By RABBI REUVEN P. BULKA
For the Record, mazal tov on the launch of The Canadian Jewish Record!
You begin The CJR as we start a new book of the Torah, B’Midbar, often referred to as the Book of Numbers, even though the word B’Midbar means “in the desert.”
The desert is where Israel received the Torah, at Mt. Sinai. This reading, the first portion in the “Book of the Desert,” precedes Shavuot, when we recall the revelation on Mt. Sinai.
In the lead-up to Shavuot, we would expect a reading that is full of inspiring exhortations, a sampling of the ethical and moral obligations that comprise the Torah.
Instead, we get numbers – a census report of the population of each tribe. What are we to make of this?
There is an interesting nuance to the census worth contemplating. According to the Torah, the counting was via mispar shemot – “by the number of the names” (Numbers, 1:2). What exactly does that mean?
The sages Ralbag and Malbim explain that everyone who entered the census gave their name and wrote it down, and afterward the names were counted. The census did not reduce the people to numbers. Everyone came to be counted, and came with a name, with an identity.
Everybody was a somebody. Coming as this does within the immediate proximity of Shavuot lends a powerful impact to this census. This most important message in advance of revelation is that the community is much more than numbers, that everyone is important, that everyone counts.
The ethical principles, the moral directives, derive from this critical idea. Once this essential idea is entrenched in our minds, the rest follows with potent logic. Absent this essential notion and all the regulations fall into a sea of obscurity.
The names were written, and everyone who gave their name also gave a half-shekel. To be counted, one must be a giver, however minimally. Everyone takes from the community in some way. That is what community is designed to provide – something for everyone, materially or spiritually.
But everyone must perforce be a giver, a contributor. That is the best way a community can thrive.
In different ways, these two ideas have come into blunt reality as we wrestle with COVID-19. On one hand, the avalanche of deaths threatens to dull our sensitivities, to see this as merely numbers.
But each death is a true human tragedy. We cannot let this happen.
When we are free of this dreaded virus, we should expect an explosion of bottled-up grief, and a strong desire by many families to memorialize their dearly departed who were not properly mourned. If called upon, we must respond with sensitivity and caring, however emotionally draining it will be.
On the other hand, this tragic time has been a true community time, when our actions have made us all givers. Our staying at home, our physical distancing, normally innocuous actions, became lifesaving actions for the entire community.
It is an odd confluence of actions and emotions. When the pandemic leaves us, our caring action of staying away will hopefully give way to the caring action of embracing those who will need our support as they confront the losses they incurred.
I can think of no better way to prepare for revelation and of affirming the sanctity of God’s word than by thinking of ways we can and will help God’s sacred creations, who need us now and in the coming months.
Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and President/CEO of Kind Canada Genereux.