Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
The Role of the Levites
Details of the Encampment
o Levites around the Tabernacle (Mishkan)
o Yehuda/ Issachar/ Zevulun to the East
o Reuven/ Shimon/ Gad to the South
o Efraim/ Menashe/ Binyamin to the West
o Dan/Asher/Naftali to the North
o The Mishkan in the center
Genealogy of Aharon
Status of the Levites
Levites in place of First-Born
Census of the Levites
Census of the First-Born
Duties of Kehoth’s descendants
Precautions for the Kehothites
… Which literally means “in the wilderness [of Sinai]” has also been called the book that describes the numbering of the Israelites (Chumash Hapikudim). The English translation “Numbers” is derived from the Greek word for numbering, reflecting the extensive census and numbering described early in the Sefer.
An overview of Sefer BeMidbar
Each book of the Torah contains its own unique themes and structure.
• The first book, Bereshit, records the ancestry and origins of the children of Israel from the creation of the world until their settlement in the land of Egypt.
• Shemot continues the narrative with the bondage in Egypt, the various stages of the Exodus from Egypt and then the spiritual emancipation as the nation gradually is weaned from its tenacious idolatrous beliefs. Subsequent religious experiences include the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the building of the Tabernacle to "house" the Divine Presence among the people.
• Vayikra is a book of commandments for both priests and the people- a "how to" manual of daily living: avoiding the abominable and evil rites and acting in an appropriate manner in dietary, sexual, personal and business matters.
• BeMidbar describes the life experiences of the Jewish people for what proved to be a forty year desert trek leading ultimately to the Promised Land of Canaan. Stories of triumph and difficulty, of obedience and rebellion, of a recalcitrant donkey, of a revolting Korach and of a rock-hitting Moshe are balanced with disparate laws including tzitzit, red heifer, inheritance, the Nazarite and the suspected adulteress (sota). Rules of organization for battle, for marching and for camping also are contained in this book. Interestingly, only events of the first and last years of wandering are portrayed.
In the first part, the Torah extends the nation-founding experiences of Shemot and Vayikra. God’s communication to Moshe from the Mishkan in the desert is a repetition of, and surrogate for, the experience on Mount Sinai. Both Benno Jacob and Ramban view the Tabernacle as a "mobile Mount Sinai" enabling the Jewish people to re-experience that awesome and awe-inspiring event throughout their journeys. Judah Halevi in his Kuzari views the Tabernacle as the heart of the surrounding national body.
Parshat BeMidbar gives detailed treatment to the camping arrangements and standards. But the focal point remains the Mishkan around which was encamped first the tribe of Levi and then the entire nation of Israel.
No sooner had the Israelites set out on their journey through the wilderness than the idealism and religious fervor of Sinai gave way to the harsh reality of life in the desert. The result was dissatisfaction, grumbling, rebellion, failure, punishment and death. These events, which comprise the second part of Sefer BeMidbar, also helped to transition the Israelites from a rag tag group of slaves to a holy nation prepared to live on its own land. This readying process is portrayed in the third part of Sefer BeMidbar and is embodied in inheritance laws, calendar (tied to the growing cycles of the land) and a delineation of future borders.
The structure of Sefer BeMidbar
Don Isaac Abravanel thinks that the ten portions of BeMidbar can be divided into two five portions-segments based on historical background. The first five take place from the time of the inauguration of the Sanctuary in the second year of the Exodus until the dispatch of spies [and the further stay in the desert for thirty eight years]. The second five portions describe the new generation forty years after the Exodus as the nation prepares for its conquest of the Promised Land.
The Sages divide Sefer BeMidbar into three sections. The Talmud (Shabbat 115b-116a) notes that the two inverted Hebrew letters, Nun, enclose a paragraph of two verses at BeMidbar 10:35-36: “Va’yhe b’nsoa haaron vayomer Moshe kumah Hashem v’yafutzu oyvecha mepanecha…”On this point, the Talmud states: "Before and after this paragraph, the Holy One, Blessed be He, put special marks to point out that they are not in the original place; Rebbe [ Yehuda HaNasi] says: This paragraph is to be considered a book by itself."
A number of scholars also divide Sefer BeMidbar into three parts based on geography. The first part takes place in the wilderness of Sinai while the last part takes place in the plains of Moab. The middle section describes intervening experiences, mishaps, revolts and punishments.
Professor Everett Fox describes BeMidbar as a book of transition -- death of the old and birth of the new-- as the generation of slaves gives way to a generation of free people born in the open air of the desert and prepared to conquer and then live freely and peacefully in their own land. He offers a three-part structure to help us navigate our way through the Book.
