There is a seeming ironic disconnect between the weekly parsha, indeed an entire book, entitled “In the desert” – “Bamidbar” – and a text that is transfixed on numbers. Its English name, Book of Numbers, focuses on the verses of the opening series of chapters; and then becomes irrelevant to the balance of the book which records for history the high points and low points of the almost forty year trek through the Sinai desert to the banks of the Jordan River. The Hebrew name and the English name seem irrelevant to one another.
The Book of Genesis, Bereshit, stays true to its name throughout its fifty chapters; it starts as the story of two people in Eden and ends with a branch of their family tree ready to test its own destiny twenty-five generations or so later. The continuity of the book is evident through the connections of the generations. However, is the book we begin this week a book of numbers or is it a desert saga? The answer, of course, is that it is both; and in the finesse of the contrast is found a lesson for Jews of all eras and in all places.
A general concept universally recognized is an energy called the strength of numbers. The democracy we so dearly cherish, as American citizens and as Jews who identify with the State of Israel, is a politics of numbers. Even Torah text (Exodus 23:2), our sacred scripture declares “acharei rabim l’hatot” – “after the majority shall you follow.”
The strength of Israel the people has never been in its numbers, but its numbers have been its strength. When Jews unite around a common cause there emerges an energy of respectable inertia. This message was the intent of Moses’ words of encouragement in the first of his farewell soliloquies in Deuteronomy (6:7), “loh mayrubchem mikol h’amim” – “[your strength] is not in your size compared to other nations; for compared to other nations you will always be small. Your strength is, and always will be in, how you use your numbers.”
A desert is usually perceived to be a desolate place that is ineffective at supporting life. The Sinai, like Africa’s Sahara Desert and America’s Mojave Desert, conjure up images of dry heat, endless sand, precious little rain and sparse population. Earth’s polar regions are also deserts, frozen deserts, which are comparatively challenging and harsh. Human populations thrive in neither. Yet, those same deserts are endowed with valuable potential and natural resources waiting to be tapped.
We are living again in a desert of numbers. Like the protagonist in Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day”, Israel – the people and the state – seems destined to a repetition of days and recurring themes that reverberate with nuisance frequency. Wasn’t it just recently that Hamas was firing rockets into southern Israel? Have the attacks stopped, really? Wasn’t it just two weeks ago that thousands of Palestinians marched on Israel’s borders demanding the dismantling of the Jewish state, some of them bussed tens of hundreds of miles by sympathetic governments; and today we are supposed to believe that these same people are ready to recognize defendable borders for a Jewish state?
The so-called “Arab Spring” playing itself out on television screens around the world is supposedly about millions of repressed Arabs demanding honest representation in their respective governments; and we are supposed to believe that Israel’s demand for a demilitarized Palestinian state is the obstacle to peace in the region?
Hamas, now incorporated into a unity government with Fatah, constitutionally calls for the destruction of Israel; and Israel is supposed to concede territory, settlements and sections of Jerusalem in the name of peace and as the price for appearing to remain Washington’s most important ally in the region? Unlike the Passover seder that is guided by four questions, the desert of numbers is riddled by many more than four.
Our challenge today, as it has always been, is to benefit from the strength of our numbers; while at the same time we explore the desert for its hidden treasures. The future is not bleak, it is promising. We can control our own destiny, but only when we choose to unite behind a common cause. The world stage lives by a script that is rewritten daily; and like the winds that blow the sands of the deserts and scatter the snow at the poles, the landscape of international politics changes continually.
We have a voice of credibility and a legacy of respectability. Israel can be heard, Israel will be heard. Our key, our strength, our gift to each other, is to do what we do best. When we stand together, when we stand close to each other, we find our way through deserts and joyfully we can arrive at promised places.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler is spiritual leader of Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford.