5/16/2007

Bamidbar: Names and Numbers

There is a philosophical tradition from Aristotle to Sartre which seeks to mediate the tension between the individual as an individual and as a member of a group. This is a significant question on several levels: one can question the degree to which it is even possible to conceive of a separate individual identity in isolation from the world around – this completely independent of the question of individual rights. Aristotle’s characterization of man as a ‘political animal’ means that there is something fundamentally human about arranging in sociopolitical groups, just like it’s natural for hyenas to travel in packs and geese to fly in V-formation. Enlightenment philosophers (especially Hobbes) saw this as a function of self-interest; my own ‘enlightened self-interest’ dictates that I enter into a relationship with those around me rather than competing with them for resources. For them, my identity is fundamentally formulated as an autonomous individual, with certain concessions made to the fact that I must exist within a social group. At the other extreme stands Sartre, who denies that there’s such a thing as an autonomously constructed human being. My entire being is constructed socially, with reference to my ‘others’. Man as an absolute individual is not a man. My ‘I’, according to Sartre, develops as a response and reaction to those around me. It is impossible to conceive an identity in isolation from others.

As usual, the Torah and Chaza”l tend to formulate questions like this in non-discursive form (and it was only last century that people like Sartre began to acknowledge the superiority of narrative and myth in formulating ‘truth’). In a sense, it is the fundamental question of the Book of Bamidbar. It describes the structure of Israelite society, assigns roles, introduces different types of leadership and their failure. It begins with a census – an alienating, quantifying process which gives man identity as a statistic. The standard English title for the fourth book, in fact, is ‘Numbers’ – statistics, quantities.

Even so, right as the census is introduced, the Torah subtly acknowledges that it is ‘names’ that are being counted (1:2). In fact, there are more names and lists of names in Bamidbar than in any Biblical book other than genealogy-heavy Bereishit. The Israelites are constantly being named, and constantly being numbered throughout the book. A name is the ultimate symbol of individual identity and achievement. Someone ‘makes a name’ for himself. I rely on my good name professionally. It seems that the Torah is acknowledging the tension that exists between being a ‘name’ and being a ‘number’. There are several other verses which reflect this tension as well: “He counts all the stars by number, calling a name to each one” (Tehillim 147) – stars are addressed by name as well as by number; each aspect has something important to contribute.

We are used to thinking in binary terms – is my value as an individual, or as a member of society/community/state? Does the Torah/God view each of us individually, or all of us collectively? Can I ever treat a group of human beings as a single unit – a family, a country, a race? There are times that we seem to fall on either side of these questions. There are also certain Jewish thinkers more likely to fall on either side – when someone talks about ‘acceptable losses’, or compares loss of human life to amputation within a single organism (contributing to the ‘overall health’ of the organism), the individual is being defined first and foremost as the member of a group. There are other ideas and statements that seems to reflect the opposite – certain thinkers conceived things almost exclusively in terms of individual dilemmas, even when the recommended course of action for the individual would be disastrous for the community.

The Torah affirms each approach without necessarily formulating it in a binary way. After all, the problem is not so much a philosophical one, to be discussed and formulated in the ivory towers, but a very real tension that each of us lives with. The Torah is more concerned with providing paradigms – through law and narrative, primarily – for successful mediation of that tension, or successful integration of both perspectives. I can live with that tension successfully by developing attitudes and developing intuitions, even if I never pick up Hobbes or Sartre. I may understand myself better if I have a background in social philosophy, but ultimately my goal is to become comfortable with my role as an individual entity and also as a cog in the wheel. The psukim demonstrate that God sees us as both simultaneously. Commenting on the verse from Tehillim, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 11:7) says: “When the Holy One, Blessed be He calls them, he calls each by name, and they respond; it is impossible for flesh and blood to call out two names at once” – we are addressed by God both as members of a group and as individuals. This Midrash says that it is impossible for humans to achieve this: we can’t be a part and a whole at the same time. Perhaps not. But we can be aware that there is an ultimate resolution, and acknowledge that each perspective has value in various contexts.

Keep this tension in mind as we begin to read the Book of Bamidbar; it can make for some fruitful insight.

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