Numbers and the revelation at Sinai: counting everyone in

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Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the book of Numbers and the counting of the Omer. 

The Jewish community has just entered a new Biblical book called 'BaMidbar'. In English this fourth book of the Torah is known as 'Numbers'. Truly, however, it should be known as 'Deep in words'. BaMidbar means 'In the desert'. But in Hebrew, the root dbr signifies 'words' and 'things'. In Judaism, the desert state is imbued with language.

What has Judaism given the world? Judaism has given the world words which lead to actions. This is why the Book of words and actions precedes the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, which we celebrate on the festival of Shavuot (Weeks) for two days, starting on Thursday night.

At Sinai, the Jewish people received not 'the 10 commandments', but 'the 10 words'. These words contained within them all the interpretations and actions that would be necessary for continual Jewish life over thousands of years – still ongoing.

There is another root in Hebrew: sfr. This root signifies 'number', 'letter' and 'narrative'. Therefore this root encapsulates within it counting, writing and story-telling.

From the 2nd day of Pesach, for the 49 days until Shavuot, we 'count the Omer'. This is a method of connecting us for seven weeks from the Exodus till we reach the state of readiness to receive the Torah at Sinai. But we are all actively involved in this act of daily remembering.

What does 'counting' mean? In the first chapter of the Book of Numbers, the English translation talks of 'a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel.' But the Hebrew is very different. It signifies the 'lifting up of the head of every individual'. A census, as we know it, is simply a box-ticking operation, in which in this country at least, Jews certainly don't count, as there is no box for us in the national census. This is because a national census is geared to one end, to enhance certain statuses and lifestyles, by including some and excluding others, thus making a very strong political point about the future direction of the nation.

However, when people 'do count', the counting stems from love, and 'lifts up the head'. Every individual counts and this is what the 'Numbers' narrative is telling the children of Israel in the second year of their Exodus from Egypt. Despite squabbles, leadership contests and even idolatry, at the end of the day, the whole people, as individuals, are counted by name in their formations.

The Book deals in great measure with the laws and history of the Mishkan (Tabernacle – dwelling place) as seen through the laws and the Revelation at Sinai. Later, both the Temple and the synagogue will replace the Mishkan and also serve as a permanent substitute for the Heavenly Presence that rested upon the Children of Israel at Sinai. The Mishkan was central to the people, not only geographically, for it was a permanent reminder of the Revelation of Sinai, carried with them wherever they went.

And to this day, wherever Jews settle, they build synagogues and places of learning. Encamping around the Mishkan, as described in this Book, symbolizes that Jewish existence is predicated on closeness to the Torah, originally given them at Shavuot on Mount Sinai, as we will commemorate and celebrate in a few days time, the culmination of our Exodus from Eygpt and the removal of all vestiges of servitude.

The great French Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi (1040-1105) comments in the first verse of this Book, 'Because [the children of Israel] are precious to Him, He counts them all the time – when they went out of Egypt ...when they fell through [the sin of] the Golden Calf. He counted them to know the number of those who were left over. When He came to rest his Shechina [Divine Presence] upon them, He counted them. On the first of [the first month of ]Nisan, He counted them, and on the first of [the second month] of Iyyar He counted them.'

All this counting is done out of love, and to include people in. Not to dismiss people by counting them off, as is so often the case, and has often been the case with foreign powers in Jewish history, as with the present British census, held every 10 years.

