Numbers Can Soften and Bear Witness

When I was a kid growing up in the early '70s, my parents wore POW/MIA bracelets bearing the names of American soldiers imprisoned or missing in Vietnam. Each evening, our family would scan the pages of the newspaper in search of the chart that listed the names of found soldiers.

In our paper, as in many, this vital, happy news ran next to other lists: the body counts of those known to have been killed in action. The American commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, was waging a battle with numbers--deflated in the case of the American dead, inflated for the Vietnamese--in order to convince those of us back home that the war was being won.

I thought of that when reading the thorough and antiseptic ways in which Torah describes Israel's prescribed journey into the Land of Israel in this week's portion, Mattot/Masei (Numbers 30:2-36-13). I had the distinct feeling that this time the English name for the book of Torah--Numbers--is more appropriate than its name in Hebrew--Bamidbar, or "In the Desert." For just as the Book of Numbers begins, so it ends: with an accounting of who is fit to fight in order to lead the Israelites into the Holy Land to carry out God's will. There is a frigid realism to the message of Scripture, a warning really: The preoccupation with "numbers" can numb the emotional and spiritual impact of what it means to take a human life.


But the Hebrew title for this complex book is also a fitting theological description of the spiritual state of being one encounters in such circumstances. The cold, calculated statistics of war leave us in a spiritual desert. This is a familiar, late-20th-century critique of reason. In Jewish theological terms, the argument has been best brought forth by Emmanuel Levinas, of blessed memory, whose critique of rationality demanded an ethical spirituality in which the reduction of another human to a number or statistic was forbidden, even sinful.

The Torah itself seeks to reconcile these two impulses by responding as humanely as possible under the circumstances of war. While the Israelites are charged to assemble an invading army to wrest control of the land from the Midianites and work God's revenge against them, they are also given a variety of mitigating factors to temper their thirst for vengeance.

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