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HOLY MATRIMONY

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

A major theme running throughout the Book of Numbers is, well, numbers. The first few chapters in particular are a statistician's delight: lists of the number of army-age men in each of the twelve tribes, both individually and in the aggregate (as part of a three-tribe grouping that camped and traveled together), and lists of the number of Levites, broken down into various categories.

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A major theme running throughout the Book of Numbers is, well, numbers. The first few chapters in particular are a statistician's delight: lists of the number of army-age men in each of the twelve tribes, both individually and in the aggregate (as part of a three-tribe grouping that camped and traveled together), and lists of the number of Levites, broken down into various categories.

So just what is so important about these mind-numbingly long lists that makes them worthy of being recorded in the Torah? Rashi, the 11th century basic commentary on the Torah, gives the answer: "G­d continually counts the Jewish people out of His affection for them. On the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was erected; on the first of Iyar (the following month) Hashem counted them."

This seems to make sense from a human being's point of view. A person who collects stamps, for example, will indeed count and recount them to make sure of the number he has, and to take pleasure in having that many. But Hashem is all-knowing - why go through the entire rigmarole of a census of over 600,000 people if G-d already knows the results? Also, why did He deputize Moses and Aaron to take the count, rather than doing it Himself? After all, our stamp collector does just that in order to savor the sight of each stamp. At most, we might have expected Hashem to command only Moses to do it, as He did at the census in preparation for the Mishkan's construction. Why was Aaron added here?

In addition, Rashi's statement that G­d counts the Jewish people "continually" requires some explanation. True, that is the impression one might get from reading through the Torah, where we already find a count of Jacob's family in the Book of Genesis, a few in Exodus, and a few more in Numbers. But when we consider the larger picture of well over 3,000 years of Jewish history, there have in fact been only nine such censuses - the tenth to be administered by the Mashiach (Messiah) - hardly "continual" by any standard!

The answer is that, in counting people, you are making a basic statement: Each one counts as exactly one, no more and no less. Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, and I each count as equals for purposes of a census. In Jewish terms, then, a census, in effect, relates to the one area where all Jews are equal: the pintele Yid, the spark of G­dliness at the core of each and every Jew. One's level of scholarship, commitment, generosity to Jewish causes, or whatever other criterion by which we usually "measure" and "classify" Jews, are all externals - the "essential Jew" lies beyond and above all of these. (It is important to note, of course, that "external" does not equal "unimportant" - our clothes are surely externals, and yet try going into a business meeting in torn jeans and T-shirt! The core of the soul needs the "externals" of Judaism in order to express itself properly.) In that sense, then, a census of the Jewish people is the highest expression of G-d's love for us. It is G­d allowing us to notice that (perhaps deeply buried) "Jewish spark" that ties us to Him and that makes each one of us part of His chosen people.

Although it might often be deeply buried, that spark is not extinguished - and at a time of crisis, it can suddenly flare up even in the most assimilated Jew. "A Jew," says Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, "neither wants to, nor can, be torn away from G­dliness." Most of the time, a person can violate the Divine will with a clear conscience, rationalizing that such a "little" sin will not affect his relationship with Hashem (though it of course does). But when the "chips are down" and the choice between an outright break with Judaism (by conversion or its equivalent) and the stake (or its equivalent) is starkly presented - then, even a Marrano assimilated for several generations, or a hated collaborator with the Nazis, finds the resolve to choose the stake. When the clear question of being "torn away from G­dliness" presents itself, a Jew simply cannot and will not exercise that possibility.

So Rashi tells us that Hashem counts us "at all times," because the great accomplishment of the count, the uncovering of the Jew's spiritual essence, is present at all times. At any moment a previously untapped and unsuspected well of Jewish identity may suddenly burst forth.

And when that moment hits, we must not allow its effect to dissipate and let ourselves return to being the same people we were before. Once G­d "turns the key in the engine," it is up to the person to push the accelerator and get moving. That sort of reciprocal relationship was exemplified by Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (high priest), whose job it was to take the offerings and the personality of a Jew and elevate them to Hashem. In the terms used by our sages, Moses was the "best man," and Aaron the "bridesmaid," at the cosmic wedding of Hashem and His people at the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.

As such, the first formal counting of the Jewish people after the construction of the Mishkan - which itself symbolized the idea of G-dliness finding a permanent home in the hearts of the nation and its individual members - had to involve both parties: Moses bringing G­d to the people, and Aaron bringing the people to G­d. And appropriately enough, then, this week's Torah portion which contains the census leads us directly into the festival of Shavuot, when that two-way relationship was born at Mt. Sinai.

That two-way relationship is still going strong. G­d is always ready to fulfill His part of it; it's up to us to fulfill ours.

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Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.

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