What’s in a name?


Chazal’s name for the fourth book of the Torah is Sefer HaPekudim, the Book of the Counting. Little wonder, then, that it has been given the English title, “Numbers.” The accuracy of this name becomes clear upon reading the first 46 pasukim of our parasha, Bamidbar, that focus on a detailed numerical census of our nascent nation.

Throughout this presentation, the phrase, misspar shemot (according to the number of their names), is repeated no less than six times. This fact alone gives us pause to ponder, since there is a general exegetical principle that words and phrases are repeated in the Torah in order to emphasize their importance. In each of these instances, however, this expression does not seem to add to the verses’ essential meaning; as such, its inclusion in these pasukim conceals more than it reveals.

We are fortunate that the Ramban tackles the singular import of misspar shemot in his Commentary on the Torah. Therein, he cites a beautiful midrash found in Bamidbar Rabbah that we no longer have in our editions: “The Holy One blessed be He said to Moshe to count the Jewish people with dignity and [with a focus on] the recognition of their inherent greatness, each person on an individual basis. Moreover, he was prohibited from saying to the head of the family, “How many are there in your family, how many sons do you have?” Instead, [said the Almighty:] “Everyone will pass before you in awe and respect and you will count them.” (Gloss on 45:1)

What exactly transpired as a result of Moshe counting everyone among the Jewish people by name? Once again, the Ramban addresses this question and adds that Aharon was an equal partner in this process: “When an individual would come before the Father of all Prophets [Moshe] and his brother, the Holy One to Hashem [Aharon], and he would become known to them by name, he would acquire great zechut — merit and [long] life, for he had entered into the sod — the ultimate sanctum of the Jewish people — and onto the [spiritual] roster of b’nai Yisrael. [Therefore,] he would henceforth enjoy the merits of the entire people as he was now counted amongst them.”

The Ramban continues to explain how each Jew who passed before Moshe and Aharon acquired such zechut: “…for when they looked upon them for solely positive purposes, they would request mercy for them and ask that Hashem, the G-d of their fathers, should add to their descendants a thousand-fold and never diminish their numbers…” In my view, Moshe and Aharon’s tefilah was not only quantitative in nature, but qualitative as well. In other words, they prayed for both the continued numerical and spiritual growth of the Jewish people — a tefilah whose fulfillment we continue to pray each day.

My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal, analyzes the Ramban’s interpretation of the rationale inherent in the census of our forebears, and presents the following depth-level understanding as to why it had to be performed b’ misspar shemot: “G-d’s intent was a dual one. It was not enough for Moshe to know the total number of the Jewish people. He had to perform a head count in order to get to know each person as an individual with their own background and life experience.

Moshe’s additional obligation emanates from the fact that he was rabban shel Yisrael, the rebbe of the entire Jewish nation, and therefore had to know every Jew by name. It was as though G-d were telling him: “Moshe, when you pray, you will pray not for the general public, but also for every Jew in his or her moments of joy and pain.” This duality, specifically the focus on the individual, was the Ramban’s true intent. (Darosh Darash Yosef: Discourses of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik on the Weekly Parashah)

For the Rav, who throughout his many works and public lectures, continually focused on the existential trials and tribulations of the individual, misspar shemot in the thought of the Ramban emerges as a constitutive element of the entire census enterprise. Significantly, each and every Jew had a name representative of their identity, value and unique importance before Hashem.

May the Almighty Who knows the names of all mankind, remove the magafah from klal Yisrael, and the entire world, soon and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.