Hope everyone had a great week.
The parshah this week is Pinchas and it has some wonderfully powerful points. We meet five sisters who challenge Moses and God on the laws of inheritance and end up carrying the day, changing the laws forever. We see God’s reaction to a High Priest who kills a man and woman for worshipping God through their sexuality. All great stuffy, but I don’t want to talk about those.
I want to talk about the stuff in the parshah that makes us yawn and ends with raising an eyebrow at a spiritually eternal and Divine document that seems to love numbers the way the Torah does.
In this parshah, God tells Moses to take a census of Israel in order to form an army. Each tribe will now be listed with its original founder and every male descendant and their male descendants, and so on and so on. In total, over 600,000, which sounds like a lot of people but it’s actually a pretty small army. In other words, every victory Israel has will never be because they outnumber the enemy. I understand the need for the final figure, but I really don’t need the initial numbers and then every number in between…
…or do I?
To most of us, me included, numbers need to be meaningful, they need to speak to me in a plain and direct way that allows me to use them as I need. I don’t love numbers for their own sake. My accountant loves numbers for their own sake and whenever we meet, my eyes glaze over within minutes. When he pauses, I assume he asked a question and I usually nod. He knows me well enough that at that point he picks up my phone and turns on the recorder and explains the numbers into the phone. I will listen in bits and pieces later. God bless my accountant.
So, I need meaningful numbers. I learned an invaluable lesson about meaningful numbers when I was a student teacher. I was placed in an elementary school in a violent section of the city. It was filled with gangs and drugs and we were cautioned to visually check our students every morning without being obvious. We were looking for cuts, bruises, physical abuse. Every absence was to be noted.
I was assigned to teach the class fractions. As a student teacher, I did the classic ‘draw a pie on the board, divide it in half, divide it in quarters’ and so on. The class was quiet as I went my merry way with my apple pie drawing. Every time I turned to look at the students, they sat quietly staring back. I felt like I was fractions’ gift to education (yeah, ego can convince us of that in a fraction of a second…) I got all the way to one-eighths without a peep from them. Something wasn’t right. I asked if they had questions and one brave soul put up his hand and said: ‘I’ve never had pie, do you know how to draw a pizza?’
Meaningless numbers, they’ll get us every time.
So why is the Torah insisting on the numerical details?
The numbers are important when we plug in the age-old resolution: ‘cherchez la femme’, ‘look for the woman’. In other words, behind every mystery will stand some woman, or some issue that leads to a woman, or some man who is searching for a woman – basically, everything sources to a woman.
The Torah leaves a huge issue unresolved and that is the double matriarchy of Leah and Rachel. Jacob only wanted Rachel but also married Leah. Leah is fertile while Rachel is loved. We have the unresolved dichotomy of a woman: is she mother (Leah) or lover (Rachel)?
Since the Torah won’t resolve it, tradition tries to figure it out by looking at who the next leader will be. Clearly, the model for a woman would be the one who birthed the heir. Not so fast, Leah gave birth to Judah who will give us the great king, David. But Rachel gave birth to Joseph who was a leader in Egypt. David was a warrior king while Joseph was the great negotiator. WHICH IS OUR MODEL?!
As if that weren’t complicated enough, there is a tradition of the Messiah ben David (son of David) and also a tradition of the Messiah ben Yosef (son of Joseph).
So far, no clear answer, so as a woman, I have ambiguity of role model. Am I to be mother or am I to be lover?
Here’s where all the numbers from the parshah come in. Maybe the biggest tribe will be the leader and then I can resolve who is the matriarch? Except, when you look at the census in this parshah, you see the Judah and the Joseph tribes are coming in very close in numbers.
I can’t resolve the issue.
I believe that things in the Torah are deliberate and therefore if I can’t resolve the issue it’s because I shouldn’t resolve it. I am to cherish both Leah and Rachel. I am to be an integrated woman balancing between ‘mother’ and ‘lover’.
In the end, the ‘eyes glaze over’ numbers in the parshah told me how Israel built its first army in the ancient world while simultaneously showing me how I find my identity in the modern world.
Now I wouldn’t give those numbers up for anything.