Quality and Quantity in the Book of Numbers

Quality and Quantity in the Book of Numbers

Bamidbar, fourth of the Five Books of Moses, is correctly translated as “In the wilderness” or “In the desert.” Yet, like Deuteronomy, the English name “Numbers” has Jewish roots and reflects the nature of the work. Numbers, Sefer HaP’kudim, famously begins with a census of the Hebrew tribes and proceeds with some of the most wondrous and mysterious stories in all the Chumash. Despite its numbers, quantity is not the (sole) focus of the book of Bamidbar. Rather, the book and its stories instruct us in the sublimation of quantities, the divine quality of numbers, and how they figure into the proper worship of G-d.

That numbers matter is hardly a given. For much of history the wise have considered a focus on numbers in human affairs1 to be a concession to the coarse and unintelligent, even to the animal. Is the number of children you have more important to you than their personalities or their individual souls? If your neighbor has three kids and you have two, does that mean their kids are better?

Thousands of years ago, the only people convinced the truth of reality is deeply mathematical were mystical cultists of Pythagoras, idolators who believed salvation came through alignment with mathematical harmonies. Not until the enlightenment and the last few centuries was their belief resurrected and pursued with remarkable result by scientists. Perhaps in some sense, one fifth of the Torah, ancient and extremely non-idolatrous, sat quietly for millennia, full of stories allegedly about numbers, waiting to speak to a quantitative age…

Now, the Torah doesn’t teach that mere numbers confer importance or truth—after all, it is the book of “indeed, you are the smallest of peoples.” On the other hand, we do find in Jewish law that numbers do lend a certain reality to things. Things that are counted cannot be nullified. A minyan for prayer consists of ten Jewish men, regardless of righteousness; nine holy tzaddikim cannot replace it.2 So while quantity itself has no inherent value, a quantity of qualities can itself lend new qualities3; ten Jews become a quorum, and the tenth brings in the Shechina, presence of the Ultimate Quality. Quantity is important, but only as it reflects quality.

Quantity and quality are in fact deeply intertwined. Learn if from Parshas Nasso, the most repetitive portion in the entire Torah, a procession of quantities, each the same, and each, Rashi explains, reflecting the years of Adam’s life. The offerings count the same for each tribe, and each is based on the same essential reasoning, yet there are still twelve different intentions and so a twelvefold repetition of the words4. It is the quantity of Adam’s years that allow the multifaceted interpretation that mere quality would deny, but each of the twelve facets is imbued with the quality of each tribe and the unity of their general mission. Quantity is important, but only as it reflects quality.

We learn it again in Parshas Beha’aloscha, wherein the Torah does not flow with the qualitative passage of time. The story of Pesach Sheini actually occurred before the first two portions of the book. Just as the people rejected the rule of time and asked to celebrate Passover out of its time, so is the Torah revealed to transcend such quantifiable concerns.5 On the contrary, the way the Torah is grounded in time, in the successive days of the week or months of the year, and the consecration of certain periods, is shown to be a qualitative concern, the Torah’s choice born of G-d’s will and its divine nature rather than its subjugation to quantity. By adhering to Torah, the flow of measurable time is elevated. Quantity is important, but only as it reflects quality.

In Shlach and Korach, we see what happens if the balance of quantity and quality is disturbed. First the spies reduce quantity to quality, arguing that quantity is not important, that the desert and the holy land are not two instance of one thing (e.g. two creations, sharing the nature of all creations of subservience to G-d’s will). They rather viewed the wilderness and the land as two particular things, one that allowed for G-d’s miracles and one that didn’t.6

Korach sees the mistake of the spies and seizes on the opposite extreme, reducing quality to quantity. He insists Moshe and Aharon are one, at essence, belonging the same group as Korach, mere holier Levites. He errs in refusing to see the irreducible qualities of his cousins, that in fact they are infinitely greater, as king and high priest, than he, a gap no addition can cross and no generative divine algorithm can iterate across.

As if to emphasize the point, the portion of Chukas launches immediately into a discussion of the red heifer and the Torah’s laws of ritual purity and impurity. The laws are the most purely qualitative in the entire Torah7, rebelling against the mind’s tendency to homogenize through quantification and comparison. Touch a corpse with one finger or your whole arm, your body is just as ritually impure. Try to divide the purity from impurity in the heifer which purifies and corrupts simultaneously. The suprarational chok decree expands Korach’s lesson to all of Judaism. Never can the Torah be called a mere means to some complex or composite end.

