Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar

This Sabbath we begin the Book of Numbers, in Hebrew Bamidbar (In the Desert). At the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar God asks Moses to conduct a census of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses counts 603,505 men able to bear arms (20 to 60 years); the tribe of Levi, however, numbering 22,300 males aged one month and older, is counted separately. Almost everything our parasha speaks of is discussed in the context of numbers. Names, placement of the people in the camp, in the hierarchy, as well as some obligations and responsibilities. Everything is in the context of numbers.

The first verse of week Haftarah reminds us about the promise given to Abraham:

The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,” they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God. (Hosea 2:1)

Hosea gives the same promise to the Israelites whose God wants to remarry, rebuking them at the same time (for this one of the fundamental elements of prophetic activity) and setting conditions upon which the promise will be given again. These conditions can be summarized on one: break with the past. Doing so, Hosea also introduces one important theological concept: the Covenant seen as a marriage between God and Israel – Husband and Wife. This imagery was adopted by later prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But the origins of this concept are not particularly beautiful. In the first chapter of the book God commands Hosea to marry a whore, Gomer, and to have children with her. Hosea’s acceptance of his shameful role as the husband of a whoring wife is analogical to God’s shameful status of being connected to Israel. But on the other hand it illustrates that God would not abandon Israel even if they left Him to serve false gods. It demonstrates how far God can go to restore the proper, covenantal relationship with His people.

The Torah accustomed us to a strict connection between fertility and divine blessing. That’s one of “the laws of nature” I would say and this particular “law of nature” incorporates the divine laws as well. What’s the reason for such a claim? I’m saying this because mere fertility is not enough for a people’s survival, especially if we talk about specific, ethnic or religious groups. We are not animals, our survival has always had a political aspect. We have to maintain stable societal institutions, we have to obey laws and principles to provide people with an environment in which they can grow and develop. We have to live according to a certain ideology or ethos that recognizes true values, like justice, love and peace, as well as the value of human life itself and not only the value of individual life but also the life of the community. There have been numerous tribes, ethnic and religious groups or even entire civilizations which disappeared from the face of the earth throughout history. We are one of those very few ancient peoples that did not. It is mainly because our religion has always recognized the true values, the value of life itself and has never stopped putting those values actively into practice.

I believe that both, the life of an individual and the life a community as a whole is, by default, of equal value. The community which respects this balance is the community God wants to marry or to remarry, as it is in our Haftarah; these are the people among whom His spirit would inhabit. He divorced and will divorce a community of selfish people who only take care of their individual needs and interests. He will do so not only for ethical reasons: communities like that are not sustainable over time. If they are not sustainable, they cannot fulfill their part of the covenant with God, which is, by definition, eternal. That’s one of the fundamental ideas and beliefs in our religion: we were appointed to be witnesses of the one and only God and we are to remain witnesses forever, until the end of times (whatever that means, but very very long). I also believe that God would never have married a community that constantly sacrifices the capacities and interests of its individuals on the altar of so called ‘common good’ – a community that embraced various, radical forms of collectivism and doesn’t care about individual rights.

What does it mean for an individual? It means that your life is precious, but it is finite. The life you may create is not less precious than yours – it is equally precious, by definition. The goal is to maintain a certain balance between valuing your individual self-fulfillment and valuing procreation. This balance is of course different at different stages of human life. We must obtain certain wisdom to find this balance. At the societal level we must obtain certain wisdom to find the balance between rights and dreams of an individual and the well-being of the community. This line can be and should be drawn somewhere because both radical individualism (that is seeing and valuing everything exclusively from the perspective of an individual) and radical collectivism (seeing and valuing everything exclusively from the perspective of the group) is harmful to human beings. Radical, thoughtless individualism hurts primarily the individuals, the society – to a lesser degree, depending how widespread it is. Radical collectivism, especially in the long run, hurts most of the individuals, thus it also hurts society itself.
Collectivism has been expressed strongly through political philosophies such as socialism, fascism, and communism. Its radical renditions existed in practice in various totalitarian systems established throughout history. They are visible and real even today. They are put in practice in countries like North Korea, islamist theocracies like Afghanistan, and perhaps to a lesser degree – China, Belarus, and even in the West collectivists ideas exist in the ideologies of far-right and far-left movements.

Collectivism is also present in those forms of identity politics that put the group identity ahead of the identity of the individual. These kinds of concepts are dangerous because they may easily result in ascribing something that is called collective responsibility to certain groups in the society. I’m not denying that a phenomenon like collective responsibility may exist but we should deal with this idea very carefully. It generates a number of controversies on many levels: metaphysical, moral, psychological and sociological. The situation becomes even worse when in the name of the collective responsibility we drop the idea of individual responsibility. This makes any form of justice impossible because justice is inextricably linked to individual responsibility. As Jews, we know too well how ascribing collective responsibility works in practice and how tragic the consequences might be. We should be the first to reject these patterns of thinking, or at least approach them with deep criticism.

The threats that stem from all these radical concepts are never gone and will never be gone. It’s a direct consequence of human freedom: freedom of thought, speech, action and the freedom of existential self-defining. Knowing all of that we should however, distance ourselves not only practically but also ideologically from all forms of these concepts: radical collectivism, various forms of self-centeredness, narcissism, as well as from its supposedly reasonable justifications. We should distance ourselves also from group forms of self-centeredness and narcissism, which are very common in our societies today and only fuel partisanship and deepen divisions. All beliefs like: “only people from my group are really smart, intelligent and educated, all other people (especially those from a group I hate) are either crazy, dumb or uneducated” fall into this category.

God loves us equally as individuals and as a community. He is in charge of solving conflicts of human interests. His actions might be delayed, but they are always just. Whenever you feel that as a result of those conflicts you were treated unjustly, by people or even by God himself, one should have patience and trust that justice will come. It does not mean that you should just wait passively and not actively repair the situation. On the contrary, you should take action if you feel it’s warranted. But being patient and having trust in the Supreme Judge first makes subsequent actions more thoughtful, more reasonable and more balanced, which is always necessary in pursuing justice.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

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