The Hebrew name of the Book of Genesis, Bereishit, means “in the beginning”; the book gives the historical and religious background that necessitates the creation of the Jewish people, the giving of the Torah, and the gift of the Land of Israel. The Hebrew name of the Book of Exodus, Shemot, means “names”; it describes how God took “one nation out of another” and forged the identity and psyche of the Jewish nation, whose task it is to make this world into a sanctuary for Divine consciousness. The Hebrew name of the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra, means “and He called”; it details how the Jew is to answer his or her Divine calling by remaining both separate from the materialism of this world and at the same time elevating and spiritualizing it.

The Hebrew name of the Book of Numbers, Bemidbar, means “in the desert.” The imagery of the desert is that of an uncultivated, uncivilized wasteland, and is thus symbolic of our unrectified physical world, which is largely indifferent, antithetical, and often even antagonistic to Divine consciousness. After the Torah has told us how the world—which was originally designed as the garden of Divinity—became such a “desert,” how the Jewish people was created, and how it was given the mission to restore the world to its intrinsic nature and taught how to do this, it now tells us how the Jews are sent out into this “desert” to accomplish their goal, to test their dedication to their destiny and resistance to the hostile elements of their environment. This dramatic tension underlies the seminal history of the Jewish people as recorded in the Book of Numbers.

It is therefore no surprise that the opening parashah of the Book of Numbers—which shares with the book as a whole the name Bemidbar, “in the desert”—describes how God assembles the young nation into His army. True, the Jewish people were referred to as an army as soon as they left Egypt: “And it was on that selfsame day that the legions of God went out of the Land of Egypt.”1 But it is only in this parashah, as they are about to leave the sheltered, ivory-towered “yeshiva” of Mount Sinai and begin their foray into the foreboding desert,2 that we see the people tallied, organized by genealogy, and conscripted into a formal army.

The first lesson of this parashah, then, is that we should never delude ourselves into thinking that the world in its present state is a benign, neutral entity and that we have no role to play in perfecting it. The world and every thing in it is a challenge, a call to arms, which beckons us to summon our greatest spiritual strengths in order to redeem it, to transform it back into a home for God.

But why all the detail? Parashat Bemidbar seems to read like an endless database of family names, statistics, and redundancies. Would it not have been far simpler if the Torah would have summarized the whole census and conscription process in a few words or sentences?

In order to begin to understand this, we must first note that—with only a very few, significant exceptions—the Torah describes the counting of each tribe in exactly the same fashion. Thus, on the one hand, the census is the great equalizer: everyone counts as one, and our respective individualities are lost as we become nondescript components of the conglomerate whole. On the other hand, everyone is counted, and the collective whole is implicitly lacking if anything less than all its constituent units is present. This indicates that every individual has his or her unique contribution that only he or she can make to the collective whole.

In other words, the census expresses the paradoxical interplay between individual and collective identity. Each one of us is a unique individual, totally different from the next person, and blessed with his or her own strengths and challenges. Each one of us is therefore of infinite, irreplaceable value. In a general way, this individuality is expressed by the fact that the Jewish people is subdivided into twelve distinct tribes, each of which received its own, unique blessing from its common progenitor, Jacob,3 based on its own, individual variation on the Torah’s theme of the service of God. Thus, each tribe is counted separately, and this fact is recorded in the Torah in order to inform us both of our uniqueness and of the indispensableness of our unique contribution in the battle for Divinity in this world.

On the other hand, inasmuch as we all share a common collective identity, we therefore reflect and complement one another. None of us is capable of fighting the battle alone, and we must all draw on the strengths and inspiration of our fellow Jews. For this reason, it is not enough for us to only hear and read the Torah’s census of our own tribe; we must hear and read the census of all the tribes, individually, even though they outwardly sound the same to us.4 In this way, we absorb all their individual inner strengths and are enabled to identify with them all.

The common, collective identity we all share is the inner core of the Divine soul, the “part of God above” within each of us. But paradoxically, it is this same Divine soul that is the source of our individuality. This is because Godliness itself is both simple and complex: God is an absolutely simple, non-complex unity, and anything Godly reflects this oneness. But at the same time, God is the source of everything that is, which means that God’s uncompromised unity contains the potential for infinite varieties of expression. Each Divine soul is at once an expression of the absolute simplicity of Divinity as well as a unique facet of God’s potential to express Himself.

Thus, the paradox of the census forces us to consider and focus on the one aspect of our personality that we all share equally and that is at the same time the source of our infinitely unique individuality, the inner core of the Divine soul.

It is this inner point of Divinity within us that motivates and spurs us on in the struggle to redeem the world. For once we have become attuned to our inner connection with God, nothing can oppose our dedication to the challenge of the Book of Numbers, to embark on the perilous yet promising journey through the godless desert, ultimately transforming it into the Promised Land. Thus inspired, we are ready to join the ranks of God’s legions, to be counted and conscripted into the forces of goodness and holiness whose mission it is to bring reality to its truest fulfillment.5