We completed the reading of the first three books of the Torah, each containing 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 suspecting adulteress. Rules of organization for battle, for marching and for camping also fill this book.
Commentators search for structure. Don Isaac Abrabanel opines that the ten portions of Bemidbar can be divided equally into five portions 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 the initial conquest of the Promised Land. Above all, Sefer Bemidbar is distinguished as the book of the Torah that most clearly attests to Divine guidance.
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 [ Yehudah HaNasi] says: This paragraph is to be considered a book by itself."
A number of scholars also divide Sefer Bemidbar into three parts based upon geographical considerations. 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 experiences, mishaps, revolts and ensuing 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 free air of the desert and prepared to conquer and then freely live a societal life in their own land. He offers an intriguing three-part theoretical structure to help us navigate our way through Bemidbar.
In the first part, the Torah extends the nation-founding experiences of Shemot and Vayikra. HaShem'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.) Parashat Bemidbar gives detailed treatment to the camping arrangements and standards. The focal point was the Mishkan immediately around which was encamped the tribe of Levi, the servicing priests.
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 laying out of future borders.
Sefer Bemidbar may thus be schematically seen 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 HaShem'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
• 3 The Bil'am cycle
• 4 The final rebellion, apostasy
III. In the Plains of Moab: Preparations for the Conquest of Canaan
• The second census
• Inheritance: the daughters of Tzelofchad
• Sacrifices 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.
A unique way of counting
The Parsha opens with the commandment to Moshe to take another census of the Jewish people , along with Aaron and ten select people(one from each tribe).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 military in nature. Preparations needed to be made to do battle with the nations of the Land of Canaan that the Jews would encounter in the course of conquering the land of Israel.
The Ramban notes that the Torah does not want us to rely on divine miracles, but expects us to conduct our life in a normal 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.
The second census also draws our attention to the miracle of our existence and survival. The 70 people who went down to Egypt grew to a nation of 12 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, says Ramban: God’s promise to us and His special relationship with us has enabled us to survive suffering, persecution, pogroms and Holocaust.
Taking a census is not just counting numbers, 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) and tifkod (remember favorably). We subtly are being reminded that each individual person is unique and needs to be treated accordingly. Perhaps this idea explains the custom of when counting people for a Minyan, we don’t point and count. 1, 2. … but do say “not -one, not- two…” We may be saying the person is “not (just a number) 1, 2...” He is a unique human being, not just a number.