in Egypt had no individual worth whatever, were now to merit an individual count.

And why was the mechanism of counting to record their names in a book used? Because, according to Sforno, everyone from that generation would then be thought of by his name and thus by his own unique, personal qualities. And why was the count organized according to families? Because slaves are denied the security of family life, while for civilized people the family is the instrument for building identity, ethical commitment, and devotion to tradition.

Does this obsession to know the former slaves by their individual names seem excessive? Not at all. What is more important than being known by our right name? Is anything more connected to the depth of our being than our name? If you wish to connect to another person, what is the first important thing you do? You learn his or her name. And what do people expect of their synagogues and their synagogue leaders? That we know their names.

Note: The most trusted servant of God was Moses, and what did God say to Moses? "I have singled you out by name" (Exodus 33:17). What we should aspire to in our synagogues is that our members cease to be an undifferentiated mass and that just as God knew Moses, we know them--each and every one--by name.

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America.