Wednesday, July 19, 2017

We the Sheeple

If Torah portions were countries, Matot would be New Zealand.
No, that has nothing to do with Middle-earth; it's just that Matot has a lot of sheep, more than people. Arguably, it should have a pretty epic Battle of the Five Armies too, but the five kings of Midian are eliminated pretty quickly in Numbers 31. (Down with the Pentarchy!) The Torah then spends 46 verses excruciatingly detailing the fate of the booty, which is tallied ewe first.
And the booty, being the rest of the plunder which the men of war had caught, was six hundred thousand and seventy thousand and five thousand sheep (31:32).
Why is this so important? Counting sheep is a metaphor for an activity so boring it's guaranteed to put you to sleep. Could sheep represent something else? Many of the Prophets liken Israel to God's flock, from Amos to Micah, from Jeremiah to Ezekiel (36:37-38):
I will multiply their people like sheep. Like the sheep for offerings, like the sheep of Jerusalem on her holidays, so will the ruined cities be filled with people like sheep.
Now, if Israel are sheeple (in the good sense), what would be the significance of the number 675,00? Fortunately, if we're looking to get arithmetical, Numbers is the Book for us.
Flip back a few chapters (to 26), and we find a census of the Israelites earlier that year, totaling 601,730. But the 23,000 Levites are counted separately, so let's call it about 625,000.
But immediately before the census, 24,000 fall in a plague (that, by the way, is the reason for war with Midian in the first place). That brings us to 649,000.
Ten chapters before, we are told that fifteen thousand perished in the Korahite rebellion and its aftermath. That makes 664,000.
Now we have to guesstimate. There are two massive plagues that take a bite out of the people: one in ch. 11 when they eat some bad quail ("a very great plague"), and one in ch. 21 when they are beset by snakes ("a great many people died among Israel"). Let's call it a thousand each, which would bring us to 666,000.
(I know, between the lamb metaphors and the 6-6-6, it's getting very New Testament-y in here. But bear with me.)
Now we have to skip back to the Book of Exodus and the first major catastrophe after leaving Egypt: the sin of the Golden Calf in ch. 32. Its worshipers are dispatched by three methods (see Talmud Yoma 66b): by drinking the water with ground-up Calf in it; by Levite swordsmen; by a plague directly from God. The verse only tells us about the death toll from the middle, immediate method, three thousand. But assuming the other two methods had similar casualties, that would bring us to 9,000. Add that to 666,000, and you get 675,000.
This is the heartbreaking part. The war with Midian is Moses' last hurrah. "Wreak the Israelites' vengeance upon the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people" (Num. 31:2). It's only natural for him to record it in painstaking detail, especially the parts with echoes of the past: not only the generation whose children would fulfill their dreams, but the tens of thousands who never got that far. All those who never got to see the Promised Land weigh on Moses' soul -- until he too is buried beside them.W

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