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This week we begin reading the fourth book of Torah, B’midbar, which literally means “in the wilderness.” It is a narrative of the Israelites’ forty years of wandering across the Sinai desert. In English the book is commonly referred to as the “Book of Numbers,” because it begins with God commanding Moses to take a census, or count the individuals that make up the community. We learn that the number of males aged twenty years and over who are able to bear arms totals 603,550. We understand that this number is exclusionary; it does not include the Levites, nor women and children, nor any individuals physically unable to bear arms. Yet, the number is often used in Jewish tradition.

A commonly offered fact is that the number of letters in a Torah scroll is also 603,550. However, when the actual letters are counted, they number 304,805. Jewish tradition often approaches discrepancies such as these not as errors, but as challenges. What on the surface may appear contradictory is easily harmonized by looking a bit deeper into its meaning. The count of 304,800-plus letters includes only those that we see, black ink against white parchment. Yet, there are also embedded within the letters white spaces against the black. The Jewish mystics describe Torah as black fire on white fire, with both the black and white equally meaningful. The black are the letters we see, while the white, the inverse space between the black, are “letters” we don’t see. Together they total 603,550. By including both the black and the white “letters,” we learn that all “count,” all have meaning. We therefore conclude that all the Israelites, as well as all of us today, are worthwhile members of community. Each of us has value; each of us counts as infinitely worthy and deserving of God’s blessing.

May we remember that every one of us, who we are and what we have to offer, is worthy of notice in God’s sacred and created world.

B’shalom,
Rabbi Bellush