Bamidbar: Desperately Loving a Prostitute

hosea-and-gomerOn the face of it, the connections between the sedra and the haftarah of Bamidbar are slender. The first has to do with demography. Bamidbar begins with a census of the people. The haftarah begins with Hosea’s vision of a time when “the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or numbered.” There was a time when the Israelites could be counted; the day will come when they will be countless. That is one contrast between the future and the past.

-Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth
“Love as Law, Law as Love”
Commentary on Torah Portion Bamidbar

It’s not often that I write about both the Torah and Haftarah portions of a weekly Torah reading, but in trying to decide on my sources, both seemed to tell the same story: the story of God’s love. I know most Christians read the beginning of the Book of Numbers and mentally shut down the instant the census begins, but this is why the Torah is not just any other book. This is why the Bible is to be discovered and explored like a lost continent, like a prehistoric forest, like the ruins of the grand halls of the antediluvian Kings.

Because the words on the surface are deceptive and only the superficial person sees merely black text on white paper.

So Moses and Aaron took those men, who were designated by name, and on the first day of the second month they convoked the whole community, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses — the names of those aged twenty years and over being listed head by head.

Numbers 1:17-18 (JPS Tanakh)

When the census was taken in the desert, families were recorded by the names of their fathers. Now that’s unfair! Who insisted on having these children in Egypt over their husbands’ protests? Who defied Pharaoh’s decree and risked their lives to carry, give birth to and nurse these children? Now that the children are to be counted, the mothers are no longer noteworthy? (See Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 38:8)

In truth, no one needs a census to identify his mother. Every child knows his mother. Every child knows his mother. She raised him, nursed him, nurtured and loved him. The question is, who is the father? How many children can answer that question with certainty? For that we need a census.

-Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
“The Jewish Father”

Rabbi Gurkow goes on in his commentary to discuss how each child of a Jewish mother naturally knows his mother and then links this to the census and the importance of the Jewish father. He “smooths out” the apparent dissonance introduced by the “black and white” sense of the census and then says…

Children need both. They need to know that curiosity is normal and that answers are available to those who seek them. But they also need to know that moral standards are not negotiable. The young cannot expect to understand everything. Even adults don’t understand the reason for every moral standard. That is why we call them imperatives, not philosophies. On the deepest level, we don’t embrace morality because we understand its importance, but because we know it to be the right path.

The need for a mother and a father in parenting may contradict certain recent news stories addressing parenting and gender identity that we’ve all been hearing about, but in traditional Jewish (and Biblical) values, both are necessary and required for the proper raising of children. Both a mother and a father are necessary to teach children how men and women uniquely understand the world and in illuminating the different aspects of God. This is one way we learn to love, not just what it’s like to love and be loved by our parents (and others), but how to love and be loved by God.

The Sages tell us these were no ordinary censuses. Each time the Jewish people were counted, it was an expression of G‑d’s love for His people and His concern for every individual…

Yet this great power that the stars possess is not at all obvious. To us on earth, looking with the unaided eye and perhaps not thinking too much about the matter, the stars seem tiny and insignificant. Yet in fact, each star is a powerful and unique force.

So too is the case with each individual. In the context of the big wide world, he or she might feel insignificant. Yet, in truth, within each one of us there is an inner source of tremendous spiritual power, tailored to the unique and essential task we must carry out in the course of our lives.

-Dr. Tali Loewenthal
“Numbers and Stars”

Under heavenThe Prophet Isaiah said of the stars that God knows each individual one by its name and counts each one as it rises and sets which, for a human being given the vastness of the stars of heaven, would be an insurmountable task. But it is also said that God knows each one of us by our names and “counts” us, and we too are precious to Him. Like a child with many brothers and sisters, it’s easy to fell “lost in the crowd, but this isn’t how God sees us. Though our numbers are legion, still God, our Father, loves each and every one of us with a love that is unique and special to each of His sons and daughters.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from [the will of] your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Matthew 10:29-31

But what of the Haftarah Portion for Bamidbar? Rabbi Sacks states quoting Hosea 1:16, 17:

The second goes deeper. The sedra and the book that bears its name are called Bamidbar, “in the wilderness.” The book is about the wilderness years in both a physical and spiritual sense: a time of wandering and internal conflict. Hosea, however, foresees a time when G‑d will bring the people back to the desert and there enact a second honeymoon:

. . . I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her . . .
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
As in the day she came out of Egypt.

