14/15 May: Bemidbar : Shabbat Comes in 8:30 pm, ends 9:44 pm
Parashat Bemidbar – Who Serves Whom?
Sefer Bemidbar, the book entitled ‘In [the] wilderness [of Sinai]’, is otherwise known in English as the Book of Numbers. It gains this title due to the numbering of the people that takes up a large portion of the book. This census can seem puzzling partly due to its depth. We do not simply receive an overview of the numbers of individuals in each tribe, but rather a deep dive into the sections of those tribes, including lists of names that are enough to make the eyes lose focus.
To the leyener (those who chant from Torah), those lists of names can be a touch bothersome. Names do not follow the same grammatical rules as other parts of language, and many of these names do not turn up elsewhere; the sounds must simply be memorised. And though some of the names turn up in narrative areas of the Torah or in midrashim (creative rabbinic storytelling), this is not true for most of them. So why did the Torah record these lists of names, of individuals long gone from this world, whose stories are not remembered in our sacred texts?
One response to the above question is that the Torah is reminding us of the balance between the community and the individual. We may think of the generation of the wilderness as a whole – the revelation they experienced, the rebellions they partook in – but these names remind us that this community was made up of individuals. So too, for the Jewish people. We are a part of something that is much greater than ourselves, something that spans the world and reaches out across millenia. And we are also a community made up of individuals.
Now is an interesting time to call to mind the question: do individuals serve the community, or does the community serve individuals? The Torah’s response here, I believe, is that it must be both. We must be both givers and takers in order to participate fully in Jewish life.