The title Book of Numbers derives from the rabbis’ name for the book, Sefer Pikudim, or "book of countings," a reference to the census taken at the beginning and end of the book. It is an apt title in more ways than one. From the opening verse, we find that Numbers is unusually preoccupied with counting. In the first five verses of the book alone, we see the concentration of words related to counting and numbers and also how the date is meticulously identified. The tone is that of an accountant: mathematical, corporate. This is wholly appropriate, as Numbers is fundamentally about the adolescent transition of the children of Israel from their womb-like, unified state at Sinai to their mature, conquest-oriented military apparatus on the plains of Moab. The tone of the whole book is set in the opening lines.
Yet the strain of numerology in these opening verses has a counterpoint: names. In the first 18 verses of Parshat Bamidbar we find the word shemot or "names" four times, along with the names of the 12 tribal princes. Indeed, we even find the noteworthy grammatical construction b’mispar shemot, "the number of names," used to describe how the people should be counted.
Until now, we have thought of names as signifying uniqueness, individuality, difference-the difference between two named things is as great as that between day and night, the first things to receive names in Genesis. Now, particularly with the addition of the patronymic-the invention of the last name, it would seem-naming still serves to individuate, but also to collectivize. This is an outgrowth of the development of names into a kind of number. While names do not necessarily signify a relationship with anything else, a number automatically does. One cannot say "six" without placing it on the spectrum between five and seven, one and 10, zero and infinity. "Six" not only conveys information about the uniqueness of the number, but also implies its relationship to the family of numbers. So too, "To the Tribe of Reuben, Elitzur, son of Sh’deur," (Num. 1:5): we know not only the man’s name, Elitzur, but his father’s name and his tribal affiliation. Elitzur cannot be a monad. He has citizenship and a passport number that links him with the rest of his family and community. This is the innovation of Numbers.
The rabbis employed a metaphor similar to Rashi’s-that of God counting-in one of their deepest teachings: "Therefore was Adam created individually… to show the greatness of the Holy One Blessed is He. For a man mints many coins all in the same mold, and they are all identical. But the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed is He, minted each human being in the image of Adam, and none is like the other. Thus every individual is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for me.’" (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) It is God’s great paradox that our creation in God’s image endows us with both uniqueness and equality, and that God is able to count us according to both values, appreciating our individuality and seeing us as parts of a larger whole. Our names reflect this dichotomy, with our first names denoting our individual identity and our last names our family and community history.
In our post-Enlightenment world, we find ourselves struggling to maintain our communal identities and engage the history into which we have been born. We have correctly embraced the value of being something more than a number on a list. Yet the challenge of Bamidbar is to recognize the simultaneous importance of being both a name and a number, a free individual and a responsible citizen. The rabbis taught that the ability to simultaneously recognize both of these identities ultimately lies with God. But that is true of all paradoxes. And, like all of the great paradoxes of existence with which the Torah confronts us, just because it can only be fully held by God, that does not absolve us from the responsibility to try to live it out. Just the opposite: It obligates us to try with all our heart, soul and might to live out the uniqueness of our name and our equality with all other names at the same time.
Prepared by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, campus rabbi, Louis and Saerree Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University