Parshat Bamidbar: To Each Is a Name

To each is a name
That he was given by the Lord
That he was given by his father and mother.

For most Israeli’s, Zelda’s words remind us of the national Memorial Day ceremonies. When we speak of the victims and the fallen as statistics, we can lose sight the uniqueness of every individual. Zelda’s song seeks to reaffirm this individuality, the fact that every person has a name. Every year, before the siren sounds on Memorial Day, I choose one person among the all-too-many that I want to think about during the siren, and dedicate all of my attention to his life and death. In that moment, I don’t have the capacity to focus on more than one person.

Jewish tradition considers taking a census of the nation a serious sin, as we see in the story of King David: “And the king said to Yoav, captain of the guard, who was with him, ‘Go out now to all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer Sheva, and count the people, and you will know the number of the people’” (Samuel II 24:2). Yoav, the head of David’s army, tries to dissuade him, but to no avail. In the end, David himself regrets it: “And David’s heart smote him after he counted the nation, and David said to Hashem, ‘I have sinned greatly’” (Ibid 10). Elsewhere, counting the people is called an “abomination” and “evil in the eyes of the Lord” (Chronicles I 21:6-7).

Counting on BlackboardA census turns a man into a number, a statistical data point, and robs him of his individual worth. David conducts the census in order to ascertain how many “swords” he has in his nation. It is a military assessment which sees the value of the individual only in terms of his service to the ruler. Once there was doctor who had to perform a dangerous surgery on a child. Before the operation, he asked the child’s father if this was his only child. The father answered that it was, and added that he had four more children at home.

It is the mathematical, statistical view of human life that bears responsibility for the greatest crimes of the last century. In “Darkness at Noon” Arthur Koestler claims that this was the basis of the Communist regime’s twisted logic – to kill a million people today in order to make a better world for a billion people tomorrow. Relating to humans as numbers robs them of their humanity. In the Holocaust, for example, the Nazis carved numbers on the forearms of the Jewish prisoners. In the movie Patch Adams, a doctor criticizes his coworkers for their practice of referring to their patients as numbers (“infusion for bed 7”) and requests that they call their patients by name (“infusion for Mrs. Schwartz”). It’s possible that the language of numbers is more practical and efficient than the language of names, but there’s more to life than efficiency.

A Human Census vs. a G-dly Census

Parshat Bamidbar tells of the census that Moshe takes. Why was King David’s census considered a sin, whereas here Hashem Himself instructs Moshe to count the people? One difference, Rashi explains, is the motivation behind it. According to Rashi, Hashem’s reason was “because of their preciousness to him he counts them constantly” (Rashi on Bamidbar 1:1). In other words, G-d’s census is an expression of his love for Israel, whereas King David’s is functional. Additionally, in our parsha the very nature of the census is different: “Take a census of the entire congregation of Israel by their families, by the house of their fathers, according to their names, each male to his headcount” (Bamidbar 1:2). The key word here is “names,” which reappears in the descriptions of each one of the twelve tribes: “According to the names of their headcount.” The Torah emphasizes that the nature of the census is not purely numerical and anonymous, but that each person is counted by name. The census is meant to convey the value of every person, both as an individual and as a member of their family and tribe

The words the Torah uses to describe the census also teach us that its goal was to strengthen the individual, and not to lessen his worth. The command to take the census, “se’u et rosh kol adat Yisrael,” literally means “lift up the heads of the entire congregation of Israel.” This indicates that the purpose of the counting is to raise the people up.

In a census undertaken for human purposes, only the final number is important. Humans do not have the ability to relate to so many people by name. The children of Israel are compared in number to the stars (Bereshit 16:5), and as the psalmist declared: “He counts the number of the stars and calls each one by name” (Psalms 147:4). Not only can G-d count the stars, he can call each one by its name. In a G-dly census, the individual is highlighted, he doesn’t disappear. Clearly, the English name for the book of Bamidbar, “Numbers,” missed the spirit of the census entirely.

Each Day a Leader

This idea returns in Parshat Naso which describes the sacrifices of the twelve tribal leaders. No less than seventy-two verses are dedicated to these sacrifices, and each leader gets six verses in which his sacrifice is described in detail. Strangely, though, each one brings exactly the same sacrifice. Why did the Torah bother to repeat an identical passage twelve times? In the spirit of what we have just learned, it emerges that though the components of the sacrifice may be the same for all of them, since they are all different individuals, each one’s sacrifice has a unique quality. When two people give the same gift, each gift will be received differently, depending on the personality of the giver. The message of the Torah is that each sacrifice is special in the merit of the one offering it. This same message can be seen on a growing number of t-shirts these days, “Same same but different.” The repetition of the same sacrifice while highlighting the different names of the leaders offering it teaches us that we need not only to ask “what” but also “who.”

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir


You Might Also Like:

Did you enjoy this post? Please click on the buttons below to share with your friends!

Comments are closed.