August 20, 2019

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.