Bamidbar: Counting on Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Greetings from (finally) sunny Swampscott!

This week we begin a new book of the Torah: Bamidbar (literally
“in the wilderness), but commonly called “Numbers” because it
opens up with a census of the Israelites, including the number of
men eligible to bear arms. Different families of the tribe of Levy
(set apart for religious service) were given duties to set up and
carry the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary) and its components.
Finally, all 12 tribes are arranged in a fixed order as the Israelites
travel and make camp along their journey.
Our teacher Rashi has a beautiful and profound commentary
explaining why God commanded Moshe to take a census of the
people:

“Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When
they left Egypt, He counted them [cf. Exodus 12:37]; when [many]
fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to
know the number of the survivors [cf. Exodus 32:28]; when He
came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He
counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected,
and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.”

This commentary links several episodes earlier in the narrative
of the Torah: the Exodus, the sin of the Golden Calf, and the
building of the Mishkan- all times when Rashi says God counted
the people out of love and concern. (We might point out a tension
between God’s love and the strict punishment after the Golden
Calf, but let’s leave that for another time.) This image of God
“counting” the people evokes a parent accounting for her
children, or a teacher making sure every student is included in
the activities- it’s an image which is meant to teach a conception
of the Divine as pure, focused, very practical love.

Not only that- but compare the instances of “counting” which
Rashi brings. The Exodus was a moment of extraordinary
transformation of the people, but they also had to be led into it
with great effort. The building of the Golden Calf was a time
when the people’s fears, narrowness, and lack of vision brought
out their worst behavior, and caused great conflict within the
community- it was the low point of the Exodus process. God
“counted” the survivors of the conflict- I’d like to interpret this as
God taking account that even the worst sin of the people didn’t
cause what that which was good to be completely extinguished,
which is a great lesson in itself.

Conversely, the building of the Mishkan, when all the people
brought donations and precious things, was an example of great
communal generosity, spirituality, and covenantal commitment,
and this triumph brought God’s immanent Presence into the
center of the camp.

In all those instances- moments of great anxiety during change,
moments when the people were their worst, and moments when
they were at their best- Rashi says God counted them, took
notice of them, stayed in relationship with them, out of love. In
other words, a Divine love is constant through change, knows
that we are more than our stupidest behaviors, and affirms our
greatest triumphs as well as our worst lapses of judgement.

That’s a Divine love.

Human love is much less predictable!

Still, this image- of “counting” the people, keeping true to them,
being with people when they’re at their best and worst and
everything in between- is our challenge to strive for, if indeed we
strive to act out of the Divine spark within.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

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