According to Professor Fox Sefer BeMidbar may be schematically viewed as follows:
I. In the Wilderness of Sinai: The Camp
1. The census of the Israelites and the duties of the Levites
2. The ordering of the camp
3. The census of the Levites according to their duties
4. The tasks of the Levites
5. Threats to the ritual integrity of the camp
6. Procedure regarding the Nazarite and the Priestly blessing
7. Gifts of the tribes to the Tabernacle
8. The Tabernacle lamps and purification of the Levites
9. Passover in the wilderness and God's Presence with the Tabernacle
10. The journey to Canaan commences
II. The Rebellious Folk; Narratives of Challenge
A. Sealing the fate of the first generation
• The first rebellion: food
• The second rebellion: siblings
• The spies' mission
• The third rebellion: panic
• INTERLUDE: Rules on sacrifices, Shabbat and tzitzit
B. Crisis of Leadership
• The fourth rebellion: Korach and the Levites
• The fifth rebellion: after the purge
• The Levites as guardians
• Pollution by death and its removal
• The sixth rebellion: the sin of Moshe and Aharon
C. Encountering the other
• Encounters with various neighbors
• The seventh rebellion: food and water
• The Bil'am cycle
• The final rebellion, apostasy
III. In the Plains of Moab: Preparations for the Conquest of Canaan
• The second census
• Inheritance: the daughters of Tzelofchad
• Offerings for Holy Days
• Rules concerning vows
• First battle and aftermath
• The two and one-half tribes and future conquest
• Wilderness itinerary and warning
• Future borders
• The Levite towns of asylum
• Inheritance; the daughters of Tzelofchad
The wanderings through the desert were filled with obstacles: lack of food and water and hostile nations along the way. Even more striking is the Israelites' lack of faith and courage.
The Torah Is Not Meant To Be A History Book
Its ultimate purpose is to communicate to us the ethical and moral behavior demanded of us.
In BeMidbar there are stories about shortages of food and water and surrounding challenges, but the overwhelming obstacles are the internal ones—lack of faith and lack of trust. The overriding themes relate to the Israelites and their relationship with God—and His with us.
Themes include …
• Not-always-evident involvement of God in our lives and in world events
• Every generation has the opportunity to recreate and relive the inspiring (and sometimes frightening) desert experiences
• Subtle warning to learn from the past and to not repeat errors
• Every generation faces the unprovoked attacks from neighbors and enemies
• Ultimate Divine Salvation that assures our existential presence, rules of history notwithstanding.
The Art of Counting
The Parsha opens with the commandment to Moshe to take another census of the Jewish people, along with Aahron and twelve select people, one from each tribe. Of interest is that each of these people has one of God’s names or appellations as part of his name. This may be to temper any grandiosity they might feel from having been selected for the important task, by reminding them of God’s presence, a humbling realization. Or perhaps it was meant to imbue the mundane task of counting with a higher, religious/spiritual significance.
Counting and recounting are displays of love and of caring much as a mother and a teacher constantly check on their offspring and students, respectively. Counting also satisfies one’s need to feel part of a group and not be alone in the world.
This census differs from the one that had been taken just a year earlier (prior to the building of the Mishkan) in that it was related to the buildup of a military force. Preparations were needed in order to do battle with the nations of the Land of Canaan that the Jews soon would encounter. The march to Canaan was to be “That of a disciplined nation and not a rabble of runaway slaves” according to Shadal. Levites were not counted as part of this census owing to their devotion to the holy service of the Mishkan, which exempted them from military service.
Ramban notes that the Torah does not want us to rely on divine miracles, but expects us to conduct our life in a practical way-- to be armed and prepared to do battle when the situation arises. At the same time, one needs to understand that we are constantly experiencing “hidden miracles” that we call Nature or normalcy.
This second census also draws our attention to the miracle of our existence and survival. Thanks to God’s loving kindness, the seventy people who went down to Egypt grew to a nation of twelve tribes with over 600,000 men aged twenty and over. The census took place after pestilence and plagues. Here is the lesson of Jewish history: God’s promise to us and His special relationship with us has enabled us to survive suffering, persecution, pogroms and Holocaust.
Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks comments on how census-taking tends to focus on the crowd at the expense of the individual, communicating the idea that any single individual is expendable and easily replaceable. Furthermore, a number of scholars have noted how a crowd creates a “herd behavior” mentality in which one loses one’s independent judgment. Madness can result, as was documented by Charles Mackay in his study of the South Sea Bubble in the 1720’s entitled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Rabbi Sacks cites Gustav Le Bon, author of The crowd: A study of the popular mind (1895) who describes the power of the crowd to convert one’s thinking for oneself into a collective “group mind”. Individuals become anonymous. They lose their conscience and their sense of personal responsibility. “Crowds are particularly prone to regressive behavior, primitive reactions…are easily led by figures who are demagogues, playing on people’s fears and sense of victimhood” writes Rabbi Sacks. Gustav Le Bon adds that leaders are “especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous excitable half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness” [like Adolf Hitler].