It’s important to understand something here. It’s important to understand the relationship between the Prophet and his wife, Gomer.

The story of Hosea is one of the strangest of that great chain of visionaries we call the prophets. It is the story of a marriage. The prophet married a woman called Gomer. He was deeply in love with her. We can infer this because, of all the prophets, Hosea is the most eloquent and passionate on the subject of love. Gomer, however, proved faithless. She left home, had a series of lovers, was serially unfaithful, and was eventually forced to sell herself into slavery. Yet Hosea, caught between anger and tender longing, found that he could not relinquish his love for her.

The love of Hosea for his wife Gomer, who “whored” herself after many lovers and finally who sold herself into prostitution is like God’s love for Israel, who “whored” herself after many “gods” and was equally faithless to her husband Hashem.

What man could embrace such a wife after this awful betrayal? No one (except God) would have blamed Hosea if he totally abandoned Gomer and pursued a more righteous wife (and how many other women were less righteous?). No one would have held it against him if he, the victim, would have walked away from Gomer and left her to the consequences of her decisions. But if he did so, if Hosea had cast Gomer aside, does that mean God should have done the same to Israel?

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

Romans 11:25-32 (Isaiah 59:20,21; 27:9 [see Septuagint]; Jer. 31:33,34)

Wayward SonIf we know how to read the Torah and Haftarah properly, they tell us a tale of love that is immense and beyond human comprehension. The Torah is the Law of Love, not condemnation. We shouldn’t forget the timing either. Rabbi Sacks points out that Hosea is the portion from the Prophets always read on the Shabbat directly preceding Shavuot, which is the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

The fact that tradition chose this of all prophetic passages tells us something deeply moving about how the Jewish people understood this festival, and about the Torah itself as the living connection between a people and G‑d.

I wrote yesterday about the relationship between love and the Bible and it seems like there is no escaping that theme as Shabbat approaches. We see that in spite of all rationality and reason, God loves Israel, and that such love is inescapably linked to Jewish love of God and the Torah. What is it then that God has done by giving us the Bible? What is the message beyond the simple words on the page? How does the very existence of the Bible mean Good News for the Jews, that the love of God can never be lost?

And what is the Good News for the Gentiles?

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only [unique] begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NASB)

I know that last verse is terribly over-quoted but how else am I to say what needs to be said?

Israel will not be lost! The Jewish people will never be abandoned. To believe otherwise is to completely misunderstand the Scriptures. And if we from among the nations who are called by His Name cling to Messiah and to the promise of his life and resurrection, then by the grace of God, neither will we.

Good Shabbos.

138 days.

2 thoughts on “Bamidbar: Desperately Loving a Prostitute”

  1. James:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this blog every day. I cannot answer in an eloquent way to add any unusual or even expanded thoughts, only to tell you my personal reaction. I usually end up so emotionally moved (yes, even weeping) that an eloquent reply is even less possible to ‘pen.’ Today’s post makes so much sense about the census and the counting of the stars as they relate to us as individuals and our Father’s love and greatness, His definite concern with each individual that is within His aggregate people Israel, and by extension with the affairs of us all over the course of His-story. As usual i have printed this post off, because the insights end up being a great help and blessing to the women in our weekly Bible study and also to our small congregation on Sabbath. Good shabbos to you.

  2. Thanks you for your kind words, Louise. I am truly blessed and thankful that anything I’ve written has touched you. Good Shabbos.

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