Bamidbar — Out of Chaos, Order

Stephen Richer
Out of Chaos, Order
Bamidbar
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
5/17/2010

As befits the title, Numbers is begun by counting. Counting what?  Counting Jews. Not directly though.  As Rashi said, “According to their head count: They gave a half shekel and the coins were counted since it is forbidden to count them literally by head.”  But it amounts to a similar effect; by the end of the portion we are given an exact number of non-Levite Jewish males over the age of 20 (603,550).

The Portion then assigns the tribes their positions within the camp, and their positions while traveling:

“The legions under the divisions of the camp of Ephraim were to the west … Next to him, the tribe of Manasseh.” (Num 2:18 – 2:20)

At first glance then, the Portion seems to exist for historians and census-takers rather than moralists and life coaches.  But Maimonides offers three explanations for the presence of this seemingly-mundane Portion in Judaism’s central text.  First, by counting the Jews, credit and thanks are given implicitly to God.  Prior to escaping Egypt, the Jewish people were relatively few.  In only a matter of years, the Jews doubled and then doubled again—witness and acknowledge the miracle of God!

Second, Maimonides reminds us that though the Torah is the birthplace of our grand moral postulates, the text also served a practical purpose.  In preparation for entering the Holy Land, the Jews had to assemble an army, the prerequisite for which was counting the number of fighting-age males.[1]

Third, and lastly, Maimonides draws an important leadership lesson from the counting exercise: An effective leader must know his people.  The Portion mandates that Moses and Aaron do the counting; this ensures that the leaders individually interact with each person that they could potentially send off to battle.

But in addition to the principles outlined by Maimonides, the Portion also reads as an endorsement of order over chaos.  After a wild and crazy Exodus, God figures out who is still alive; he puts them in tribes, and he puts the tribes into positions.[2] The once scattered Jewish escapees now more closely resemble an ordered army.

According to most Jewish theologians, the behaviors of God should be read as large-scale representations of how to conduct an individual life.  Looking around my apartment, it’s not terribly difficult to see how this endorsement of order could have practical consequences.  True, keeping a neat room and an ordered life is something we’ve all heard from our parents, but it’s worth hearing again, and besides, where did our parents got it from?

Interestingly, the ordering of the Jewish people was a necessary precursor for entering the Holy Land, for achieving a heightened spiritual, moral, intellectual, and physical plane.  Perhaps the ordering of our thoughts, notes, or apartment can’t promise as grand a reward, but order is seen as a step for moving forward: you have to order your notes before you can start typing; you have to clean your dishes before you can start cooking (or so I’m told…my cooking experience is limited to microwaving…).

In this sense, organization is also empowering.  The Jewish people scattered and disbanded are easily targeted by Amolek, but organized, they are a force that can take over the Holy Land.  Similarly, scattered notes serve little use for a term paper.  Only when they are accessible and manageable do they become powerful.

I don’t know my habits will change instantaneously, but it does force me to further recognize the benefits of organizational skill.  Maybe an upcoming New Year’s resolution?


[1] It seems bizarre that the fighting age has gone down from the Biblical age of 20 to 18 in most countries despite the fact that we now are slower to develop.

[2] Interestingly, this is the exact methodology preached by Testmasters for LSAT games that involve grouping and sequencing.  First you get your group, then you sequence them.  The best way to think of it is if you have 5 baseball tickets, you’d first choose five friends, then you would sequence them in different seats.  You wouldn’t start by sequencing all of your friends, then choosing five.