The Torah view is that taking a census is not just a number-counting exercise, like an accountant taking inventory. The Hebrew root-word for counting is Lispor, as in S’feras H’omer. But here the Torah uses alternate words like s’oo (which also means to elevate, uplift) and tifkod (remember favorably).Rabbi Sacks concludes that we subtly are being reminded that each individual person “counts”; is unique; is valued; and needs to be treated accordingly. This insistence on the integrity and the dignity of each individual is a progressive idea not found in earlier civilizations. Every life is like an entire universe. Dissenting views are recorded and analyzed. No view or voice is silenced. Individuality is not to be destroyed by the masses.
Sandra Gottesman notes that identifying a person by number only is dehumanizing. The Nazis did it. In our society we have become reduced to identification by social security number. Our human uniqueness becomes obliterated. Perhaps this is why when counting people for a Minyan, we don’t point and count, 1, 2… Instead we say “not -one, not- two…” What we may be communicating is that each person is “not (just a number) 1, 2...” Quite the contrary, he is a special and unique human being.
These wordings also touch on our profound need to feel loved and to feel important in our relationships. The Lubavitcher Rebbe thinks that what we are really counting is our unique Jewish identity.
The Census Protocol
Previously, in Parshat Ki-sisah, the God’s directive was that counting the nation was to be done by each person donating half a shekel-- and then totaling them. This method was chosen so that “no plague shall come upon them”. If so, why was this method not employed here in this second census?
Rashi thinks that the half shekel method was used. But Abravanel, quoted by Nechama Leibowitz, opines that in the earlier census the half shekel was not critical to the counting, but was used primarily to provide funding for the construction of the Tabernacle. In later years, the funds were used to buy animals for the Temple Offerings.
King David was punished for his census of the nation not because he failed to use half shekels, but because of his overconfidence in placing his trust in his military. Certainly, national leadership is obligated to build its military strength for defense. But, speculates Nechama Leibowitz, King David created a permanent force at a time when there was no need for it since Israel was at peace with its surrounding neighbors. He appears to have done it for his own sake to showoff and boast before the nearby nations. For this character flaw he was condemned.
Levites Replace the First Born
The first born in ancient times traditionally had both religious responsibilities and special privileges. During the Exodus, God declared that every first-born is His. Rabbi Gunter Plaut speculates that God’s special relationship with, and ownership of, first born counters the primitive rituals of sacrificing children to a pagan deity.
It was logistically cumbersome for the first born to officiate in the Mishkan. Levites, whose number roughly approximated that of the Israelite first born children, replaced them. They were committed to devote their lives assisting the Kohanim (offspring of Aaron) in the Mishkan service. They were also responsible for transporting the Mishkan during the desert travels.
Furthermore, by being encamped immediately around the Mishkan they served as a barrier for the Jewish people who might at some point during an uncontrollable religious frenzy want to “cross the line” and enter the Tabernacle—even if in a state of tumah(religious impurity).
Parshat BeMidbar is read close to Shavuot…
… the holiday commemorating the receipt of the Torah and the affirmation of the Covenant/unique relationship between us and God.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the Torah was “not given in a civilized environment, but in a desert” to show that one needs to be open-minded to appreciate its values, and to not be influenced by one’s distracting environment. We are obliged to help one who is floundering in a spiritual wasteland find himself and assist him to develop into a civilized, directed person.
Rabbi Sacks comments on the similar-sounding Hebrew words for wilderness (midbar) and word (davar). “ Where other nations found the gods in nature – the rain, the earth, fertility and the seasons of the agricultural year – Jews discovered God in transcendence, beyond nature, a God who could not be seen but rather heard. In the desert, there is no nature. Instead there is emptiness and silence, a silence in which one can hear the unearthly voice of the One-beyond-the-world… In the silence of the desert Israel became the people for whom the primary religious experience was not seeing but listening and hearing: Shema Yisrael. The God of Israel revealed Himself in speech. Judaism is a religion of holy words, in which the most sacred object is a book, a scroll, a text. ” It is in this desert, concludes Rabbi Sachs, that a whole new relationship was born built on Love and Joy that was concretized by the Covenant between God and His people.
The desert conjures up images of clarity, of quiet, of intimacy with no distractions, of openness, of a place available to all. That the Torah was given in the desert may mean that without it we would find ourselves living a desolate existence. With it, we are given a clean start. The open spaces may allude to God’s open invitation to us all to become purified and to be “reborn”. Or perhaps this is a reference to the wilderness within us all that can be tempered by adhering to the ethics contained in the Torah.
The Zohar states that all Jewish souls including those souls yet to be created were present at Mt. Sinai when the Torah was given to us. All Jews throughout history are part of one organic whole. Generations that came after Mt. Sinai learned of this extraordinary event that defined us as a nation from their parents, and then transmitted the idea to their children. Every day, but especially on Shavuot, we try to capture the emotion and inspiration of the Mt. Sinai experience, as if we were there.