Torah portion: Seen and unseen

The Book of Numbers begins with a head count of the entire Jewish people, before they depart from their Sinai encampment on their way to the Promised Land. Moses organizes this massive undertaking, with the help of representatives from each of the Tribes, and comes to a count of approximately 600,000 people who make up the Israelite nation.

In Bamidbar Rabbah (2:13), the collection of midrashim (rabbinic teachings) on the Book of Numbers, we find the famous dictum that just as there were 600,000 Jews who stood at Sinai, there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. This beautiful teaching has given rise to countless sermons about the value of the individual — just as a Torah scroll requires each and every letter in order to be complete, so, too, our community requires each and every one of us in order to be whole. We are irreplaceable elements in a great story, as precious and holy as the letters that reveal God’s will for us on Earth.

But there is a small problem: The Torah does not contain 600,000 letters. In fact, it doesn’t hold even close to that number. The Torah contains a little more than half that number — 304,805 letters, to be precise. While the rabbis can be forgiven for not being entirely accurate in their count, their estimate is considerably off. There are nearly twice as many Israelites in the census as there are letters in the scroll. What, then, can this midrash mean?

Judaism’s mystical tradition long has taught that the black letters of the Torah scroll contain only half the story. The other half — with potentially the more revealing truths — is contained in the white spaces that surround each letter. In fact, the Talmud teaches that the white spaces are as crucial as the black letters themselves, ruling that each letter must be mukaf gevil, completely surrounded by blank parchment, to be considered kosher (Menachot 29a). 

Just as in conversation where what is unsaid often is more important than what is said aloud, and in literature where context is surely as important as the text itself, the white spaces that surround the black letters are equally vital to understanding what Torah is trying to teach us. As the jazz great Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” Counting the white spaces as well as the black letters, we arrive at 600,000 — and the lovely midrash is redeemed.

Yet, another and more troubling contradiction lurks below the surface of this text. When the Torah records that 600,000 stood at Sinai, it is again telling only half the story. As feminist scholars Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and others have taught us, a closer look at the text reveals that many of those actually present at Sinai were not counted at all. The Torah records only the names and stories of the adult men; the women and children who stood beside them have been erased from the count and rendered invisible in our collective memory. Our count again is radically off because it reflects only what those who recorded this moment in the history of our people chose to see.

Perhaps, then, there is a deeper truth to our teachings. Just as our understanding of Torah only is complete when we count both the black letters and the white spaces in between, so, too, our understanding of ourselves only is complete when we notice and acknowledge the whole community. That means cultivating our capacity to see who traditionally has been counted and who has been excluded, those who have been allowed to fade, like white spaces between the letters, into the background. 

It is not enough simply to affirm in words that each and every member of our community is precious and valuable, like the letters in our sacred scroll. We must actively strive to make sure that such inclusion is a living reality.

Let us teach our eyes to see the whole of what is in front of us, both the dark and the light, both seen and unseen, that we might build a world in which we recognize that if a single one of us is forgotten, our story is incomplete. 

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University ( and a lecturer at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. 

Bamidbar: Centering in the Wilderness

This article originally appeared on Neesh Noosh.

Bamidbar is both the name of the fourth book of the Torah (referred to in English as Book of Numbers) and this week’s portion. After receiving the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai, Bamidbar/Numbers tells the Israelites journey through the wilderness.   A wild landscape conjures images of unrefined, undeveloped, unknown. Our own journeys might have similar descriptions: intimidating, challenging, mysterious. During the Israelites journey, “we will see much adventure, crisis and turmoil take place in the darkness of the wilderness,” writes Yael Shy.

Despite their years in the wilderness, though, the Israelites have a guide to center and direct them: the Tabernacle that they transport. It is always placed in the middle of the Israelites as they walked and camped. Etz Hayyim commentary notes, “The tabernacle was the first thing one saw on leaving home and the first thing one looked for on returning home” (p.774).

Indeed, such journeys can be confusing, challenging and dark at times, but they offer gifts. “The generation of freed slaves enters the wilderness on a doomed journey to death, but the Israelite people emerge on the other side of the book of Numbers, reborn. They must go to the emptiness and darkness of the midbar for this process to take place,” explains Yael Shy. “Scripture says: ‘From the wilderness to Mattanah (Num 21:18), which can be read as: ‘From wilderness, a gift” (The Language of Truth, translated by Art Green, p. 219) Like the Tabernacle for the Israelites, we find our way on on our paths when we connect with our guide. Yael Shy concludes, “The truth and light of God, or ‘what is’ is always there, waiting for us on the other side of the confusion.”

The recipe I created for Bamidbar is based on the theme of the Tabernacle being at the center of the Israelites camp in the wilderness. The dish is vegan pesto bourekas, on a bed of spinach, mushrooms and asparagus. The greens represent the wilderness, surrounding the Tabernacle (bourekas). Though I purchased the spinach/mushrooms/asparagus at the farmers market, these also grow in the wild (though know what you’re picking before eating!).

I had the great fortune of doing an urban edible foraging trip in Seattle last year where I tasted delicious plants growing in parks and forests.  (Again, don’t do this on your own!). Many greens that we tasted were considered weeds  (such as dandelion greens) until people discovered their rich flavors and now they are  often found for sale at markets. If you’re interested in learning about foraging, I recommend the wonderful book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

Bamidar: bourekas and greens



  • 2 sheets phyllo dough, thawed
  • 3/4 cup roasted cashews
  • 1 tbsp pine nuts
  • 1 clove garlic
  • large bunch of basil leaves


  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 stalks asparagus, ends trimmed, chopped
  • 3/4 lb spinach leaves
  • 1 cup assorted mushrooms, chopped
  • red pepper flakes, pinch
  • olive oil
  • salt to taste



1. Pre-heat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a blender or mortar and pestle, add cashews, pine nuts, basil, garlic. Add about 1/2-1 tbsp olive oil and a few drops of water. Blend/mash until thoroughly chopped but not smooth. There can be lumps and pieces of nuts. The mixture should be thick and paste-like, not liquid.

3. Take a sheet of phyllo dough and lightly brush with olive oil. Place a second piece of dough on top and repeat. Cut the dough lengthwise into 2 or 3 pieces. Place a heaping tablespoon of pesto mixture at one end. Fold over and tuck corners in (this will help to keep the ingredients inside). Then, continue to fold over, until you reach the end. It should be a fairly large rectangular shape. Trim off excess dough. Place on baking sheets and brush top with olive oil. Repeat again until you’ve used all of the dough/pesto (should make 2-3 large pieces).

4. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool for about 5 minutes.

5. While bourekas are in the oven, wash and chop greens ingredients.

6. Over low heat, drizzle 1/2 tbsp olive oil into a pan. Add onion and cook for about 3-5 minutes until translucent. Add mushrooms and asparagus and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Add spinach and saute until fully wilted. Add a small pinch of red pepper flakes and salt, to taste. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil.

6. On a platter, place bourekas in center and put greens mixture around it.