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    Different but the same – B’midbar

    The Book we begin this Shabbat has two names, like other books of the Torah.

    The census of the Israelites, by Henri Félix Philippoteaux

    The census of the Israelites, by Henri Félix Philippoteaux

    It is B’midbar, “In the Wilderness”, and in English “Numbers”.

    The names are unconnected. B’midbar is the first significant Hebrew word in the Book; Numbers is the theme of the national census with which the Book begins.

    There is a great deal we could write about the Hebrew name, but let us focus on the English name.

    Imagine if you were Moses and you looked out at your people.

    What a massive crowd! As far as his eye could see there were the tents of Israel, and if the population were counted as a whole, including women and children as well as males, there must have been at least two million of them.

    Every rabbi becomes a Moses on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur when he looks out at his large attendance. But impressed as he is with the size of the crowd, he knows that everyone is unique, independent, separate, unique – and precious in the sight of God.

    That lesson is emphasised over and over again in Jewish tradition – for example on Pesach, when the four sons show us that every individual is different; and on Sukkot, when the four plants, though all different, are all held together.

    Modern terminology would say that the word for this is pluralism, and it’s certainly true that our people is a plurality – but we learn another thing from our tradition which questions whether pluralistic is the right word.

    Like the arms of the menorah which are all attached to the central shaft and all incline towards the centre, so the Jewish people are bound by one emotion and commitment. They are all different but all the same.

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