Thursday, 26 May 2011

Written by Rabbi Larry Tabick

Making Our Spirituality Count

The Book of Numbers did not get its English name by accident. With the results of three censuses, it does contain rather a lot of numbers. In fact, Sefer BeMidbar opens with a census. But unlike the detailed questionnaire that we had to fill out recently, this only counted men of fighting age. Clearly a nomadic people had to have a clear idea of its military strength, but what is the spiritual purpose behind all this counting of people?

Menachem Ziyyoni was a German-Jewish mystic, heir to both the German and Spanish-Provençal mystical traditions, who lived in the late-14th and early-15th century. He authored a number of works, among them a commentary on the Torah, the eponymous Sefer Tziyyoni. In his comment on Numbers 1:1, he questioned the spiritual need for a census: ‘for their number was [already] revealed and known before God.’ His answer is: ‘there are many things, in action or in speech, that need doing in order to bring them from potential into actuality, and the knowledge of them alone is not sufficient, for the supernal things need the activity of what is below.’ 1

Ziyyoni’s remarks are based on the kabbalistic notion of the ten Sefirot (‘the supernal things’ he calls them). In the Kabbalah, these ten are attributes of God, aspects of God’s personality, as it were, which are reflected in the everyday ‘real’ world that we normally inhabit. In fact, you might say that this world is only a pale reflection of that ‘higher’ realm. There, concepts like Wisdom, Understanding, Love, Strength and Justice have their origins. They inform this world, but they need to be brought to consciousness and to action here. ‘Above’ they exist in potential only; here ‘below’ they need to be made actual.

In this case perhaps he means that, although God knew how many fighting men there were in Israel, the people needed to know. God’s knowledge, as it were, had to become human knowledge. The ideal of Israel had to be given concrete form in actual people, so that Torah/Judaism, God’s blueprint for humanity, could be put into practice.

This suggested to me that we have to put our ideals into practice if they are to amount to any more than just empty words. The high principles we proclaim in our services, that we read in the Torah, the Prophets and in our tradition, that resonate in our hearts and minds – they are only as good as our actions. Rooted though they are in spiritual realms, they need to come to fruition in our physical and social lives, if they are to have any meaning. And this in turn reinforces our spiritual dimension.

Rabbi Larry Tabick
May 2011



1 Sefer Ziyyoni (Lvov, 1882; reprinted Jerusalem, 1964), pp. 58a-b.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.