Numbers

“Parsha and Purpose” – Bamidbar 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Individualism, Conformism and Community: The Book of Bamidbar”

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Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

“Individualism, Conformism and Community: The Book of Bamidbar

Not one, not two, not three…”

This is a traditional way of counting people in Judaism. We don’t count Jews conventionally, using numbers, but rather look for other ways of reaching the final sum. 

Because in Judaism, every individual is important – every person is an entire world. If we count them as part of a larger whole, we limit their uniqueness and reduce them to being merely part of a group.

This dialectic of the prominence of the individual vs.the priority of the cmmty plays out throughout the entire book of Bamidbar, which our Sages accurately called “Sefer HaPekudim”, the English translation of which, the “Book of Numbers” –  how the cmmty is counted and the individual adds up.

For example, the daughters of Tzelafchad, women who challenge Moshe and ask how it is possible that they are not counted for inheritance simply because they did not have any male siblings.

Why should our family, they asked, which differs from the communal norm, be excluded from inheritance in the Land of Israel?

Ultimately, the perspective of this individual family triumphs over the communal norm.

Another example is the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, in which individuals who for various reasons were unable to bring the Pascal Sacrifice  on the 14th of Nissan when the community is commanded to, are offered a “do over” one month later, when they are able to offer the Korban.

And in a third example, the Tribes of Reuven, Gad and part of Menashe request of Moshe that due to their particular individual needs they cannot dwell in a geographic area known as Israel, and ask that the definition of the Land of Israel be expanded to accommodate their particular needs.

Sefer Bamidbar – the Book of Numbers – highlights for us the challenge and the responsibility that we have to be committed to the larger narrative of community on the one hand, while at the same time remembering that the goal of the community is to create an environment which inspires each person’s creativity and ability to contribute their own unique talents to the world.

It reminds us that yes, our relationship to God needs to include the reality that we are part of a community, but it must not be limited to that paradigm: each of us needs to find our own individual rendezvous with God.

And it asks of us to be counted and to be willing to accept this duality: to celebrate our individuality while concurrently being part of our community.

Shabbat Shalom.

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