Tora Thoughts: Parashat Bemidbar 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Learning from the Details
This week we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah. At the beginning, God orders Moses to carry out a census of the Children of Israel,
Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions, you and Aaron. (Numbers 1:2-3)
As this would be a big enterprise for Moses and Aaron to perform by themselves alone, God also designates twelve men, one from each tribe, to help Moses and Aaron with the census.
With you there shall be a man from each tribe, one who is head of his father’s house. (Numbers 1:4)
Right after this verse comes the list of the twelve men designated as aides. For each person, the Torah mentions his tribe, his name, and the name of his father. For example, “For Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab” (Numbers 1:7).
Like many other people when reading biblical lists of characters, I tend to read them really fast or even skip them. After all, it seems to be only a list of names, not a lot to learn from. However, while reading the parasha this year from the Chumash with commentary by Rabbi Mordechai Edery, I was surprised by a comment about this list of names. As you will see, even from a list of names in the Torah we can learn good lessons!
Rabbi Edery calls our attention to the fact that most of the names are compound, and they refer directly to God or to God’s attributes. For example, the representative for the tribe of Reuben was called Elitzur (verse 5). This name is the combination of two Hebrew words, Eli, which means “my God,” and Tzur, which means rock. Hence, the name Elitzur means something like “God is my rock.”
The representative for the tribe of Simeon was called Shelumiel. This name is formed by the words Shelumi, “my peace”, and El, “God.” Shelumiel then means “God is my peace,” or “my God brings me peace.”
One last example would be the name of the representative for the tribe of Zebulun, Eliab. This name contains the words Eli, “my God”, and ab, “father.” The meaning of Eliab is then “God is my father.”
The fact that most of the names in the list of the census’ aides contain a reference to God is remarkable. First of all, it is striking to find that this group of leaders of the tribes of Israel had religious names. If you think about the leaders of the Children of Israel at the time—Moses, Aaron and Miriam—their names are not directly related to God (at least without interpretation).
Second, the fact that so many aides were named after God’s attributes shows that monotheism was very ingrained in the people, as Rabbi Edery notices. Why should this be surprising, after all? Because the children of Israel had lived hundreds of years in Egypt, under the major influence of a rich pagan culture. Furthermore, the construction of the Golden Calf in the desert clearly shows that at least part of the people had strong doubts about God. To see that so many young families had chosen God-related names for their children shows that the new generation was getting ready for a new kind of leadership, one much closer to the monotheism Moses was trying to instill in the people.
No doubt the relationship between the names of the leaders in the desert and the national ethos of the young Jewish people is relevant and worth reflecting about. However, my intention here is to draw your attention to the fact that great lessons from the Torah can be learned from small details. Even a seemingly dry list of biblical names can bring us treasures of understanding. They say that “the devil is in the details.” We should add that, at least regarding Torah, knowledge and wisdom are in the details too!