Parashat B’midbar – Lift up the head

David Rubinger's famous photograph of IDF soldiers after liberating the Kotel (Western Wall) in June 1967
David Rubinger’s famous photograph of IDF soldiers after liberating the Kotel (Western Wall) in June 1967

Coming Sunday (5 June/28 Iyyar) we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, one of several Jewish holidays com-memorating events of war in the modern State of Israel. This one recalls Israel’s regaining of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. Despite these modern memorial days, it seems safe to say that we Jews generally don’t think of ourselves as military people. Yet the coming together with our annual reading of the opening portion of the Book of Numbers, beginning with a census of all Israelite men, might give us pause to question our assumption.

Our parasha begins with God’s instruction to Moses to count the people: s’u et-rosh kol-adat B’nai Yisrael, „take a census of the whole Israelite company“. The commentators notice the way God describes the head count: s’u et rosh, „lift the head.“ Nachmanides (a rabbi from the thirteenth century) points out that the phrase can be positive or negative. Joseph uses the same phrase positively back in Genesis when interpreting the dream of the imprisoned cupbearer: „in three days’ time, Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your post.“ But Joseph also uses the phrase negatively a few verses later while interpreting the baker’s dream: „in three days’ time, Pharaoh will lift your head from your body and hang you on a pole . . .“

Imagine our scene, though, Moses and Aaron lifting each young man’s head, gently touching the chin of each soldier-to-be, looking him in the eye  -thus acknowledging the humanity of each one – and recognising the real „risks“ of war. Will this young man’s head be lifted up to greatness or fall in battle?

S’u et-rosh, „Lift up the head“ of each one, says God to Moses, as if to say, touch them, look them in the eyes, write down their family names, because even though you are counting them, these men are not just numbers. A wise man once taught that if you look deeply into the eyes of another, you will find there the Presence of God. Would we really be able to send people into battle if we spent the moments before looking deep into the eyes of our soldiers?

As we shall see in the weeks to come, despite its stories of fighting, rebellion and violence, the Book of Numbers also delivers the message that God would rather encourage the people Israel toward a gentler way of being, and to realise that the price we have paid in any war was more than just a soldier. She or he was a human being, created in the image of God.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Lisa Edwards.)

Torah Reading for Shabbat B’midbar

Numbers 1:1-4:20
(Reading Num 1:1 – 35; P p.899; H p.568)

Haftarah Hosea 2:1-22 (P 917, H 581)

The first portion of Numbers, which shares the name of the book itself, takes up where Exodus left off, beginning with a census of men of military age and a description of tribal encampments and priestly clan assignments.

Torah Study this Shabbat morning at 08h45

Podcast of Rabbi Schell’s weekly Sermons Tuesdays on Radio Today (10h30) or: http://goo.gl/LsHQrY.

Rosh Chodesh Sivan occurs on Tuesday in the coming week.