25 May Rabbi Hillel Skolnik’s Torah Spark for B’midbar 5777
This Shabbat we read from Parashat B’midbar, the first Torah portion in the book of Numbers, which is known, in Hebrew, as the book of B’midbar – hence the name of the portion. As a book, B’midbar has always fascinated me in that the overwhelming majority of the time that the Israelites spend in the desert happens in the book of B’midbar. The opening verse of the book tells us of what God says to Moses on the first day of the second month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt. As we know, the Israelites spent forty years in the desert every one of which will have been completed once we complete the reading of the book of B’midbar. Why then is it that B’midbar has a reputation for being a book that either isn’t as interesting or isn’t as important?
There are, of course, many answers to this question but for this moment in time, my answer is our name for the book of B’midbar. As I mentioned above, we call this fourth book of the Torah “the book of Numbers,” named because of the recurring theme of counting the Israelites – sometimes as a whole and sometimes in smaller groups. And while thematically it is understandable why this would be the name for B’midbar, calling it “Numbers” does two things: 1- it makes us feel like the only thing that happens in B’midbar is counting the Israelites which is both factually inaccurate and sounds boring and 2 – completely mistranslates the word “B’midbar” which actually means “in the desert of”, as in the desert of Sinai, a title which also would work thematically. But you can’t introduce a book by saying “We read from the book of ‘In the desert of’ this morning, beginning on page 923” so we stick with calling it “Numbers” and that is fine. But as we do, let us remember that sometimes the names that we give to things, and certainly to people, can inadvertently create a false impression about those to whom the name has been assigned and additionally, let’s try to remember that B’midbar is a fascinating book and it too deserves our attention and respect
Rabbi Hillel Skolnik