Monday, May 25, 2009

A Day to Remember

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community.... (Numbers 1:2, Etz Hayim translation)

The midrash on the Torah portion Bamidbar takes each clause of this exceedingly formal sentence and turns it into a passionate declaration of the love of God for the people Israel--starting with the date!

Look how carefully the date of the census is spelled out at the beginning of the Torah portion. According to the Soncino edition of the Midrash Rabbah, this shows that the census was a special recognition by God toward the Jews, a kind of divine thumbs-up.

How does it show that? By contrast. When God announced to the prophet Ezekiel that the Temple would be destroyed, God made the date of the disaster obscure. Ezekiel (according to one interpretation) thought the destruction would occur on the 20th of Av or (according to another interpretation) on the 1st, but the rabbis say it actually took place on the 9th of Av. This confusion, they say, was a punishment in itself: a further proof that Israel's sinfulness deserved the catastrophe that was about to befall.

It is not surprising that the midrash-makers would connect these two apparently disconnected events. The destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile was much more recent than the census. The 9th of Av weighed heavily on the authors of the midrash than the second of Nisan at the time they were interpreting this text about the census.

By contrast, however, in Bamidbar we read in detail,"On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt...." Instead of hiding or confusing the date of the census, the text specifies it and insists upon it. It is as if God were saying, "Pay attention to this date. The day when every one of you counted, when the people were unified and whole and headed toward their homeland--not into exile--the day when I lifted up your heads." (For lift up the head is a Hebrew expression that can mean "take a head count," but also, "make you proud and whole again.")

By remembering the census this way, the midrash-makers reminded themselves of the pride God took in the Jewish people back in the days of the wilderness, centuries ago. By remembering it this way, they gave themselves the hope that those happy days of being God's pride and joy would return.

What a romantic longing, that find signs of the lover's favor in the mere mention of a date! But I know I smile every time Rona mentions that we are about to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary on June 25th--and we see each other every day. How much more the Jews pined for God after years of Babylonian exile. How much more it must have meant to them to have a date that reminded them that they all counted in the eyes of God!

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