Office of the Chief Rabbi

D’var Torah: Parashat Bamidbar

In his D’var Torah this week, the Chief Rabbi teaches us that every person counts…

Does the size of the Jewish people matter?

This Shabbat, we will be commencing our reading of Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, so called because of the commandments within it to take a census of the nation.

The Ramban gives two different Peirsuhim, two commentaries, on why it was important for this census to be taken.

In his first commentary he says, it was to show the greatness of the Almighty. Despite all that we endured during our travels in the wilderness, God guaranteed that our numbers would be high and the Jewish people would remain intact.

‘And so, on all of these occasions, individuals felt important, that the leaders knew who they were through their names’

In his second commentary, the Ramban says that actually it’s in the methodology of the counting that the reason can be found. It was to give the Israelites the experience of what happened.

In our Parasha we are told ‘Bemispar Sheimot’, count the nations, says God, according to the ‘number of their names’. There was something to do with the names there. And the Ramban explained that for each tribe, the members lined up and then they were introduced to the leaders of the nation and the tribe. A person would come along and say his name and then there would be a little bit of a conversation. And so, on all of these occasions, individuals felt important, that the leaders knew who they were through their names. They had a relationship with them and those names were counted.

Rav Soloveitchik, zt’l, tells us that in these two commentaries of the Ramban, you actually find two different elements being highlighted. In the first commentary, what is important to us is the Sach Hakol, ‘the total number’ – the totality of all the people. In the second commentary, what matters to us is the individual members of the nation, the people who make up that total figure.

Rav Soloveitchik goes on to say, ‘Let us say that you are in a store and you purchase something which cost £27. So you are at the till and you’re asked ‘okay, please pay for it’ and you give the money.

The next day you how bump into somebody who will say ‘Oh, how much did it cost you?’ And you’ll know: £27. But then they’ll say to you, ‘well, how did you pay for it – with a £20 note, £10 note, £5 note, was it coins?’ You won’t remember because what counted was the Sach Hakol, ‘the total figure’. You had to be honest to give the £27.

‘It’s important for us to know how many members we have in our communities… but at the same time, we shall never forget the importance of the ingredients making up the nation’

Now let’s say you are a school teacher and you are taking 27 pupils on a tour of a museum – on the bus, off the bus, in the museum, out of it – that number 27 will be important to you, not because 27 is important but because each ingredient of the 27 is important. If God forbid one would be missing and it would be 26 – that would be terrible.

So Rav Soloveitchik taught from here that we learn first of all, about the importance of the Sach Hakol, ‘the total number’. It’s important for us to know how many members we have in our communities, how many students we have in our schools, what the number of our nation is, but at the same time, we shall never forget the importance of the ingredients making up the nation, the fact that every single person counts.

Shabbat Shalom

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