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Originally, the fourth book of the Bible was simply titled, “Bamidbar-In the Desert.” Centuries later, the Midrash labeled it, “Sefer Hapikudim – The Book of Counting.” Always read in close proximity to Shavuos, neither of these titles seems to bear any relationship to the Giving of the Torah. Perhaps, we are missing something.
The Hebrew word MIDBAR - desert has the same root as DABAIR meaning word, and shares the same letters as M’DABAIR - speaking. Let us recall that it was specifically in the desert that the Israelites first heard the word of G-d.
Fundamental to Judaism is the belief that G-d cannot be seen. For every ancient faith but one, the gods were present in nature: sun, stars, animals, etc. They were visible. For Jews, G-d was beyond nature. Everything we see is not G-d, merely His works; hence the repeated prohibitions against making an image. A visible G-d is not merely a diminished god, it is an abomination.
How then can He be perceived? Not in things seen, but in words heard. The pagan identifies the divine in nature. For him, god is something to be looked at and admired. The Jew however knows that G-d is not bound by nature. Thus the Divine manifests itself through the medium of the ear, as something to be heeded. The pagan BEHOLDS his god; the Jew HEARS Him. Judaism is a culture of listening, interpreting, understanding, and obeying. This has had more significance than is at first obvious. It signified a triumph of spirituality over the senses. A revolution of this magnitude could not have taken place under ordinary circumstances. In the river lowlands where civilization began (the Euphrates and the Nile) the eye was captivated by the farmer working; in cities by architecture and art. Only in the silence of the desert could the word of G-d be heard in its unrestricted glory.
In Western civilization, the counterpart to holy is secular. In Judaism, the opposite of kadosh - holy, is chol - mundane, which literally (and non-coincidentally) means sand. Sand is what holy is not. It blows this way and that, never stable, rooted, or capable of sustaining life. The Psalmist contrasts the two with dazzling clarity. “Blessed is the man (whose) delight is in the law of the L-rd...He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season...Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.”
Prior to Torah, the desert was Chol - mundane. Indeed, the entire culture of the day was chol-like, shifting sands, changing moralities, and an endless parade of alternating gods. Then His word altered the landscape, for G-d is a rock (immovable, the opposite of sand); His word is like water; and those who heed it are a sturdy tree. At first, the fourth book was merely Bamidbar. But soon this desert would be transformed into something holy.
And what of the Midrashic name? There is a tradition that every Jew is like a letter in a Torah scroll. In Jewish law, if a single letter is missing, the scroll is defective. Every letter is significant. The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Halevi Eidels, 1555-1631) elaborates: 600,000 people received the Torah because the Torah has 600,000 possible interpretations. Each of us hears a particular message ensuring the revelation of a unique aspect of Torah. Had one person been absent, the totality of His word would not have been heard.
Normally, a census is taken as a measure of a nation’s strength. The more numerous a nation, the more powerful it is. But that reduces its constituents to a mere statistic. The Nazis dehumanized the Jew when they robbed him of his name and gave him a number. To be a mere number is no longer to be human. Where the goal is power, what matters is the totality, not the individual. Judaism is a protest against this idea.
Thus Hebrew has many verbs that mean ‘to count’ - limnot, lispor, lachshov, lifkod. But here the Torah uses an unusual term, se’u, literally, lift. Normally a census turns us into a number. The Biblical census elevates us into a holy letter. Being counted by G-d did not QUANTIFY, it QUALIFIED the worth of each individual. That is why the Sages chose Sefer Hapikudim. In the desert, there is no empire or economy to sustain; hence no need to number troops or a work force. But an opportunity to ‘lift’ us each to be placed as a letter in His Torah is quite appropriate for the upcoming holiday of Shavuos.
The way to the Holy Land lay through the desert. It was there that the Israelites built a society that would be the anti-Egypt. Their empire would not be built on the backs of the masses. Theirs was to be a society of individuals enjoying equal dignity. This was accomplished by a unique count. What emerged from that Desert Census was a new society, different from the other civilizations of any age. It created a people that after hearing the WORD, became the People of the BOOK.

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