Holocaust survivor Henry Greenbaum of Bethesda, Maryland, shows his concentration camp tattoo to visitors at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Photo/Flickr/Department of Defense/Marvin Lynchard)
Holocaust survivor Henry Greenbaum of Bethesda, Maryland, shows his concentration camp tattoo to visitors at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Photo/Flickr/Department of Defense/Marvin Lynchard)

You are significant as both an individual Jew and as part of the Jewish people

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 1:1-4:20

The Book of Bamidbar is commonly known as the Book of Numbers. It follows the Book of Leviticus, which deals extensively with the responsibility of the Levites and the Kohanim, or priests. This new book widens the lens to all of the tribes of Israel. The title “Numbers” fits thematically since the book begins with a census of the Jewish people.

“Raise up the heads of the entire congregation of the Children of Israel according to their families, by their fathers’ households, with the number of names of the heads of all males.” (Numbers 1:2) The directive is given to Moses himself to count the people. The phrasing appears somewhat cumbersome, however. Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus, a great Torah thinker of this generation, asks an obvious question on the verse. What is meant by “number of names”?

The expression seems to be an oxymoron. A name describes the unique identity of an individual. A number implies exactly the opposite. One of the ways that Nazis dehumanized the Jews in Europe was by tattooing numbers on their arms. The victims of the Holocaust were nameless. They became only a number.

Pincus explains that there are two ways in which to view individuals. The first is as an integral part of a larger whole. A brick does not have much value on its own — until it’s placed in a wall. Should that one brick go missing, a wall cannot provide protection from the elements. A number can connect disparate parts into a unifying whole with a purpose.

The other perspective is through the use of a name, an individual has intrinsic value as whoever they happen to be. They may be part of a greater unit, like a family, but the size of family should not diminish or increase the value of each person. A name describes the essence of an individual. When the Torah references both name and number, it emphasizes the idea that the Jewish people are endeared to God as both individuals and as the collective Jewish people, otherwise known as Klal Yisrael.

The way that Judaism regards individuals is evident from the ritual and practice that is dictated by the Torah and rabbinic law. As an example, individuals are required to pray to God on a daily basis. There is also the obligation to be part of a minyan (quorum) in order to say certain particular prayers. The idea of communal prayer certainly requires numbers, and the individual’s identity is less important. When it comes to personal prayer, however, each individual is expected to express himself or herself sincerely in a very private manner.

Marriage is another example of where we see Jewish practice place an emphasis on the dual nature of the individual and the collective. A traditional marriage is supposed to take place in the company of a minyan. The couple that is to be wed is part of a larger community and the celebration is communal. Of course, the day is made particularly special for the bride and groom. It is an obligation to bring joy to a couple on their wedding day. There is even a dominant opinion (represented by the great sage Hillel) that it is permitted to lie to a bride and tell her that she is beautiful (even if it is not really completely the truth) so that she will feel elated. (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17A)

Jews need to always keep in mind that they are valued in both fashions. A person must develop unique strengths and talents and strive to carry a good name into the world. At the same time, a person must find a community in which he or she becomes an imperative component that needs to be counted.

The world is acknowledging the damage that isolation has wrought on people as a result of the pandemic, which is not that long behind us. Modern technology has also forced isolation on people who would have interacted more with others in previous decades. We should all be looking for ways to strengthen our communities right now, more than ever.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.