The book of Bamidbar or the Book of the Wilderness is the book describing the wilderness experience of the newly emerging people of Israel. It describes their challenges and their failures on the one hand and their persistence and courage on the other. As with all the words of Torah it also remains as an eternal guide for the generations that will follow. Each generation with its own unique wilderness experience.
This book is also called “Sefer Hapekudim, the Book of Counting or the Book of Numbers”. We read the following in the beginning of the book;
“Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names.( Numbers 1:1-2)
Two questions come to the fore. Firstly Why must Hashem make a point of counting His people again and again and why must we be told of those countings? In fact the Midrash Rabba goes on to explain that in fact there were to be ten such countings throughout the journey of this people.
Secondly why must we be told that “”Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, …..Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel”
What does the fact that they were in the wilderness be so pertinent to the counting?
The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 1:7) teaches that we need to be reminded that the choice of the wilderness as the place of G-d’s revelation was critical. The wilderness speaks loudly. The Hebrew word for wilderness or desert “Midbar“ is made up of the same letters as Midaber (speaking). From within the stillness and quietude of the wilderness much is heard.
The “ wilderness experience” is very revealing.
It is an area that is owner-less and as a result the experience of the wilderness is one of humility , the key to growth.
Secondly it is an existence that is dry and parched. When one understands the thirst then one can truly yearn to be quenched and taught.
Furthermore the experience of the wilderness or the desert is that of clear vision. It is in the wilderness that all is spread out in all its vastness and the heavens and the stars glisten unperturbed and uninterrupted.
In the wilderness one is overwhelmed with a sense of aloneness and tiny finiteness that somehow paradoxically connects one to He that is infinite. The sheer vastness of the desert humbles and breaks down the soul in such a way that one painfully yearns for the connection that lies “just beyond”.
It is in the midst of the wilderness experience wherein suddenly every plant, every sand dune, every living creature is noticed and becomes relevant and critical.
That then connects to the counting.
We are taught that ” Rabbi Yitzhak said :It is forbidden to count the people of Israel, even for a mitzvah… “And the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which will be neither measured nor counted” (Hoshea 2:1) (Yoma 22b, )
This Biblical concept illuminates the fact that when we focus on our individual and unique status as each one is counted, we enter very dangerous grounds. How much can we really depend on our own strengths and merits.
Yet when the counting relates to the KLAL or Peoplehood of Israel it is both a permitted and beloved event.
Rashi explains that the numerous countings were because of
“G-d’s great love for His people, He counts them all the time.” Just as one who counts his prized possessions again and again out of affection.
We are then told in the Torah Portion of BaMidbar “As Hashem commanded Moshe, so did he count them (Vayifkidem) in the Sinai desert.” ( Numbers 1:19)
The word (Vayifkidem) is critical in the understanding. Hashem’s use of the word “Vayafkidem” to denote counting as opposed to more commonly used Hebrew words “Sofer” or “Moneh”, is not happenstance. The root word of this word is not just another way of saying “counting” but is rather a critical and powerful code word. Code words that point to redemption. When Joseph was on his death bed he relates these words to his brothers, knowing that they were about to enter a period of deep exile and bondage. On his deathbed, Joseph said to his brothers, the following “And Joseph said unto his brethren: ‘I die; but God will surely remember you’ (pakod yifkod etchem), and bring you up out of this land unto the land which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you‘ (pakod yifkod etchem), and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.'” (Bereishit 50:24.25)
When the time for Israel’s redemption finally arrived G-d appears to Moshe at the burning bush. He tells Moshe to gather the 70 elders and to tell them that their redemption was at hand. He told Moshe to say to them “Hashem, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared unto me saying,” I have surely remembered you (Pakod Pakadeti Etchem) and seen that which is done to you in Egypt'” ( Shemot 3:16)
The children of Israel understood,the message and its hidden code words. “And Aaron spoke all the words which Hashem had spoken unto Moshe, and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that Hashem had remembered (PAKAD) the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped. ( Genesis 4: 30.31)
What, then, does the word Pakod actually mean? We see its use in another context ;
When David is concerned lest King Saul attempts to kill him he decides to go into hiding. He tells his close friend Yonatan, the son of Saul, what to say if his absence at the feast of the new month will be noticed “If your father miss me at all (Pakod Yifkideni), then say: David earnestly asked leave of me that he might run to Bethlehem his city; for it is the yearly sacrifice there for all the family. (I Samuel 20:6)
The word Pakod does not only mean “to count” but to also to make sure that nothing is missing. It is a counting of “what is”; and at the samne time it is about ensuring that all that needs to be there is accounted for as well.
This helps explain the question we began with regarding the fact that the verse points out that this counting was done in the wilderness.
It is in the midst of the wilderness, without the distractions of noise and lights , wherein suddenly every plant, every sand dune, every living creature is noticed and becomes relevant and critical.
That wilderness experience is critical for being able to truly hear Hashem. It is there that we truly are aware of every individual and every event in our individual and corporate lives,
We read in the book of Hoshea the following words of reconciliation spoken by G-d to His people;
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly unto her.“(ibid:16). It is in the wilderness that Hashem’s tender words will be heard.
We live in a world overwhelmed with noise , distraction and falsehood. We live in a land that is drawing the attention and the ire of all the nations of the world. We live in a country where every event is magnified and made ominous by our own media. It is sometimes difficulty to see all that has transpired in our recent history. It is sometimes difficult to remember a simple truth
After two thousand years our people have returned and brought into fruition a land that lay desolate waiting for this return. We forget that after two thousand years Jerusalem has again become the capital of the Jewish world and the place of inspiration for all the rest of humanity.
Saturday night and Sunday, I with tens of thousands of others will be celebrating on Jerusalem day these simple but incredible truths.
“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the rose” (Isaiah 35:1)
Hag Sameach Le Kol Am Yisrael
LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved