Holy calculus Batman! We’re already on the third book of the Torah: known in English as Numbers and in Hebrew as BeMidbar (“in the desert”). How we got from blowing sand to arithmetic is easy — the Greeks. They named this particular book because of its opening subject matter: a census (for many verses)(many, many verses) of every man 20 years old and up, counted by clan and house of his father for the purpose of battle.
Here are the numbers: Reuven, 46,500; Shimon, 59,300; Gad, 45,650; Yehuda, 74,600; Yissakhar, 54,400; Zevulun, 57,400; Ephraim, 40,500; Menashe, 32,200, Benjamin, 35,400; Dan, 62,700; Asher, 41.500; and Naftali, 53,400.
This is a grand total of 603,550 Israelite men, excluding the Levites (who didn’t fight); also excluding the women, children, and other hangers on. This seems a bit of an exaggeration. We’re talking somewhere between 25 and 40% of the present day population of the modern state of Israel wandering around the desert: A total of perhaps 2 million people. So let’s set aside the accuracy of these figures – which surely were meant to impress – and instead focus on where we are in the story.
Which is…. in the wilderness, and with a newly minted set of tablets, a portable and sanctuary & slaughter site, many rules, daily delivery of manna, and a promise that we will be delivered into a land flowing with milk & honey where we will be free to worship a mysterious and unseeable God. But before said successful delivery – and I don’t think that I’m giving away anything here – there will be complaints, rebellions, plagues, disappointments, more plagues, more rebellions, and an additional 40 years schlepping around. This truly is the book of wandering, the book of not knowing what the next day will bring, a never-ending limbo spiced up only by each new drama and incident. We will end the book with an exasperated God, a leader ready to tear his hair out, and a completely new set of Israelites than the one we start out with.
It’s a long book of waiting, BeMidbar.
And it’s a book of traveling forward, which is where this week’s poem, Jewish Travel, takes its inspiration. Join me in the Tzin Desert of southern Israel in 2007, as a small group of us wander around for an hour or two without guidebook or known destination. This is my favorite book of the Torah, the one where we trip over our feet constantly and try to figure out just what it means to be free.