We are taught that each time God counts us it is an act of love. This week, in Bemidbar, we are being counted for the third time since our departure from Egypt. The first time we are counted as we depart is to show the Israelites that they have been blessed. The second time we are counted is after the incident with the Golden Calf to determine the number of survivors. Why then are we being counted at the beginning of this new book of Bemidbar? We are in the wilderness, and we know it, and yet nothing seems to have happened for us to be counted.
In order to understand this census and its purpose, we need to understand the chronology of the story of the Israelites up to this point and the fact that the chronology is not always according to the linear reading of the Torah. The Parasha opens with the announcement that it is 1st day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year since the Exodus. If we recall Parasha Pikudei (Shemot 38:21 - 40) we are told that the Mishkan was set up a month previously on the 1st day of the 1st month of the 2nd year. Therefore the whole of Leviticus (apart from Behar and Bechukotai, which refer back to the time on Mount Sinai), with all its laws and procedures for the workings of the tabernacle occurred during this first month of Nisan. We also read that in the month of Nisan the offerings were made by each of the chieftains of the tribes as described in Naso - which we read next week. Consequently the start of this new book with its call for a census is chronologically in the wrong order.
There is a Rabbinic concept known as "Eim mukdam u'muchar ba-Torah" – 'there is no before or after in the Torah',Pesakim 6b, Rashi and others. This idea suggests that the order in which we read Torah is not necessarily the order in which the events occurred. However that does not mean order without reason; there must be a reason that this census was placed at the beginning of this book with such a specific reference to the date at which it commenced. If we return to Pekudei, we learn that having established the Tabernacle, God's presence, in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, descended into it and God dwelt amongst the Children of Israel. In fact when God originally gives the commands for a Mishkan (in Terumah) he asks for it to be built, not so that God can dwell in it, but so that it can be used as a conduit for God to dwell among the people as an ultimate act of love. Seen in this light the purpose of the census is therefore another act of love by God of the people; it marks each person as someone God will live with.
Melanie Kelly is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Syangogue
Pronouncing God's name
by Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Question: Is it permissible to pronounce God's Name when recording prayers or Shabbat songs for educational purposes?
Responsum: At the outset, it should be remembered that even when we recite "Adonai" in the prayers, we are not pronouncing God's Name as it is written, but rather a substitute. But according to halakhah, even this substitute should be used with caution. That is why there is a custom among observant Jews to use Adonai only in religious contexts such as in prayer, blessings and Torah study. There is, however, one exception: one is allowed to pronounce Adonai if it is for educational purposes. Thus it is permitted to record Adonai in Shabbat prayers and songs for two reasons: prayers and Shabbat songs are a religious context, and the aim of the recording is education.
It is also permissible to play these tapes, because the prohibition of pronouncing Adonai is related to people, not to machines. Furthermore, if it is permissible for people to pronounce Adonai for educational purposes, then it is certainly permissible to do so via a machine.
There is also no prohibition of erasing the recording in question, for the following reasons: a recording cannot be considered as something written because it is invisible; what was recorded is not really God's Name, but a substitute, and many authorities allow the erasure of substitute names, at least in an indirect way (gerama); the prohibition of erasing God's Name pertains only to Hebrew letters; there is no act of contempt in the erasing, because one cannot see that the tape contains God's Name.
Nevertheless, there is an old custom of recycling tashmishei mitzvah such as tzitzit or aravot and using them to fulfill other mitzvot. Though a cassette does not have the same halakhic status, if it is necessary to erase a cassette, it is still preferable to reuse it for other prayers or sacred songs. Finally, if the tape tears, one should discard it in a respectful fashion (e.g. in a bag) in order to avoid the appearance of impropiety (mar'it ayin).
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Rabbi Chaim Weiner is a graduate of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem where he received his rabbinical Ordination. He was National Director of Noam in Israel before coming to England to become the first permanent Rabbi at Edgware Masorti Synagogue. As a member of the Va'ad Halacha [Law Committee] of the Masorti Movement in Israel, he published several Teshuvot [Legal Responses]. He followed Dr. Louis Jacobs as the Rabbi of the New London Synagogue, in London, England.
Rabbi Weiner has played a prominent role in the development of the Masorti Movement in UK. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Masorti Bet Din in the United Kingdom, and in its development into the European Masorti Bet Din. Since January 2005, Rabbi Weiner has served at the Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din with responsibility for advanced rabbinic services across Europe.