Counting On Us – Parsha Bamidbar

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This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, literally translating to “in the desert” begins the book of Numbers, a collection of stories pertaining to the children of Israel during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The book gets it’s name from the events that open the book a little over two years after the events of the exodus from Egypt.

God says to Moses  “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one.”  The Torah portion for the most part relays the outcome of this census and deals with various number counts. The text states that the reason for this census is for military purposes. God says, “You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army.”  The text goes on to describe leaders of each tribe,  the arrangement of encampments under military to banners, and a separate Levite census which continues into the next portion of Naso.

But the rabbis saw a different message in the counting: they said that God’s children being counted is similar to someone counting a valued possession. The rabbi’s saw the census as a symbol of God’s possessive love for the people.

I decided to look at the Haftorah for a deeper insight into this idea. [The practice of reading Haftora came about during a time when Jews were under persecution, and they weren’t able to read Torah publicly. The  rabbis chose chapters from the books of the prophets and the writings which related in some way to the weekly Torah portion.] This week’s Haftorah comes from the book of Hosea and the seeming connection is that when Hosea speaks of God redeeming the nation of Israel from exile (“the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor counted”) there’s an obvious parallel between the census being taken in Bamidbar and the inability to count Israel in a future time due to it’s vast growth.

I saw a deeper message of God’s love in the complicated story of Hosea’s life. According to the text, Hosea is commanded by God to take a woman, who is referred to as a “harlot,” as a wife and to have children with her. The typical interpretation is that this woman wasn’t a prostitute, but she was a woman whose ways would lead to promiscuity. Hosea took her as a wife and had children with her. He loved her very deeply but she inevitably strayed from him on many occasions. Each time she had no
choice but to return to him, and each time he took her back out of the love and deep commitment he had for her. From this experience, Hosea began to feel a sympathy towards the God of Israel. He saw a parallel of his own experiences with his wife to the relationship of God to the Jewish people.

This people, in relationship with God, were asked to be faithful to God. At times they were, but on many occasions they were not. The people would stray and fail at the charge they were given as a nation. Eventually they would ask forgiveness, and God
would take them back, just like Hosea and his wife.

The text actually says that God commanded Hosea to marry this woman but many commentators, including Abraham Joshua Heschel, don’t believe that was the sequence of events. They believe that Hosea married a woman that he truly loved,  and through this experience of love, commitment and subsequent betrayel he developed an understanding of God’s relationship to Israel. Through this relationship, he was inspired to bring this message to the world. Hosea became a great proponent of spreading the word of God’s continuing love for his people, despite their inconsistent reciprocation. I think this is a beautiful
story that shows us just why God wants to count and recount the nation of Israel.

It’s my kavanah that we can sit with awareness and realize when we’re loved and when we should give love back. We have loved ones who ask of us and expect of us. Are we there for them? Do we give to them when they need us?

We each have a relationship with God. God calls to us and charges us with Torah. Do we listen? Do we act?

We each have a soul that asks for feeding, a body that asks for support. Do we sustain them? Do we support them?

Let us have intention to those who ask of us and to that which is asked of us.
Let us have compassion and patience to those who we ask of and to that which we ask of ourselves.

The Haftora (and this blog) ends with a beautiful verse speaking of this undying love that is recited daily at the wrapping of the tefilin: “I will betroth you to me forever. And I will betroth you to me with righteousness, with justice, with kindness and with mercy.  And I will betroth you to me with fidelity. And you will know God.”

Shabbat Shalom