Names and Numbers: A D’var Torah on Parshat Bamidbar
8 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2019 Last revised: 13 Nov 2019
Date Written: July 12, 2019
The D’var Torah on Parshat Bamidbar explores the power and meaning of names and numbers.
The Hebrew name of the second book of Exodus, the second book of the Torah, is Shemot – Names. The English name of the fourth book of the Torah is Numbers. One of its Hebrew names (alongside the more familiar “Bamidbar”) is Sefer HaPikudim, the Book of Numberings.
On the most obvious level, that transition from names to numbers seems straightforward, marking the transformation of the single small clan of Jacob and his sons into the large nation that escaped Egypt and wandered through the dessert. But nothing is that simple, textually, historically, or symbolically.
Numbers are not just mathematical countings. They can be as loaded with meaning as names. In some contexts, numbers can also be names. The Seventy. The Twelve. The Six Million. As numbers, they might be approximate. As names, they are resoundingly precise. Meanwhile, it turns out that to know somebody’s name is easy, even trivial. The challenge is to know somebody by name, to know a person’s mind and soul and heart.
Names can just be labels. Names at their best are the tokens of our individual uniqueness. Numbers can just be arithmetical exercises. Numbers at their best are one way we come to understand our collective sense of ourselves. We live in a world of names and numbers, sometimes colliding, sometimes dancing together, sometimes transforming back and forth.
The Torah understands all this, better than most of us do.
Keywords: Torah, Book of Numbers, Book of Exodus, Hosea, Ten Commandments, Taryag
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