By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann (As Published in The Jewish Week)
“And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting…. ‘Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names….” [Numbers 1:1-2].
Rashi explains that the lists and numbers with which Bamidbar begins are reflective of God’s love for the Jewish people. When you cherish something you repeatedly count it. God counted the Jewish People three times within a brief span as an expression of His love.
This concept of counting what you love relates to our lives. We collect baseball cards and other beloved items as kids, shot glasses and similar souvenirs as young adults. We repeatedly look over our treasures, assessing the value of each piece. We balance our checkbooks, and count our change. On the holiest level parents gaze for hours at their sleeping children. It’s not the literal counting that shows love, but the attention paid.
Rashi lists the three times God took stock of his nation: When God took us out of Egypt He carried us, cherished us, and counted us. Shortly after the expression of love that was the Exodus from Egypt the Jewish People strayed and our Father disciplined us with love, and then He counted us. Finally, when He rested His Presence upon us in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) He lovingly counted us.
These three times that God counted us can be applied to three contexts of love in our relationships: The first rule of love is giving. We may use God’s carrying us out of Egypt as a lesson of care and concern for others. The second time God counted us teaches that, just like God, we must show our love through the setting of boundaries, as well. Then God showed us, when He rested His presence upon us, that sometimes when you love someone there is value in spending time, not to give in some specific way and not to discipline, but just to be together, in love.
The Rambam tells us that the way we can achieve the love of God is by seeing His goodness. This is true the other way around, too. God loves us because He sees our goodness. And we build on our love of others when we clearly see the specific good things about them.
Sometimes we confuse the love of another with self-love. We speak of foods that we love and we mean that we love ourselves and appreciate how these foods make us feel, but we don’t really love the food. When we strive to love another person we must be careful that the love goes in the direction of the other. False love goes in the direction of self- gratification.
This week’s Torah portion states that it will list Moses and Aaron’s sons and in the end it only lists Aaron’s sons. The rabbis explain that Moses’s sons were considered like Aaron’s sons because he taught them Torah. When you teach someone else’s children Torah it is considered as if they are your children.
The rabbis were not simply saying that God rewards you for teaching someone Torah by considering him or her as your child. They are teaching us that the reality is, when it’s done in its highest form, that the nature of the relationship in teaching Torah is a loving relationship, like that of a parent to a child. The key in child rearing and in teaching is to see the good in the child. The key to all loving relationships is to see the good in another person.
Along with focusing on the positive in the other person, the three ingredients of care, discipline, and attention need to be nurtured for relationships to be balanced. May God, in his love for us, bless us in the art of love, as we each, in our own way, do our best to emulate God and communicate love with all the right elements.