Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

May 22, 2004 – 2 Sivan 5764

Annual: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 769; Hertz p. 568)
Triennial Cycle: Numbers 3:14-4:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 779; Hertz p. 576)
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 787; Hertz p. 582)

Prepared by Rabbi Howard Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center, Dix Hills, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

The Torah portion of B’midbar contains 159 verses. None of the 613 mitzvot are found within this parasha.

Torah Topics

B’midbar, which means "in the wilderness" is the name of both this Torah portion and the entire fourth book of the Torah. A census of all men eligible for military service (ages twenty and above) is the point of departure for this reading. Noteworthy, the Levites are not included in this census as they are empowered and entrusted with the care of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle. Incorporated into this parasha is the actual organizational structure of the Israelite encampment as they journey from oasis to oasis, with the Tabernacle in the center surrounded by the Priestly families and then each tribal grouping.

A detailed lineage of Aaron and his Priestly descendants (Kohanim) as well as the Levitical families are mentioned in relation to their role of attending to the portable sanctuary as it is moved from one location to the next. A special census is also enumerated of the first born males and the narrative concludes with a description of many of the sacred objects found within the Mishkan.

Word of the Week

Mishkan is the term used for the portable tabernacle and is often referred to as the Mishkan ha-edut, the tabernacle of testimony. Contained within this sacred precinct are the Ten Commandments (as well as the shards of the set of tablets which Moses had shattered), the candelabra/Menorah and other holy items. The root of the word Mishkan literally means "to dwell" and is linked to the Hebrew term, Shekhinah, the imminent Divine Presence (which dwells among us). In the Book of Shemot (25:8), God articulates that the people of Israel "will be for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell (shachanti) amongst them" - to emphasize that the presence of God cannot be contained within any finite space, but that the Presence of God dwells among all of us. Sanctuaries and synagogues are holy and sacred, while the presence of God is also found in our lives and in our deeds and Mitzvot.

Sedra Spark #1 - Roll Call

Why the emphasis on counting and numbering the Israelites, especially in light of the earlier census taken in Exodus chapters 30 and 38? Why all the statistics? And is there a unique Jewish fashion to count?

  1. Rashi, the great French commentator states that counting is a sign of Divine love. After the apostasy of the molten calf, God wants to lovingly recount his precious people. Many of us take stock of our precious physical belongings, an inventory of our assets and count our collectables. God lovingly takes Divine time to count that, which is most precious and dear, the people of Israel.
  2. Nahmanides, a 13th century illustrious Spanish Rabbi, adds other moral dimensions to the act of taking a census. He states referring to the text "and you will number them by their generations of their families: "the Holy One Blessed be God, ordered Moses to number them in a manner that would bestow honor and greatness upon each one individually. Not that you should say, how many are in your family or how many children do you have. But rather all of them should pass before God in awe and with honor due to each of them and they should be counted. Nahmanides is instilling a Jewish value that our strength is not only in the aggregate sum total of a community, but Jewish strength is also found within each sacred, holy and unique human being. Our value and self-worth is not only through our yichus, lineage, but also based upon our own contributions, of how each person crafts and forges their own lives. That is how God counts and relies upon each of us as sacred and gifted human beings, each with our precious talents to share in mending our world.
  3. Nahmanides also adds a strategic dimension to counting as he notes: this was also the manner of kings going to war. Now the Israelites were ready to enter the land and do battle… and Moses and the chieftains of Israel needed to know the number of soldiers eligible (for military service). For the Torah does NOT rely upon miracles that one should pursue a thousand and this is the reason for the statement "all that are able to go forth to war on behalf of Israel"
  4. Nehama Leibowitz, a 20th century Biblical scholar adds to this provocative insight from Nahmanides. Professor Leibowitz states that "we must NOT rely upon miracles but make all the necessary preparations… particularly with regard to the spies, the dispatch of which into the Holy Land is regarded as the correct expedient adopted by all conquerors, since the Torah would not advocate relying upon miracles. "In that regard, we act as partners with the Almighty in making Jewish dreams become a reality. The creation of the modern state of Israel is a powerful paradigm of our faith in God and our faith in ourselves - that God counts upon us to act in order to forge the future.
  5. Additionally, there is a powerful custom rooted in this narrative and in the Torah reading of Ki Tisa of not directly counting people, but counting either the half shekel, which they contributed or counted, by their names or pedigree. The custom is that one never directly counts people as is expressed in the Yiddish folk tradition of counting, not one, not two, etc. We count what people bring, we number their names or contributions, but we can never humanly count a person, or reduce their significance to a number. In the years of the Shoah, numbers were embedded in the flesh of many of our brethren in attempts to degrade the self-worth of a person into just being a number. Furthermore, there is the English language phrase, when your number is up, which dovetails the significance of this teaching, that human beings are never just numbers - we count in a myriad of fashions with lives endowed with holiness and wisdom. We can count our contributions, what we give and the kind acts we perform, but we are never reduced to being a number on a tally sheet.