Yet, in Balak, Bilaam saddles his talking donkey8 to ride off to curse the Israelites, attempting to pervert9 the very notion of the suprarational chok, to take advantage of the parity of qualitative reason.10 Bilaam tries to show that worship totally beyond reason can allow evil to arise, that the suprarationality of the Hebrews’ worship could in turn collapse to the irrational, for there is no standard for comparison, no ratiocinative quantitative reason that can divide evil from good in the realm of the suprarational.11 Answers G-d that Avraham beat Bilaam to the punch, that the suprarational is, itself, mysteriously and immutably Good. His curses are transformed into blessings. We thus find that quantity is important, but only as it reflects quality, and quality is important only as it reflects the will of its Creator.

This mysterious transcendence beyond quality, to the One Who Lends Quality To All Qualities—a Cause of Causes, if you will—is reflected in the total dedication of Pinchas beyond the dictates of the Torah (and Moshe) itself.12 Pinchas learned not only from the repentance of the second Pesach, which pointed beyond the quantifiable, but from the failure of Bilaam, which pointed beyond the qualitative. At a moment when wisdom provided no answer, he was able to find one; his actions reflected the suprarational will of G-d.

It is first in Pinchas that the quantitative fully conveys the qualitative and is united with it.13 After all the preceding portions, Pinchas sees the root of quality lies above quality. Why, then, should he ever intend to act according to quantity or quality alone? On the contrary, quality, and the quantity to which it must speak, can only be guided by faith and total surrender of one’s will to G-d. Only when quality is appraised in terms of its source, rather than in the context of speaking to quality, is that quality then able to speak to quantity without becoming corrupted.

It is thus by living in a way of Pinchas that quality and quantity are properly balanced and united. Numbers depend on souls which depend on G-d. Only then is the mission of the Book of Numbers fulfilled: To elevate numbers and reveal their holiness. The Book of Numbers shows us, the descendants of the Hebrews who fill its stories, how to live a G-dly life in an ever-more measured world.14


1That numbers are objects of wisdom and in their relation involve eternal truths is hardly a modern idea. However, particularly through the Aristotelian influence, the primacy of the numerical in perceiving the natures of things was relegated to the outskirts of western thought for centuries.

2A law derived from the book of Numbers, specifically from the incident with the spies.

3See Likkutei Sichos, vol. II, p. 293ff.

4See Likkutei Sichos, vol. VIII, p. 41ff.

5See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXIII, p. 62.

6See Likkutei Sichos, vol. IV, p. 1041ff.

7See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XIII, p.68ff.

8G-d warning Bilaam through a talking donkey should have tipped the sorcerer off. When the Rogatchover Gaon wants to characterize Korach’s heresy, he compares it to thinking a human being is nothing but a donkey plus some further, ‘humanizing’ traits, that a donkey’s eating and human eating are more-or-less the same. For Bilaam’s beast to suddenly leap across this divide is almost like G-d saying, “I choose which incomparable creations are actually comparable around here. Korach thought he was like Aharon, when he and Aharon were as distant as a man to a donkey. You think that by accessing the suprarational, you rise to the level of the Hebrews, but you are more different from the Hebrews than a donkey is from a man…” See footnote 10 below.

9See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXVIII, p.157ff.

10 Unlike the spies, who focus too much on quality and ended up denying G-d’s power over certain natures, Bilaam focuses on quality to, in a sense, broaden G-d’s power, to claim the same connection to G-d for evil as for good. Quality seems to divide from quantity at two extremes, then: (a) to become estranged qualities (b) to become One. The spies abandon quantity in order to divide; Korach abandons quality in order to unite; Bilaam abandons quantity in order to unite. Of course, the unity Bilaam seeks, in irrationality, is the loneliest of all unities, in which true communication between individuals is probably impossible. The spies’ division at least maintained G-d as a principle, and where there are principles there is common ground. Bilaam unites under a G-d so dissociated that evil and good are equal, and so divides; the spies divide the wilderness from the land under a G-d who is Good, and so unite. Thus, not every medium (e.g. rationality) separates and not every immediacy (e.g. a decree of pure will) unites.

11Think, again, of the red heifer, in which pure and impure, qualities, are rationally inseparable.

12See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XVIII, p. 318ff.

13See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXXIII, p. 164ff.

14Perhaps we could say that the unique relationship of the Jew to G-d at a totally suprarational level that in turn permeates down even through the level of basest quantity is reflected in Parshas Matos-Maasei as well. See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXIII, p. 214ff.