Shabbat Bemidbar 5776

Have you ever felt that you were being treated as a number and not as a person? We Jews have a variety of responses to this potential problem. When you come to minyan, we won’t count you to see if we have the required 10 Jewish adults. Instead, we’ll use a Biblcal verse that has 10 words. We don’t want the seventh person to enter the chapel to feel that (s)he is superior to number four, which of course would lead number four to feel inferior, lower-grade.
So that has to make us wonder why the Torah portion, the opening chapters of Sefer Bemidbar, begins with a census. On the surface, it makes sense. Israel is preparing for a brief journey to the Promised Land, and since the current inhabitants are unlikely to roll out the red carpet, Israel should know its military capacity. But the process of counting has the potential to be dehumanizing. Soldiers receive serial numbers that become as important, if not more so, than their names. Coming on the heels of generations of enslavement, when Israelites were by definition dehumanized, it seems strange that God and Moshe would arrange for another exercise that could rob Israelites of their personal identities.
On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at the instructions for the census to see if there’s anything humanizing about the process. And we’ll spend some time with the great 20th-century Jewish theologian Martin Buber, for whom the greatest challenge and potential gift of religion was the relationship that celebrates the humanity of each person. His most famous work was called I and Thou. We’ll see a bit of it on Shabbat morning as we talk about whether we are people or merely numbers.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah,
Rabbi David Wise