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Bemidbar 5761

Haftarah
Parshat Bemidbar
(Hosea 2:1 – 22)
May 26, 2001

The book of Numbers takes its English name from the census which occurs at the beginning of the book. The Midrash sees this as a sign of God’s affection for Israel.

“It is like a person who owns something very precious, he counts it often in order to know its worth and is happy each time that he counts it. So too, the Holy One Blessed be He rejoices when He takes account of the number of Israelites.” (adapted from Bamidbar Rabbah 2:19)

Similarly, at the beginning of the Haftarah, the prophet Hosea promises a future when “the number of the children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered …” (Hosea 2:1)

The optimism of this promise is tempered however by the harsh rebuke which follows it in Hosea’s prophecy (verses 4-19). Perhaps this is why some of the sages of the Talmud are ambivalent about the significance of Hosea’s promise. This ambivalence is expressed in a discussion of the meaning of this verse in the Talmud (adapted from Yoma 22b). Two sages, Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Nachman bar Yitchak see this verse as the source for the prohibition against counting Jews. They read the verse this way: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which should not be measured or counted!”

Another sage, Rabbi Yonatan discerns an internal contradiction in this verse. According to Rashi’s explanation, Rabbi Yonatan understands the first part of this verse to imply that the number of Jews will be finite like the “sand of the sea” while the second half of the verse infers that they will be without measure or number. The Talmud offers a number of possible solutions to this contradiction. One explanation suggests that the first part of the verse describes when the Jewish people are not loyal to the will of God, while the second half of the verse describes when the Jews follow God’s ways.

While this discussion veers from the original intention of Hosea’s words, nevertheless it seems to capture the essence of his message as found in our Haftarah. Relationships, whether they are between two people or between human beings and God require loyalty and commitment. In order to be counted by God, God should be able to count upon us.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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