Seen and Unseen

Headshot of Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Headshot of Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Rabbi Adam Greenwald

Miller Introduction to Judaism Program
American Jewish University

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest learning program for those exploring conversion to Judaism in North America. He also serves as Lecturer in Rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. In 2016, Rabbi Greenwald received the Covenant Foundation's Pomegranate Prize in Jewish Education.

Rabbi Greenwald is the editor of On One Foot, an introduction to Judaism textbook and curriculum, in wide use across the US and Canada. He is a Fellow with the National Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL)'s "Rabbis Without Borders" initiative and speaks and teaches nationwide on issues of conversion, inclusion, and engagement of Jewish millennials.

Prior to coming to the Intro Program, he served as Revson Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR, one of America's most innovative spiritual communities. He received his BA in History from UCLA and his MA and ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2011. 

posted on May 31, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

"The total number was 603,550" - Numbers 1:46  

The Book of Numbers begins with a head count of the entire Jewish People, before they depart from their Sinai encampment, on the way to the Promised Land. Moses organizes this massive endeavor, with the help of representatives from each of the Tribes, and in the end comes to a count of approximately 600,000 people who make up the Israelite nation.

Bamidbar Rabbah (2:13) records the famous teaching that just as there were six hundred thousand Jews at Sinai, there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. This beautiful midrashhas given rise to countless sermons about the value of the individual - just as a Torah requires each and every little letter in order to be complete, so too our community needs every single one of us. Absolutely lovely stuff.

However, there is an itsy-bitsy problem. The Torah does not contain 600,000 letters. In fact, not even close to it! The Torah contains just about half that number, at 304,805. While the rabbis lacked the sophisticated software that can produce an accurate count like that in seconds, they surely knew that their count was off by an entire order of magnitude. What then can that midrash be understood to mean?

The mystical tradition has long taught that the black letters of the Torah scroll only make up half the story; the other half - and potentially the more revealing truths - are contained in the white spaces that accompany each letter. Just as in conversation where what is not said is often more important than what is actually spoken aloud, the white spaces that surround the black letters are equally vital to understanding what Torah is trying to teach us. Counting the white spaces, along with the black letters, we arrive at 600,000 - and the midrash is saved!

Yet, another, more troubling contradiction lurks below the surface of this text. When the Torah records that 600,000 stood at Sinai, it is again only telling half the story. As feminist critics like Judith Plascow, Rachel Adler, and others have taught us - a closer look at the text reveals that twice that number participated in Revelation and twice that number marched from the mountain. The Torah records only the names and stories of the men, the women who stood aside them have been erased from our counting. Again, half is visible and half, invisible.

Just as our understanding of Torah is only complete when we count both the black letters and the white spaces, our understanding of ourselves is only complete when we notice the whole community. That means really seeing those who have traditionally counted and those who have been excluded, who have historically faded into the background like the white spaces.

Let's teach our eyes to see the whole of what is in front of us, both light and dark, both seen and unseen.

Shabbat Shalom.