What follows is the true story of the daily 'counting session' that took place under British, UN and Red Cross auspices in a Jordanian prisoner of war camp holding very badly injured Jewish prisoners from Israel, immediately after the 1948 War of Independence, starting on the festival of Shavuot, which we will be celebrating shortly:

'A typical day in the life of a patient'

'Morning. The sun rises to the east, which is bathed in a sea of red. The guard ... stretches and opens his eyes, rubbing them well, as if to rid him of all vestiges of sleep. This is how the tent camp awakes from its deep slumber..... Suddenly, your reverie is rudely interrupted by raucous sounds that you cannot quite make out, the crashing noise of water in cans, immediately followed by the voice of the military policeman: 'Who has stolen the water? He will be court-martialed.' No-one answers. The sounds of cans clashing are now joined by the patter of feet and cries of: 'Hurry up and get a move-on.' This is the meshuga [crazy] group with only one thing on their minds: religiously performing their morning exercises and keeping fit at all costs. The shrill sound of a whistle cuts the air like a knife. Breakfast! The camp inmates rush to the queue. They ogle the man doling out the tea..... we have to put up with the doctors on their morning rounds. They move from bed to bed, muttering under their breath: 'And how are we today?' answering for us. Woe betide you if you dare to complain about your aches and pains. Because then they would pester you at night as well. They would massage your injury with their hands, rubbing it well. At that moment, you would start seeing stars... Far better to remain silent....!

'All you really want is a bit of peace and quiet but that is when the whistle blows once again: Roll Call! Abu Akeb visits the tent, inquiring after our health, smiling like a benevolent parent. He delivers his morning speech, yells that we should 'Please wake up' and the roll call follows.

'Once the roll call is over the visitations begin. There is no doubt at all that the children of Israel are the most obliging of people. They turn ... your bed into a gaming table. At long last, the whistle blows again, this time for lunch. .. Armed with their mess tins, the 'guests' in your tent gird their loins and rush to the line.'

This is the way the young soldier who would become Chief Rabbi of Haifa Shear Yashuv Cohen describes, in his book "Between War and Peace", his time as a very badly injured prisoner of war and the first Israeli army chaplain in a British and UN approved Jordanian prisoner of war camp, visited by the Red Cross!

The type of counting related in his story is the exact opposite of what is meant by 'uplifting the head' in the Biblical descriptions given in the Book of Numbers.

It is interesting to consider some of the words related to the word 'count' in the English language. We have account (witness, narrative), recount (tell over), discount (lessen in some way), encounter (meet unexpectedly), counter (retort) and most of all 'count' as 'meaning something to someone'. All these interpretations probably come from readings of the Biblical book we have just started to study: the lifting up of heads, the relating and the narrative, all lead to Sinai, where every single person hears the words on the mountain, together with their interpretations.

If Pesach is about leaving Egypt and slavery, while the autumn festival of Succot depicts ingathering and the fragility of desert life, Shavuot is most of all about 'learning'. During the night of the Shavuot festival, people stay up to learn Torah, to study, with friends, and to acquire new insights.

During the Covid crisis, just before Shavuot of 2020, learned scholars and rabbis from all over the world encountered fellow Jews via the internet, and in Hebrew, Russian, English, French and Spanish spent half an hour each for 24 hours bombarding us with Torah insights. This was a very strong sign, a signal of Jewish unity during a time of 'plague'. This encounter contributed hugely to a feeling of well-being in the world Jewish community, bringing us all together at a time when synagogues were off limits and Pesach gatherings had not been permitted.

It has often been asked why the preparations for Shavuot, the pinnacle of our Jewish calendar, are so slender in comparison to the huge cleaning operation at Pesach, or the building and decorating of the outside Sukkah at Sukkot.

There actually is preparation for Shavuot – the counting of the Omer, the increase in learning, but everything has slowed down. The Jewish partnership with G-d is on a different level, as we prepare once again to encounter a glimpse of what it was like for the entire Jewish people when they encamped on Mount Sinai, ready to enter into a partnership with G-d through His Torah, given in love, and to which we contribute every moment of the day through our learning, actions and deeds.

There certainly is diversity in Judaism, but we are also capable of a unity, which is not uniformity, and that is something that others could perhaps glean from the Jewish people.

Just as Ruth gleaned in the fields of Boaz, thus demonstrating that everybody counts and that no-one should be overlooked in the counting process, so we can all glean something from retelling her story at Shavuot, a fitting parallel to the retelling of the 10 sayings at Sinai.