Bamidbar, Shemot, Bereshit — what’s in a name?New Castle Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
I always bring to my congregants’ attention that the actual definitions of the names of each of the Five Books of Moses are not correct.
Beginning with Bamidbar. The book is identified as Numbers in all Bibles. However the actual definition of Bamidbar is “In the Desert.” Funny thing, the relevance is true to form. The entire book of Bamidbar describes the true trials and tribulations of our Jewish forefathers and mothers as they journeyed through the desert or “the wilderness.”
Why then is the book called Bamidbar? Sure, the very beginning of the book illustrates the mustering of the population by Moses, the counting of all the able 20-year-old men ready to serve in the military — the draft, if you will. So if we are to put the emphasis on that aspect, shouldn’t the book be called Seuoo (“the Sums of”) or truly “Numbers.” The same question can be asked for the four other books. Shemot, for example. True definition: “Names” Why not refer to it as is? Exodus? Yes that’s what happened, but to whom? Those “names!”
It is obvious G-d, the true author of the “Five Books of Moses,” wanted to connect the words chosen for names of each book, with their true identity. With the word Bamidbar actually meaning “in the desert” or “wilderness,” without the census taking or the specifics of numbers, the desert or wilderness would have been empty and void. Of course, after Moses went through the numbers process commanded by G-d, the wilderness was truly ready to be the area of challenge for the people to work to merit G-d’s gift to them — inhabiting the Holy Land.
All the other books of the written Torah bring the same idea. Berashit — “In the Beginning” — or Genesis: the “beginning” referring to creation, the genesis of the identity of our first recorded history.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)