Parshat Bemidbar

[Please note there will be no entry next week due to the Shavuoth holidays.]

Summary: The Book of Numbers, fourth of the Five Books of Moses, spans the 40 years in which Bnei Yisrael wandered in the wilderness.

Bemidbar, the 1st parasha, covers Chapters 1:1 – 4:20 and begins on the 1st day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year from the Exodus; the initial task was a national census, taken tribe-by-tribe, excluding the Levites. Bemidbar then describes how the tribes encamped – with 3 tribes on each side of a square. The total of men age-20 and above was 603,550.

Next we read the appointment of the sons of Levi to serve in the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting) in place of the first-born. The total of the three houses – Gershon, Kehat and Merari – was 22,000. The number of first born from the 12 tribes was 22, 273. The surplus 273 first-born each paid a 5 silver Shekel ransom to Aharon and his sons. The Levite encampment was also in the form of an interior square with the Ohel Mo’ed at its centre.

The responsibility for deconstructing the Mishkan was given to Aharon assisted by those from the tribe of Kehat who were between 30-50 years old. The procedure outlined in great detail, ensured their safety – so they wouldn’t see the covering of holy objects and die.

Please look here for an Aliyah-by-Aliyah summary.

Comment:  Anyone who’s attended a Passover Seder and stayed through to the last song, will know the number ‘5’ in Ehad Mi Yode’ah represents Five Books of the Torah. But few are aware of a perplexing piece of Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 116a) which suggests there are actually seven. The source of this discrepancy depends on how we read the Book of Bemidbar.

Were we to describe broadly the plot and drama of the Torah up to this point, we might say that central to Bereshith is G-d’s two-fold promise to Abraham; that his descendants will be chosen as a holy people and that they will eventually inherit the Land of Cana’an.

Shemot and Vayikra demonstrate the fulfilment of that first promise; Bnei Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt, brought to Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments and taught to build a Tabernacle (Mishkan). The priesthood was appointed to maintain spiritual purity in and around the camp and laws of social justice were given, as a prerequisite to living within close proximity of the Divine Presence (Shekhina).

Bemidbar begins a new book in which the focus turns to the fulfilment of G-d’s second covenantal promise, the journey to inherit the Land of Cana’an – bringing us back to our Talmudic dilemma.

The Talmud’s view is that the initial instructions for encampment and movement (Chap 1-10) comprise a book on its own, verses 10:35-36 describing the first steps forward are a separate book, and all the complaining and drama that occurs thereafter marks the third (Chaps 11-36). Bemidbar is therefore the struggle between ideal and reality.

Dr David Elgavish, in the 2005 book Professors on the Parasha, offers an alternate view based on generational change. He sees the second and third parts divided more evenly. The march from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea including the spy’s failure, G-d’s decree against the adult males and the eventual deaths of Miriam & Aharon (Chap 11-20) is followed by the march from Kadesh Barnea to the Plains of Moab and their children’s conquest of the east bank of the Jordan River (Chap 20-36).

This view sees Bemidbar as a transitional narrative – from the generation raised in Egyptian captivity to their offspring, born into freedom. The legacy of Sinai was first conveyed from parent to child via the strength of Moses’s leadership. Subsequent generations would face that challenge anew.

As we prepare for Shavuoth next week, we commemorate G-d’s revelation to mankind! Rashi (France – 1040-1105) explains our ancestors stood ‘as one person with one heart’ at Sinai, realising their utter in-consequence in relation to the words ‘I am the Lord, your G-d.’ Yet, Sinai conveyed to all present the hope that each of us can and must carve out for ourselves a direct, living relationship with the Almighty.

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom & Mo’adim LeSimha,