Parsha BeMidbar: A Nation of Individuals

baseball-79614_640This week we read parsha BeMidbar or B’Midbar (not Bamidbar) which means “in the desert.”  Parsha Bemidbar consists of Numbers 1:1–4:20.  You can read a very brief summary here.

Numbers 1 (NIV)

1The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. He said: 2“Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. 3You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army. 4One man from each tribe, each of them the head of his family, is to help you. 5These are the names of the men who are to assist you:

Bemidbar is known as “Numbers” because from the very beginning of the book we are reading about the numbers of people in Israel, each individual tribes population, and other census – number related issues.

But why does the Torah even have it in here at all?  And why would it start the whole book off with that?

Isn’t it degrading and demeaning to reduce these people to just numbers?

Why does it have to be done in the desert?

Well actually I think there are some good answers to these questions.

It was remarkable to the Israelites in the desert that they were forming a nation outside any land.  Plus they were worshipping a God who was not “land” based.  For the first time, people en masse were understanding that God is not a God who is bound by country or borders.  He dominated in Egypt.  He is moving with them in the desert.  He will dwell among them when they build the Mishkan.  They are learning that God is wherever we let Him in.

Also, they are forming a nation which is based on values and not land.  This was another first for humanity.  The nation of Israel was not formed in the land, but in the desert.  Like America, Israel is not just a country – it is an idea.  The people are connected through values, not just geographical boundaries.

These two new ideas were highly innovative at the time and have proved to be extremely practical though history.  For instance, besides allowing us to worship and formulate our society while wandering through the desert for 40 years, we have spent more than a thousand years in exile from our land (beginning around 587 BCE) and yet remained intact as a Holy Nation (B”H).

But what about all the counting?

Answers are once again found in the hebrew but lost in translation.

The phrase “Take a census” in hebrew is se’u et rosh, literally, “lift the head.”

Numbers 1:2

2“Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one.

שאו את־ראש כל־עדת בני־ישראל למשפחתם לבית אבתם במספר שמות כל־זכר לגלגלתם

The Torah could have used a number of words to relate “count”: limnotlifkodlisper,lachshov.  But it doesn’t.

Why does it use the phrase “lift the head”?

As I learned from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

The short answer is this. In any census, count or roll call, there is a tendency to focus on the total: the crowd, the multitude, the mass. Here is a nation of 60 million people, or a company with 100,000 employees, or a sports crowd of 60,000. Any total tends to value the group or nation as a whole. The larger the total, the stronger is the army, the more popular the team and the more successful the company.

Counting devalues the individual and tends to make him or her replaceable. If one soldier dies in battle, another will take his place. If one person leaves the organization, someone else can be hired to do his or her job.

Notoriously, too, crowds have the effect of tending to make the individual lose his or her independent judgment and follow what others are doing. We call this “herd behavior,” and it sometimes leads to collective madness.


Gustav Le Bon’sThe Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind(1895), showed how crowds exercise a “magnetic influence” that transmutes the behavior of individuals into a collective “group mind.” As he put it, “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.” People in a crowd become anonymous. Their conscience is silenced. They lose a sense of personal responsibility. Crowds are peculiarly prone to regressive behavior, primitive reactions and instinctual behavior. They are easily led by figures who are demagogues, playing on people’s fears and sense of victimhood. Such leaders, he said, are “especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous excitable half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness,” a remarkable anticipation of Hitler. It is no accident that Le Bon’s work was published in France at a time of rising anti-Semitism and the Dreyfus trial.

Hence the significance of one remarkable feature of Judaism: its principled insistence—like no other civilization before—on the dignity and integrity of the individual. We believe that every human being is in the image and likeness of G‑d. The sages said that every life is like an entire universe.  Maimonides says that each of us should see ourselves as if our next act could change the fate of the world.Every dissenting view is carefully recorded in the Mishnah, even if the law is otherwise. Every verse of the Torah is capable, said the sages, of seventy interpretations. No voice, no view is silenced. Judaism never allows us to lose our individuality in the mass.


Even in a massive crowd where, to human eyes, faces blur into a mass, G‑d still relates to us as individuals, not as members of a crowd.

That is the meaning of the phrase “lift the head” used in the context of a census. G‑d tells Moses that there is a danger, when counting a nation, that each individual will feel insignificant. “What am I? What difference can I make? I am only one of millions, a mere wave in the ocean, a grain of sand on the seashore, dust on the surface of infinity.”

Against that, G‑d tells Moses to lift people’s heads by showing that they each count; they matter as individuals.

~ Excerpts from “Leading a Nation of Individuals” By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks


Shabbat Shalom!

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