The New Math?: B’midbar 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: To what extent do you trust statistics? How do we know which statistics to believe? Are you skeptical or happy that our society has become, on the whole, far more analytically sophisticated?

As we begin reading from the book of Numbers, we encounter a plethora of … you guessed it, numbers.

The Pitch:So Moses recorded all the male first-born among the Israelites, as Adonai had commanded him. All the first-born males as listed by name, recorded from the age of one month up, came to 22,273.” (Numbers 3:42-43)

Swing #1:The number of firstborn Israelite males is given here as 22,273. This indicates that those who take the word for ‘thousand’ to mean ‘clan’ are mistaken, since firstborn sons as a group do not constitute clans. Those who try to understand this term as ‘clan’ do this because they are troubled by the high numbers of Israelites in the census in Numbers. But we cannot escape the problem by redefining a term. Whatever we believe to have been the historical case, the fact is that the text depicts a vast population in the wilderness. And my concern is not to debate the numbers but rather to recognize the significance of the numbers to the Torah and to its story. Historically, only a portion of the Israelites may have had the experience of slavery in Egypt, but all of Israel came to see the experience as their own. For the Torah, it is important that the entire people of Israel be seen as present at Mount Sinai. The complication of this number of 22,273 firstborn males of all ages is that it is utterly out of proportion to the number of over 600,000 adult males. I have seen no satisfactory solution to this problem.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Swing #2:As in Numbers 1:46, we note technical usage of the verb hayah to connote a mathematical total, with the sense of ‘amounting to, totaling.’ The outcome of the census was that there were 273 more first-born Israelites to be redeemed than there were Levites to stand in for them.” – Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20

Swing #3:It is significant to note that the first-born comprised only one out of 27 Israelites. If the fact that they were numbered from only one month is taken into account, while the count of 603,550 is for those over 20 years old, it comes out that the first-born were approximately one out of 45. This may be because the Israelites had huge families in Egypt. It is also possible that many first-born did not observe the first Passover and died in Egypt. Another possibility is that the first-born of many families were girls.” – Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah

Late-Inning Chatter: Do you find it ironic that there are discrepancies between the numbers listed in the census in our Torah portion and the figures that might make more sense to us? What is the use of numbers if we can’t trust them? Or do the numbers, however dubious, tell a more important story?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I’m excited for our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot – our annual learning session to usher in the beginning of the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. Join us tomorrow night beginning at 8:00PM as theater maven Jon Adam Ross leads us in “The Theater of Torah.” And for free cheesecake!

The Big Inning at the End: After this week, the Cubs are 0-1 in games that I’ve attended in person this year.

CubsPhillies06.0716But they’re 41-16 in all other games. I think I have an excuse to watch from afar the rest of the year.

Shabbat Shalom!