I turn to this week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Numbers, Sefer BaMidbar, literally, “In the Wilderness.” It is a relief, after the dry, priestly-purity legislation of Vayikra/Leviticus, to find some narrative leavening the endless Torah laws. God commands Moses to number the people, and here, my hackles rise: census-counting is never a good sign in our Jewish Bible:
Rule One: don’t ever know exactly how much you have of anything; it’s a major kinnehurra (evil eye).
“Dad, how much money do you earn?” I remember asking my father.
“David,” my father would reply, solemnly, “I make enough.”
And leave it at that: Sha! Shtill!
Never question. No answer is also an answer.
My father, who grew into manhood during the Great Depression, was not alone in this attitude of Not Discussing One’s Finances in Public. In traditional congregations even today, when worshipers count to see if they have enough Jews to make a minyan, the prayer quorum, they count, “Nisht ein, nisht tzvei, nisht drei—Not One, Not Two, Not Three….”
The taboo against numbering continues. Some old-country Jews will not clip their nails in order, from thumb to pinky; they must follow an abstruse digital dance to fend off the demons; otherwise, a simple nail-clipping may resemble and symbolize the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, preparing a corpse for its final rest (there is a measure of Counting in the Jewish Last Rites; I have attended, and I know), and may, God forbid, lead to one’s death, God forbid.
There is a noble irony in belonging to a people who are at once so worldly and over-educated, including doctors, lawyers, and captains of industry, and who yet cherish their superstitions. These pre-Scientific beliefs evolved from an age when Death was always at one’s elbow, and, in the words of Philosopher Mel Brooks, “A splinter could kill ya.”
As for the census, Moses calls upon people-counters from each tribe, and I love the archaic, long-forgotten names of his assistants in this undertaking, names like Shelumiel ben Tsurishadai—“Complete Peace of God, son of the Almighty is my Rock,” and Nachshone ben Aminadav—“Big Snake, son of My People are Generous”—the midrash-legends tell us that this latter worthy was the first to plunge into the Reed Sea at Moses’s command, and that it was for his merit and daring that the waters split, allowing the doubting people to cross, dry-shod, to the other side.
The names sound quaint and curious to us moderns, but the Bible-era listeners must have nudged one another as they heard the Torah-reading centuries ago, smiling, “That was my father’s father’s uncle!” and, “You’re wrong, he married the lady next tent over, I can see her face before me, now,” and other reminiscences.
How sad that no little Jewish boys in temple preschools today bear the names of large snakes or generous people. Instead, we are Jacob’d and Ethan’d to distraction. O for one Tsurishadai Levine, shooting spitballs at the head of Aminadav Negnewitsky, while the Rabbi’s back is turned!
The results of the census are swift and sure, if exaggerated and symbolic: 603,550 males over the age of 21, every man-jack of them capable of wielding sword or spear in defense of the Israelite nation—which is still a Wandering Jewish rabble at this point: Bronze Age herdsmen, albeit monotheistic (if not entirely ethical), and expected to conquer Iron-Age Canaanite farmers living in walled cities surrounded by stone battlements, three-feet-thick—not unlike bringing a popgun to a fortress.
Yes, it was hard then to be a Jew, terribly hard, even when you were being led by the thunderous, cloud-commanding Desert God, El-Shaddai Himself. Assailed by doubts and fears of the future, the dubious congregation marched on, following their mysterious, invisible Deity, working hard to merely survive in a hostile Wilderness, let alone believe in and follow His Torah. Some things don’t change: the Wilderness may have metamorphosed into the space between your cellphone and your laptop, your hard-taxed Brain and your fingertips (with your Heart and Soul somewhere in between) but it’s just as tough to navigate as it was in those long-remembered Desert Days.
What Jewish, what Spiritual, Deeds have you accomplished today, Fellow Jew, Fellow Human? Are you satisfied with the results? Don’t be: the World, the Universe, remains broken, very broken. You mustn’t ever let yourself become complacent, when there remains Holy Work to be done. You must try harder, just a little bit harder. You will always have another chance, for the rest of your life. Amen!