We Are More Than A Number

Posted on May 19, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

This week’s parashah, B’midbar, has extraordinary resonance for this moment in our lives.

B’midbar, which means “in the wilderness,” describes the beginning of our people’s difficult journey of 40 years through the desert to the Promised Land.

Along the way, they encounter many challenges. They experience fear, anxiety, frustration, uncertainty, and deprivation. Yet they endure. As a community, they make it through. Not easily, not without loss, and not in a linear fashion. There are many twists and turns and highs and lows along the way.

As the parashah opens, our people have already had a taste of what lies ahead. They have experienced hunger, thirst, and deadly scorpions. They have also experienced deliverance at the sea and stood at Sinai to receive the Torah.

Now, as they are about to move on to fulfill their destiny — to return to the land of their fathers and mothers — they pause to take stock and assess their strengths. They take a census — the counting that gives this fourth book of the Torah its English name: the Book of Numbers.

There are many things one could say about this counting, both good and bad. But at this moment, the insight of the great Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev stands out.

He notes that the final tally of the Israelites — 603,550 — is the same as the number of letters in the Torah.

What happens if even one letter of a Torah is missing or broken? The Torah is not kosher and should not be used.

An entire sefer torah is broken if even one letter is missing.

The same is true of us, says Levi Yitzchak. If a single soul among our people is lost or broken, we are not whole.

As we consider the number of souls we have lost — to mass shootings, to the pandemic, to the invasion of Ukraine, to suicide, and drug overdoses — it is incumbent upon us to consider that the tally of the fallen is not just a number. Each person was an individual, a story, someone’s precious son or daughter, husband, wife, partner, friend. A face, a smile, a soul.

Each death diminishes the world. Like the missing letter of a Torah scroll that leaves it broken, the loss of even one life, one precious soul, leaves our world broken and in need of repair.

This is the sacred work to which we are called: to honor and lift up every person who is struggling and in need of help. It is the work of mending hearts and spirits that begins with the recognition that every human being is unique and of infinite value.

And so, as we prepare to embrace the peace and joy of Shabbat, let us recommit to this mission of tikkun – of repair, of kindness, of charity, of love — that we may bring some measure of healing and restore wholeness to our world.

Shabbat shalom,