Community and Individuality

May 18th: Bemidbar
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This book we call Numbers in English is title Bemidbar (In the Wilderness) in Hebrew. The Hebrew names for the Torah’s books are not thematic—based instead on the first important word in the book, but it turns out that Bemidbar/In the Wilderness describes pretty well the book’s subject: our forty years of wandering in the desert. The book opens “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt” (Numbers 1.1) and concludes right as the Hebrews are “on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho,” (Numbers 36.13). This is just before they enter the Land—which means that there is very little narrative in Deuteronomy: the book is mostly Moses’ historical lectures on our sacred history.

The Greek—and later Latin and English—titles of the books are thematic, dealing with the major events in the book. Genesis tells of the world’s and our people’s origins. Exodus tells of the slavery in Egypt and our deliverance from there. Leviticus details the many rules and procedures of the Levitical priesthood. Deuteronomy (“second telling”) is a set of Moses’ summary of the important themes in our relationship with God. And, Numbers, the book we begin this week, begins with the instructions for a census. Though the census is not a continuing theme of the book, this title seems to have been the best the ancient Alexandrian editors decided when they translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

In the story of the census, we learn the names of some Israelite leaders—“from the tribe of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur; from Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai; from Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab; from Issachar, Nethaneel the son of Zuar; from Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon; from Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; from Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur; from Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni; from Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai; from Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran; from Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel; and from Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan” (Numbers 1.5-15), and we learn the population of each tribe—at least of the males above age twenty.

In other words, while some names are recorded, most are not. And yet, even the ones that are recorded are pretty much forgettable. With the exception of Nahshon the son of Amminadab—about whom there is a delightful Midrash, we have a list of people who were very important back then but whose accomplishments are lost in the larger communal history of our people.

We can figure that the named people were important. As the Torah explains, these were the heads of their ancestral houses, “the elected of the assembly, the chieftains of their ancestral tribes…the heads of the contingents of Israel.” (Numbers 1.4 and 16). But, what about everyone else? There were the 59,299 unnamed men of the Tribe of Reuben, the 45,649 unnamed men of the Tribe of Gad, and the 74,599 unnamed men of the Tribe of Judah, etc. Though the census totals 603,550 men in all the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all but a dozen or so are unnamed. Were they not important, too? Yes is the Jewish answer for we are taught that every human being is important.  The Midrash teaches us that God created humanity in a single human being (Adam Kadmon, the first Adam) to make the point that each individual life is worth the life of the entire world. And, as Martin Buber explains, “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world. Every single man is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfill his particularity in the world.” (The Way of Man)

 Though there is a tendency, in our corporate focus on the peoplehood of Israel, to pay more attention to the forest rather than to the individual trees, we need to remember that each and every individual in important in his or her own way. Without all those individual trees, each doing whatever trees do to survive and prosper, there would be no forest. Likewise, without each individual Hebrew/Israelite/Jew living his/her life individually, the story of our tribes would be quite different.

One of my teachers, the late Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, used to say that each of us lives our lives alone. Though I heard this bit of advice as stark and perhaps a little jaded, I have since learned that it is actually self-reliant and self-aware. Though we may have many people in our lives—people with whom we share affection and responsibility, each of us must ultimately negotiate the paths of existence individually. Even if we are part of a group, we experience the group individually—with individual attitudes, decisions, reactions, and perseverance. Ultimately, we live alone and must learn to be responsible for ourselves.

And so, as is usual, wisdom lies in living in a dynamic tension. On the one hand we have our various tribal groups living the perspective of John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

But, on the other hand, we join and participate in our associations individually, deciding how we can and shall be a part of the group.

In something as simple as an ancient census lies a lesson for us all. Our significance is found both in our individual lives and in the associations we choose.