Back in college, when I decided to read the Torah cover to cover for the first time, I found the Book of Numbers so intensely boring that I just had to skip it. More specifically, it was this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bamidbar (the first reading of Numbers), which put me off. It would be a full ten years until I tried again.
This isn’t really Numbers’ fault. The book has a branding problem. “Numbers” is a dud of a title. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are multisyllabic Greek words that convey a stately sense of import. Numbers, on the other hand, is just that: numbers. It also didn’t help that Parashat Bamidbar largely consists of a very numbery census of the Israelites.
As the parashah opens, we see the camp of the Israelites as if from bird’s eye view. In the center is the holy Tabernacle. Camped around it to the east, west, north and south are the tribes of Israel, each one flying a different flag.
When God instructs Moses to make his census of the Israelites, a verb is used with the root “Peh – Kuf – Daled,” or P-K-D for short, which is often translated as “to take note.” Here, Moses is being asked to “take note” of the Israelites in a rather formal way by conducting a census.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this verb. When God finally grants Sarah’s prayer for a child, it is written that “God took note of Sarah (pakad)…and did for Sarah as He had spoken” (Genesis 21:1). When Joseph tells his brothers that God will someday return them from Egypt to their homeland, he states, “God will surely take notice of you (pakod yifkod) and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised” (Genesis 50:24). When God told Moses of His plan to redeem the Israelites from slavery, he said, “I have taken note of you (pakod pakadati) and of what is being done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3:16).
In all of these instances, it is God who takes note of His people. In Parashat Bamidbar, however, the verb has changed hands. Now Moses is being asked to take note.
This is what the Book of Numbers is really about. The Israelites are no longer in their infancy. The slaves who fled Egypt in a panicked hurry have become a people, unified in purpose and sanctified by covenant. God trusts them enough to take a small step back.
The Israelites are no longer in their infancy.
The seemingly clerical details that fill our parashah — the enumeration of the tribes, the arrangement of the camp, the assignment of various tasks — are the vehicles through which Moses learns to be the one in charge of “taking note” of the people.
And so, yes, there are numbers and plenty of them. But we shouldn’t let that distract us from what we are really seeing, which is the Israelites’ first steps towards spiritual maturity. As we shall see, this process is anything but smooth. Like any coming of age story, it is full of perils and pitfalls, folly and frailty, sudden breakthroughs and terrible regressions.
For those who are willing to take note, there is nothing boring about it.
Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.