My last entry in this blog was posted exactly five years ago today, on May 25, 2012. It’s been a long time. I’m looking forward to reviving this blog, which meant so much to me when I was trying to discern if I could ever become a rabbi.
How can a multitude wandering in a vast desert possibly hope to keep track of everyone, much less form any semblance of an organized society?
Easy, says the Torah. Make a list. But not just any list. The list our ancestors were instructed to make in the wilderness of the Sinai desert was meticulous. “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head…from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.” (BaMidbar 1:2)
The result was a list totaling 603,550 people, not including the 22,300 Levites who were counted separately. This was a wildly inaccurate accounting of all the souls in the desert, since it excludes everyone under 20 and everyone who isn’t male. Clearly, the intent was not to count everyone, but rather to discern how many able-bodied men were available in the event of a war.
What is fascinating about this text at the beginning of the fourth book of the Torah, is that these men weren’t simply counted, they were named. Rather than columns of numbers, the Torah insists that the census include hundreds of thousands of names. Reams upon reams of names.
Names matter. We bristle when someone gets our name wrong. We turn around instinctively when we hear our name. We change our names only after careful consideration. In my congregation, we make a point of saying the names of those for whom we are seeking healing, or for whom we are saying kaddish. At our Yizkor services, we pass the microphone from person to person, so each can say the names of their loved ones.
The Torah agrees that names matter, even when it involves an infinite number of them:
The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem;
He gathers in the exiles of Israel.
He heals their broken hearts, and binds up their wounds.
He counts the number of the stars,
To each He gave its name. Psalm 147
While the census was for the purpose of counting potential soldiers, the complete omission of women rankles. If God can count and name innumerable stars, couldn’t God at least have included some women’s names? Or acknowledged the wives and mothers and sisters and daughters who also struggled through the desert?
Perhaps the women’s names are there, and we just can’t see them. There is a tradition that says the 600,000 names correspond to the number of letters in the Torah. But there’s a problem with that: there are only half that many letters, some 300,000. Rabbi Yitzak Levi of Berdichev gave a beautiful answer: that we only see the black letters against the white parchment. But there are white letters that are the inverse space between the black, the letters we don’t see. The ones we must discern with a different kind of sight.
My teacher Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan has a beautiful interpretation of this:
“It is our responsibility as students of Torah to live in the white spaces, to connect with the source of primordial Torah, to be critical readers and active interpreters of the black letters… Sometimes, what is said in the language of the black letters brings us to stunned silence, represented by the open white spaces. If we dwell in the silence, through meditation, the insight we receive there will bring us once again to language. At other times we may find ourselves miscast by the male-centered language of our tradition. At those times we need to dwell in the white spaces. The Hebrew word for “white,” levanah, is also the Hebrew word for “moon,” a symbol of femaleness that emerges month after month. The teaching is clear: when our perspective becomes biased, we must return to the white spaces of primordial Torah.”
May we be blessed to have the ability to dwell among the white spaces, to see that which cannot be seen with our eyes.