Numbers & Names
Thoughts on Parashat VaEra 2020
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In the moments leading up to Moshe and Aharon’s confrontation with Pharaoh, the Torah took a brief “pause in action” for a background check:
Amram took to his wife his father’s sister Yokheved, and she bore him Aharon and Moshe… (Shemot 6:20)
Taken on its own, the lineage is simple and straightforward. Contrasting this detailed presentation to its initial rendition, however, reveals something deeper:
A man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. (Shemot 2:1)
There is a deliberate shift from anonymity – “a man of the house of Levi and a Levite woman,” to a clear mention of names – “Amram, Yokheved, Aharon and Moshe.” Interestingly, Sefer Shemot – “The Book of Names” inversely began with “all the names who came to Egypt,” but then summarized the list with the nameless number of “seventy souls” (1:1-4). And this contrast between “names” and “numbers” was perhaps most pronounced as Am Yisrael began their march in the wilderness, in Sefer Bemidbar, or Sefer HaPikudim – “The Book of Numbers,” and God commanded that Moshe lead a census “by the number of the names” (Bemidbar l1:2). What message underlies this consistent contrast between anonymous numbers and pronounced names in the makeup of Am Yisrael?
Near the turn of the 21st century, columnist David Brooks penned a thoughtful article regarding the general culture surrounding the elite young men and women of the day. He referred to them as “organization kids,” bemoaning their unflinching acceptance of the social order of society. Whereas the ambitious young men and women of the latter half of the 20th Century “knew they were supposed to rebel against authority, reject old certainties, and liberate themselves from hidebound customs and prejudices,” the youth of today are “cooperative team players,” they “accept authority” and are “rule followers.” While each of these traits is, of course, positive in its own right, understanding the way to success as the absolute adherence to these trends has suspended a moral development that is oftentimes born out of a fight for our individual ideals. Brooks wrote that today, sadly, “Instead of virtue we talk about accomplishment.”
It remains a challenge, however, to tow the line between a genuine expression of our own thoughts and beliefs – establishing our name, while at once belonging to a collective that is far greater than ourselves – being a part of the count. God introduced the process toward redemption from Egypt to Moshe, Aharon and all of Am Yisrael with that very challenge.
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belong to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness,” Brené Brown wrote, adding, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly reflected upon the dichotomy between the individual and community in the realm of kedushah: “If the community were the only source of sanctity, then the individual would be deprived of his creative role, his individual initiative, his originality and uniqueness. The outstanding person would not be able to develop into a great leader.” Individual kedushah experiences, in contrast, are incommensurate with each other, they are “an expression of one’s greatness, and not all people are alike as far as greatness is concerned.”
An ancient kabbalstic tradition maintains that there are “six hundred thousand aspects and meanings in the Torah” – a number corresponding to the men who left Egypt – “the primary souls of Israel.” R. Yisshak Luria, the Ari z”l, added that in the messianic age every member of Am Yisrael will read the Torah in accordance with “the meaning peculiar to his root.” Understood on its most simple (and incorrect) level, this concept refers to a religious anarchy. After all, if every person holds an individual key to interpret the Torah, then we are each governed only by the strength of absolute subjectivity. Properly understood, however, this tradition teaches that although there is an objectively binding extrinsic dimension to the Torah, the internal realm is left to the individual. “Some lives have an emotional emphasis; others, an intellectual; for some the way of joy is natural; for others, existence is full of effort and struggle,” R. Adin Steinsaltz wrote, “each soul understands and does things in a way not suitable for another soul.”
The passages regarding the beginning of Am Yisrael transition from explicit names to anonymity and numbers – and then back again. The Torah subtly taught that membership to Am Yisrael entails a dual acceptance: the absolute strictures of this “nation of numbers” – a scrupulous adherence to Torah and missvot, and a genuine expression of our “personal names” – a unique connection to God reflective of our individual souls.