BaMidbar. In the desert. We think of the desert as wild and untamed, where there is nothing of consequence, simply an empty wasteland.
But this week’s Torah portion, called BaMidbar, tells another story. After the opening sentence, which begins with God speaking to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, one might expect the Torah to continue with stories of the desert. Instead, it tells a story of orderliness, of families setting up camp together, of large numbers of people pitching their tents, each with its entrance facing the same direction. It tells of a census, a long list of names and numbers of people in each family group, as though the emptiness of the desert can be tamed.
In other words, after announcing that they were indeed in the wilderness, the Torah goes straight into details about how the community should organize itself.
They needed to offset the wild nature of their environment, and to do so, they were commanded to work together to maintain order and create unity.
This emphasis on communal effort is a pervasive theme in Judaism. This is why, even today, we are told to gather a minyan, a minimum of ten eligible Jewish adults, to say certain important prayers. Each person counts, each person has standing in the community, each person matters.
I was with a rabbi today who told of a congregant who was upset because she thought that during services he had skipped their loved one’s name in the list of yartzeits, the people being memorialized by the congregation. Our names matter to us, as do those of our family members and our ancestors.
The Bible wants us to know that everyone counts, and everyone deserves to be counted. When one person is missing, a group cannot recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, the memorial prayer. And when one person is missing, the community is incomplete. Wandering in the desert, it was important for our ancestors to keep track of one another. It is still important today.