Counting in the Desert


This week we begin reading the 4th of the 5 Books of Moses, which actually has 3 different names: Bemidbar (Hebrew for “In the Desert”), describing where the action takes place, and Numbers, because, following the early Greek translation of the Bible, the book begins with a census and close attention to counting. Finally, this book also had another, earlier name: Homesh Hapekudim (Hebrew for “the Fifth of the Torah about Counting” (or reckoning)), emphasizing the several censuses (first in our parasha, the first few chapters, and then again in chapter 26).

I like the name Bemidbar (in the desert) because the desert has a connotation of being an in-between place… That is, the place between the enslavement of Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land of Israel. The desert is also a wilderness: the word “wilderness” has in it an echo suggesting a place of wildness. It’s where a certain kind of desolation and emptiness can make one wild and/or can help one journey through whatever is required to make one civilized. Have you ever felt the need for isolation in a quiet, empty space to re-calibrate your own balance, to become more “civilized” and fit for social interactions? What is it about a “time-out” in a quiet space that takes the wildness out of us? For the Israelites, Bemidbar is the place where the ragtag tribes who were taken out of Egypt go in order to become a civilized nation, with rules and proper organization.

Bemidbar begins with a head count, a census. This is where we get the notion that the tribes must engage in the business of nation-building, how to position themselves, how to divide things equitably, and how many able-bodied men there are to wage war. Israel is organizing — each tribe is assigned its proper place. In contrast, the Levites are not placed among the tribes; just as they don’t receive a regular inheritance in the Promised Land and have special responsibilities, they are assigned a location along side the Tent of Meeting, which is in the center of the camp’s concentric rectangles.

The whole book of Bemidbar is a composite book, with multiple narratives, and they don’t always fit together. More than any of the other five books, this one is clearly the result of an editorial process, according to biblical scholars. We have both snippets of ancient texts (often found in poetry) and chapters that seem to be written much later, but were added here by whoever edited the Bible, to emphasize certain points. You could think of the entire book of Bemidbar like a journal of a family trip: even though it looks like everyone was in the same place at the same time doing the same thing, each member of the family has his or her own experience of that place and that activity, and each will report on it in sometimes radically different ways. Each day of a family trip might be planned by a different family member, or parts of the day might be the responsibility of another member of the family. Bemidbar is our family’s journey in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land of Israel. It is a bunch of stories, some of which have the same theme, but sometimes the way the stories are assembled makes the narrative disjointed and confusing.

Another observation about the entire book is that the structural aspects of Bemidbar parallel its content. The 36 chapters alternate between discussions of laws and narratives. According to the late Professor Jacob Milgrom, one of the foremost scholars on Bemidbar, the book zigzags between laws and stories as follows: The first 10 chapters deal with laws. Then, chapters 10:11-14:45 are stories. Chapter 15 goes back to laws; chapters 16-17 are stories; chapters 18-19 deal with laws; chapters 20-25 are a narrative; chapters 26-27:11 again deal with laws; chapters 27:12-23 are stories; chapters 28-30 contain laws; chapters 31-33:49 are stories; and finally, from the end of chapter 33 through the end of chapter 36, we get more laws.

If you were to make a line drawing of the map of the wanderings of the Israelites and used what I listed, making a zig or a zag for every time there is a change in content, you would get a route that would show the extremely circuitous way that the people traveled through the desert, which is partly the reason they spent 38 years there, until the generation of those who experienced slavery died out.

One of the strongest narrative themes in Bemidbar is rebellion. There are eight different rebellions, most of them beginning with the Israelites complaining and whining and involving the same actors: Moses, God, the Israelites. The biblical scholar and prolific biblical translator, Professor Robert Alter, points out in his book, The Five Books of Moses, pages 676-77:

The scheme of the recurrent scene of ‘murmuring’ or complaint is as follows: the people bitterly protests its misery in the wilderness or Moses’s leadership or both: God’s wrath flares against the people, expressing itself in some sort of ‘scourge’ that decimates the Israelite ranks; Moses intercedes — in two instances God actually threatens to wipe out the entire people and begin anew with Moses — and He relents…. Restiveness under Moses’s rule is so epidemic that even Miriam and Aaron are infected by it, at one point resentfully rebelling against their brother (chapter 12). One suspects that all these repetitions of the scenes of murmuring are introduced because the writers conceived it as a paradigm for the subsequent history of Israel: recurrent resentment of God’s rule and of the authority of His legitimate leaders, chronic attraction to objects of base material desire, fearfulness, divisiveness, and the consequences of national disaster brought about, in the view of the biblical writers, by this whole pattern of constant backsliding.

On the other hand (and this is another zigzag), we will see as we continue to read this book of Bemidbar, that we get a strong counter image of this nation-in-formation, as a bunch of tribes who are molding themselves into a people with a grand historical destiny in their future.

This week’s parasha has a lot of counting in it — and it comes at the end of the counting period known as the Omer, the 49 days we count between Passover and Shavuot. In her Torah commentary this week, Rabbi Abigail Treu of the Jewish Theological Seminary reminds us that counting must be seen in context. As we begin the book of Numbers, when it seems the text is hung up on counting, she reminds us of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

She concludes, “With all of the numbers and counting pervading our week, let us not lose sight of the message they bring: that what counts the most is spending time with one another, and that we measure our years by counting day in and day out the moments we spend with others wandering with us, blazing paths together through the wilderness of life.

2 thoughts on “Counting in the Desert”

  • Referring to the translation of “Bemidbar”. This means a desert (just any desert) unless specified (bemidbar Yehudah), “Bamidbar” would be “in the desert” – a certain desert (in this case the Sinai desert). Bemidbar reflects better the idea of spending this span time needed between slavery and establishing a free nation.

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