Parashat Bamidar: The Loss of a Generation

The Book of Numbers is a gentle reminder to listen to the elders still among us.

Commentary on Parashat Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20

This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah. In Hebrew, its name Bamidbar means “in the wilderness,” the location for the 38 years of Israelite adventure and misadventure that Bamidbar covers. But it is also known by the rabbis as the book of pekkudim, or accountings, which aligns with its English name, Numbers.

Numbers is so called because it starts with a census of the Israelite men. About 600,000 males are enumerated under the names of the commanding chieftains of each tribe. However, this is not the only census recorded in Bamidbar. Towards the end of the book, in chapter 26, a second tally is given.

This is anything but repetitious, for in fact it points to the hard truth of the book of Bamidbar — (almost) all of its protagonists die. The census in Numbers 26 is the census of a new generation. Those listed in Numbers 1-4 are gone.

We know well that the Hebrews spent 40 years in the desert, but Torah tells us this was not the original plan. It was only after the people’s loss of faith following the cowardly report of the scouts that they were told they would not be allowed to enter the promised land. God declares: “Your carcasses will fall in this wilderness, and all that were numbered of you, according to the whole numbering, from 20 years and upwards … shall by no means come into the land I swore to settle you in.” (Numbers 14:29-30)

This verse is the source of the ongoing notion that a generation is 20 years. But why might those younger than 20, the next generation, be able to enter the land? Perhaps because young people are not held accountable for the mistakes of fully grown adults. Or perhaps because those who had reached maturity in Egypt could never fully free their minds from the mentality of slavery. Seen thus, it was necessary for a new generation to arise before the next chapter of the story could begin.

Yet despite the fact that all those 20 and older were condemned to perish, nonetheless this generation, the generation of the exodus, are seen as spiritual giants. It was they who personally experienced the divine face-off with Pharaoh, the parting of the Red Sea and the revelation of the Torah. These were the people who were guided by a pillar of fire and smoke, sustained by a mysterious daily manna from heaven and, according to legend, by a miraculous well that traveled with them.

To the prophets who came later in Jewish history, the wilderness years were seen as a time of profound spiritual intimacy between God and the Israelite people — literally a honeymoon period. “I [God] account to your favor the devotion of your youth,” says the prophet Jeremiah. “Your love as a bride; that you followed me through the wilderness, through an unsown land.” (Jeremiah 2:2)

The description of the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion likewise conveys a sense of unjaded simplicity and order. Each family belongs to a tribe, and each tribe has its place, camped under its banner in a designated location around the central shrine. 

The life of a nomadic desert people, their God so clear and present in their midst, might well be something we grieve for now. Although nomadic herdsmen certainly have their challenges, from our settled perspective their lives might also seem to have a charming simplicity and an enviable inability to do lasting harm.

The loss not just of individuals, but of the past as a whole, remains very real to us. Those Americans born between 1900-1925 are sometimes known as the “greatest generation,” having lived through such cataclysms as the Depression, two World Wars, second-wave feminism and the decades of struggle for Black civil rights. For Jews, the generation that survived the Holocaust and lived to tell the tale are similarly valorized in our collective consciousness. As with the generation of the wilderness, there is a sense that with the passing of the last survivors, a connection with an incredibly important time will be irrevocably lost.

Parashat Badmibar, as indeed the whole book of Numbers, is a reminder not only of all that is lost with the passing of generations, but a gentle nudge to listen to the elders still among us, and to honor their greatness while we still can.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on May 19, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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