This week we begin the book of Bamidbar. Literally translated, the title of this book is ‘In the Wilderness,’ but the English name somehow ended up as Numbers. Actually, though, that’s not too surprising. The very first chapter of the book of Numbers is quite simply that — a list of numbers. It’s basically a census-taking of sorts. “…on the first day of the second month they [called together] the whole community, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses—the names of those aged twenty years and over being listed head by head,” says Numbers 1:18, going on to tell us how many there were in each tribe. No rounding up, either — the text takes care to count each person.
It also takes care to name all of the heads of households. “From Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab,” says Numbers 1:7, and then, “From Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar.” in Numbers 1:8. And so on and so forth.
I read this list of names and the numbers of tribesmen (because they are, after all, only counting the men) while trying to avoid the news out of Israel. I say trying, because I have been largely unsuccessful at not reading the news. What’s the point of avoiding, really, anyway? It’s all I’m thinking about, whether I’m scrolling or not.
As I read the biblical text alongside the text of news outlets and memes, they seem to echo one another in an eerie way. Is it a coincidence that we begin the book about wandering deep in the wilderness when we are, in fact, about as deep into this wilderness of hatred as we’ve been in a while? Is it a coincidence that the text focuses on who our leaders are, and how many of us should be counted, as the news media numbers the injured and focuses on the responsibilities of our leadership?
Maybe. If it is a fluke, though, it’s a nice little reminder that these things count. It matters who is in charge. It matters how many people are counted. The people of each tribe mattered enough to be remembered by us, all these years later.
I can’t help but wonder if we’ll remember the names that are recounted now a year from now, or if they will fade into the collective consciousness of a region that is already so traumatized.
All of this was swimming in my mind this morning as I held my toddler tight to me. I think he senses that his Ima and I are off-kilter this week, more stressed than usual. His naps have been uneasy, and he’s woken up a few times during the night. That almost never happens anymore. The energy in our home is heavy, and I’m sure he can tell — even if he doesn’t know quite why.
I’m holding him more closely for so many reasons.
Looking at this little person is, for me, like looking at a miracle. No matter how many times I think about it, it just doesn’t make sense that this opinionated, strong, funny, full-fledged human grew from nothingness in my womb. When times get rough, the smell of his hair is enough to remind me that there’s goodness in the world.
I also hold him because my heart aches for the parents who can’t protect their babies today. For the parents who are in bomb shelters, for the parents who don’t have shelters and are watching their homes become rubble, for the parents whose grown boys are in peril.
I hold him because my family (and my friends-who-are-family) are in Israel and I’m afraid of the physical and emotional fallout this will have for them. Because I’m afraid for the people who, by a different twist of fate, could have been my family and friends. Holding my baby is all I can do to keep the pieces in me from falling apart, even as the world around us seems to crumble.
I want to protect my kiddo from everything. I don’t want him to know that there are people whose civil and human rights are taken away, or that there are children running from bombs. I don’t want him to know about cruelty and pain and violence. I just want to celebrate that he can say tractor now, and that he has the best fashion sense in the house. The thing is, though, that the world has both things in it — the celebrations and the pain. How do we hold space for both in one overflowing heart?
I don’t know the answers to any of this. All I know is that what I believe the Torah is teaching us this week, as we wander farther into the wilderness, is that who shows up counts. That leadership counts. That we, the people who are traveling together, count. In the end, it’s about the people. I’ll try to remember that as we move forward into this terrifying moment together.