Sedra Spark #2 - Every Day is Flag Day

The tribes are encamped in a pattern with the Mishkan/tabernacle in the center, and the presence of God as the focal point. The Torah specifically notes (1:52 and elsewhere) v'eish al deglo, that each person is under his own flag or banner. Each of the Twelve Tribes has had specific insignia, or sign symbolizing their tribe which unified their tribe. Each degel, flag or banner, became a sign of pride and self-esteem for the uniqueness of each tribe. How does this verse relate to the reality that the reading of the portion of B’midbar always precedes the Festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the theophany, and revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai? Is there a link between the peak experience of Shavuot and this parasha?

The concept of each person according to their degel is a reminder that each person has a place, their unique role and position in the world which God has created. Though the Torah was given but once (mattan Torah), each Jew has the enormous potential of receiving the Torah at every moment in the journey in life. B’midbar celebrates the journeys of our people and offers profound insight as to how we can best become better Jews, striving within our communities to affirm our Conservative Judaism by deeds. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers a mystical insight that similar to catching a connecting flight at an airport, we need to be in the right place at the precise moment for our connections to be made and reality actualized and activated. Rashi even notes that each tribal insignia represented the precious gemstone corresponding to the tribe as found on the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). This indicates that each person can shine in resplendent fashions in every facet of their lives. B’midbar reminds us that in our journeys we need to be ourselves, true to our souls for if we are not sincere, then Torah will elude us. Only once we are under our own degel, can our individuality lead us into a community of Torah and inspiration.

Furthermore, in relationship to Shavuot, Torah is given in the wilderness so that it can be accessible to all. B’midbar literally means in the wilderness and can also be read as be-midaber: by the One who speaks. In the wilderness, Torah was given by the One who speaks (and commands) us with Holiness. Though we often speak of forlorn and God-forsaken wildernesses, the Torah provides the framework to recognize that precisely where we had presumed would be only a desert’s vast emptiness, that wilderness was filled with the presence of God. When in our own lives, in the midst of feeling loss or abandonment, have we opened our hearts and souls to the power of prayer and sensed the Divine Presence? B’midbar is the template of being a portal of permitting the Divine into the center of our lives.

Torah Q & A

  1. Which tribe carried the Holy vessels?
  2. At what age are the Levites numbered and why?
  3. Why are the Levites not included in the primary census?

(1. The family of Kehat 2. One month and older as they are consecrated to God to serve in the sacred precinct while others are counted upon for military service at later ages 3. As the Levites are not involved in the molten calf incident, their numbers have not been diminished due to the consequences of apostasy.)

Torah Table Talk

  1. What emotions are evoked by flags and banners? How do we perceive the role of powerful symbols in our lives?
  2. We have been counting the days of the Omer (Sefirah) from Passover until arriving at Shavuot. How do we make each day count and create blessings?
  3. God lovingly counts the Jewish people in this Torah reading. How do we count and rely upon God in our lives? How does God rely upon us as partners in the ongoing role of mending our world?
  4. With the celebration of Shavuot this week, what new mitzvah will we add to our pattern of observances?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016