“The children of Gad and... Reuben came and spoke to Moses, saying : Atarot and Dibon and Jazer and Nimrah and Heshbon and Elealeh and Sebam and Nebo and Beon”
AT this point in the journey through the wilderness, the Torah tells us that the tribes of Gad and Reuben had many cattle. They saw fertile land, and although the original plan was to cross the Jordan River and settle on its western side, these two tribes, unbeset by a slave mentality, engage in their own destiny and ask Moses and the elders if they could instead settle here in Transjordan.
Amid the seminal negotiations of whether tribes might decide for themselves where to settle, we find a number of lists.
As the contemporary scholar Ismar Schorsch has stated, “lists are the most rudimentary type of historical evidence. To us they are lifeless and repetitive, devoid of significance. Yet, for the historian endowed with imagination, they often become the building blocks for first-rate economic, social or political history.” Lists might seem irrelevant, a trivial account of place names but every word of the Torah is sacred and “potentially rife with profundity”, thus the rabbinic tradition holds every word dear. As Schorsch says “there is nothing which is not capable at some point in our lives to erupt with transcendent meaning.”
The tradition of reading the sidrah in advance of Shabbat means we are prepared for it not only through action, but by means of our imagination. We bring ourselves and our histories, our capabilities and potentials and we enable the text to come alive through our reading of it. The lists in Bemidbar (Numbers) are the communicative tools of God and it is for us to explore their profundity.