Why I Like Numbers

No, not that kind of number.  I mean, I like that kind of number, too.  I am, after all, an accountant.  But I mean Numbers.  The Books of Numbers.  In Hebrew, it’s called “In the Desert” which makes me like it even more.

 Most people hear that a reading or a Bar Mitzvah portion is in Numbers and they groan,  “Oh, noooooo  – not the begats!”  Well, no.  That’s not exactly the begats, although I really like those, too.  The begats are mostly elsewhere.  Numbers is actually, you know, the numbers.  People, listen up!  The numbers are, in the first place, just a little bit of the book, and, in the second place, cool.  In fact, that’s the only good part of Numbers (aside from the Cities of Refuge thing).  (The bad part is all about the god in the book telling Moses to destroy destroy destroy demolish, drive out, possess.  Oh, yeah, and animal sacrifice.  And also all the stupid priestly rules, which I don’t know how got into Numbers in the first place.)

 What is it I like about the numbers?  A whole buncha stuff.  First off, it’s great to read aloud.  It sounds beautiful; it’s poetic.  Reading it aloud feels entirely different from reading it with your just your eyes.  Try it.

             “Of the children of Simeon,
              their generations,           
              by their families,
              by their fathers’ houses,
             those that were numbered thereof,
             according to the number of names,
             by their polls,
             every male from twenty years old and upward,
             all that were able to go forth to war,
             those that were numbered of them
             of the tribe of Simeon
             were fifty and nine thousand and three hundred.

            Of the children of Gad,
            their generations,
            by their families,
            by their fathers’ houses,
            according to the number of names,
            every male from twenty years old and upward,
            all that were able to go forth to war;
            those that were numbered of them
            of the tribe of Gad
            were forty and five thousand six hundred and fifty…”

See?

 The second thing about Numbers (and the begats) is that there are actually named people from ancient times.  (OK, I know it is only men.  Shut up.)  You may know the names of your parents and grandparents and maybe great-grandparents.  These people (as many modern-day Arabs do today) knew all their ancestors back tens of generations and knew them by heart, as they were mostly not literate.  In Numbers, you can read stuff (like in the begats, actually) like, “Eliasaph the son of Deuel” and “Nethanel, the son of Zuar” and “Elizur, the son of Shedeur.”  And then, “And these are the names of the sons of Aaron:  Nadab the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. “ “And these were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari.  And these are the names of the sons of Gerson by their families: Libni and Shimei.  And the sons of Kohath…”  * You can see that ancient people were just like us (well, except we count our daughters). They were real people with names and their own lives, not just some abstract interchangeable nomads with no individual histories.

I also really like the numbers and the begats because they show a scope of history.  We tend to compress history as we are removed from it.  That is, we refer to “last week” or “the 1950s” or “the eighteenth century” or “the middle ages” or “the Bronze Age.”  Numbers takes place in the Bronze Age, which lasted for about 2,000 years.  We usually think of those 2,000 years in one chunk, as if life was exactly the same in 3000 b.c.e. as it was in 1000 b.c.e. and it might just as well have been only one lifetime for the events that occurred.  Numbers shows you that there were actual differences between the lives of different generations in 1200 b.c.e.  Every generation, every decade, even those far from ours, counted for the people living then.

Finally, I like it because of the connection to my own heritage.  I have no idea whether these people are my biological ancestors or not and I don’t really care.  They are my ethnic ancestors and it’s interesting – and fun – to see how they lived and to feel connected to them.  I may know my biological ancestry back only a few generations, but, because of Numbers, I know my ethnic ancestry back to the Bronze Age.  It’s cool.

 

*You cannot imagine the fit my spell check just threw!

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