Sunday, May 18, 2014

Counting Jews, or Counting On Them? Moses Takes a Census: Parshat Bamidbar

Bamidbar

            I was grading my college class papers, when I realized I had yet to write my essay for the Parshat HaShavua—the Weekly Torah Portion, Bamidbar, “In the Wilderness.” Quickly finding a synopsis online, I was not heartened to see that it appeared, at first glance, to be Biblical Boilerplate, Scriptural Statistics: all Census and Tribal Placement; no Narrative, little Law. Reading and re-reading the Text, I felt my eyes growing heavy.
            “You could push the computer keyboard out of the way for just a couple of minutes,” my Yetzer Ha-Ra (Evil Inclination) whispered into my ear, “And take a nap—just a little nap. Then, a Brilliant Idea will pop into your head. Just try it!”
I took his advice, laid down my weary head, and dreamed….
“OY.”
Such a loud “Oy!” I had never before heard, ever in my life! I snapped my head upward, and saw him: sort of a cross between the picture of Moses in the Arthur Szyk rendering, with some of the determination of the Michelangelo statue (lacking, I was happy to see, the Infamous Horns). Moses, in the Flesh (or, at least, in my Vision).
He sat there, poor man, poor Prophet, his shepherd’s crook in one hand, the one he was to strike against the flinty rock
--Should I warn him? What, and change the course of Biblical pre-History? I quickly decided against it--  
leaning precariously against my bookcase, its knobby end almost tipping over God in the Teachings of Conservative Judaism: Twenty Opinions, Plato at the Googleplex, and The Thurber Carnival.
“Can I help you, Rav Moshe?” I asked, rubbing my eyes with one hand, and taking a hasty gulp of water. It is not every day that one encounters the first rabbi, the greatest prophet, and the man who spoke with God face-to-face (or, more exactly, face-to-Back).
“Israelites,” he muttered, pulling his long, grey beard, and shaking his head, “They are crazy-making. God says, ‘Count them,’ so I count. Not easy to count these people; they refuse to stand still. I got the other Levites to help me—they were supposed to be counted separately—but it was still hard. When I got all the numbers together, it seemed a little low—after all, didn’t God promise Father Abraham that Our People would be like ‘the stars of the heaven, and the sands of the sea, which cannot be counted’? So I did what I had to do—“
“Which was--?” I prompted.
“Was--?” he asked me back.
“I fudged,” he sighed.
“’Fudged’?”
“Yes, fudged.” Moses rose to his feet, his leg-bones cracking, as if he were carrying a heavy weight. Kirby, our Shih Tzu, who had been sniffing the Prophet’s sandals—there must have been an agglomeration of prehistoric desert waste and cattle miscellania affixed to their time-worn soles—jumped back. “I did the best I could. It was, like so many other tasks the Holy One, the Ineffeable One, He-Who-Exists sets me to do, almost impossible, even for a Prophet—and I’m not bragging, mind you, I’m humble, very humble—but I came up with a number close enough to the Truth. 603,550. Close enough, but with symbolic meaning, as well. Six to show we are incomplete, not yet ready for seven, the Sacred Number. Zero to show we are naught, save with God’s help. Three for the Patriarchs. Five for the Books of Torah; Five again. And Zero at the end: we will never succeed, without God….”
“And you are here, because--?” I queried.
“Because I need to know that there is a Meaning and Reason behind what I do. Can you show me a Future Commentary on my actions? Because I’ll tell you, some days, I just don’t know why I’m doing all of this—I could have stayed in Egypt, after all: I could have had Poppa Pharaoh’s job: do you know that? I could’ve been Somebody—oh, don’t listen to me; it’s late, and I’m tired, and rambling….”
I was honored—amazed, and honored that this Prince of Israel, this Humblest of Men, should inquire this of me.
“You know, Rav Moshe,” I said, “That Census-Taking is not recommended by our Tradition; indeed, it is bad luck.”
The great grey head nodded; his shepherd’s staff tapped against the bookcase; Kirby’s tail wagged as the Prophet held him gently in his lap.
“I know. It is the Kinnehurrah, the Evil Eye.”
“But not in this case,” I said.
“And why?” he asked.
My thoughts were racing. Was the great Moshe Rabeinu playing with me? There could be nothing on earth or in heaven, nothing Jewish, that this man could not know.
“Because here, God is counting them,” I improvised, desperately, remembering a Midrash, a Torah-legend from a rabbinical-school session of long ago, “Not only counting them, but counting ON them, for a Higher Purpose—that of bearing His Mishkan, His Sacred Dwelling-Place, and carrying His spirit, throughout the world. That is why God needs to know their number—He needs to know that He has sufficient people to count on, to do the Holy Work.”
A smile creased the myriad wrinkles in the Prophet’s face.
“And are they doing so, yet today? Tell me that they are, young Rabbi.”
Again, thoughts raced through my brain—the epidemics of guns, wars, and hatred—the issues in the Middle East and Africa—the ongoing lack of understanding between human beings—what could I tell him, what news could I bring the Prophet?
Kirby sneezed.
“Bless you!” We both said. R’ Moshe’s smile grew broader, as he gently handed Kirby into my arms.
“Perhaps that is my answer,” Moses said, “Perhaps it is no different in your world than it was in mine. There is Evil—Evil will always remain—but there will also be those people who, in ways both big and small, try to Work for the Good, in order to Bless One Another. Thank you, Young Rabbi. You and your Little Dog here have given me some comfort.”

He vanished. I looked out the window: the sun was rising. I stretched and yawned: time to walk the dog, give him his water and food, dress, and Go Teach. There was Sacred Work to do, as must we all.