By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
This week’s parashah is rightly famed for the speech in which Judah stands before the fearsome Viceroy of Egypt to plea for the safety of Benjamin. It contains the moment where the Viceroy finally reveals, “I am Joseph”, and the family is reunited. I can’t read these verses without hearing lines from the musical echoing in my mind.
No-one, however, has written a song about the verses which list the 70 souls who end up in Egypt at the end of this great adventure. Lists rarely attract much attention, but there is Midrashic wisdom buried even here.
The list comes in four parts: first the children of Leah; then those of Leah’s concubine, Zilpah; then those of Rachel; and last, those of Rachel’s concubine, Bilhah.
Bilhah, as mother and grandmother, is associated with seven souls, and Rachel with fourteen – precisely double.
Zilpah is associated with sixteen and Leah … if you were expecting double-sixteen you would be sort of right. There are indeed 32 names listed, but having run through this list the Bible tells us, “the children Leah bore to Jacob were 33” (Gen. 46:15). Who’s not listed, but counted?
B’reishit Rabbah 94:9 suggests: “Jacob completed the number.
Rabbi Yitzchak said, ‘This may be compared to two legions of the king, Decumani and Augustiani [the two most important legions in the Roman army]. When the king is counted together with one legion, its number is complete. And when he is counted together with the other legion, its number is complete.’” The two legions in Jacob’s army are the children of Leah and the children of Rachel. On this occasion he joins the children of Leah.
This midrash suggests the person not mentioned in the list is the most important person in the group. It’s an idea that reminds me of one of my favourite Jewish tales.
The story is told of the wise folk of Chelm, the fictional pantomime fools of the Chasidic imagination. Once, waiting to read Torah, the Wise Men of Chelm asked the wisest of their number to check if there was a quorum present. The man counted one to nine, and sadly acknowledged the lack of a minyan. So they waited. It was only when a stranger from a faraway city entered the room that the service continued. “Why hadn’t you started before I arrived?” the stranger asked. “We weren’t quorate,” the Chelmnikim replied. “But there are eleven of us here,” the stranger replied. It turns out the wise man had forgotten to count himself.
I was thinking of this story listening to a radio report in America where someone was complaining about taxes being too high. “I don’t want to have to pay for health insurance,” they said. “I want the government to pay for health insurance.”
The temptation, in our lives, is to look for someone else to do something and forget to count ourselves. The temptation is to bemoan the absence of something, someone, and forget our own role. Just as the counting of the children of Jacob is only complete when Jacob is counted among them, so too we are as a community, and indeed as a people, only complete when we remember to count ourselves.
Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue