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Torah Sparks

June 4, 2005 - 26 Iyar 5765

Annual: Numbers 1:1 - 4:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 769; Hertz p. 568)
Triennial: Numbers 1:1 - 1:54 (Etz Hayim, p. 769; Hertz p. 568)
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1 - 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 787; Hertz p. 582)

Prepared by David M. Eligberg
Congregation B'nai Tikvah, North Brunswick, NJ

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen , Director


Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, recounts the story of the Israelites' sojourn in the wilderness. Parshat Bamidbar begins with God's command to perform a census of the Israelite males over the age of twenty who are eligible for military service. The tribe by tribe enumeration is facilitated by designated representatives of each tribe. The Levites are excluded by God from the current census and are tasked with the responsibility of transporting the Tabernacle and defending its perimeter when it is set up.

The layout of the Israelite camp places the Tabernacle at the center, the tribe of Levi on three sides of the Tabernacle with the area in front of the entrance designated for Aharon and his family. Surrounding this were the twelve tribes, grouped in threes, on each of the four sides of the camp. The order of march is detailed, and the Tabernacle is placed at the center of the column.

The special status of the Levites, their responsibilities and prerogatives, is defined. A special census of the tribe of Levi is performed, followed by a census of the Israelite first born. God decrees that the Levites are to become substitutes for the first born claimed by the Holy One at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. The superfluity of first born over the number of Levites necessitates that the "extras" be redeemed from the service of the Tabernacle. This is the source of the ceremony of Pidyon Haben (Redeeming the Firstborn Son) that we still practice. The parsha concludes with the details of how the Kohathites are to transport the Tabernacle and the precautions to be taken by the Kohanim in preparation for that activity.

Discussion Topic 1: "Found In the Wilderness of Sinai"

"On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying:" (Numbers 1:1)

Derash: Study

  • "The Torah was given in three venues: In fire, in water, and in the wilderness." (Midrash Rabba)
  • The three venues are symbols to all Jews about how one can acquire Torah. Fire represents a passion for God; the burning devotion and desire that burns within the heart of a Jew who is connected to his or her heavenly father. Water represents the cool, calm methodical thinking and balance, insight and wisdom that allows a Jew to think about the cost that needs to be paid for Torah. Wilderness represents the rejection of the multitude of distractions that are abundant in the world which preclude the individual from achieving wholeness. (Shem Shmuel)
  • The three venues represent the teaching that the Torah was given to Israel so that they would uphold it at all times and in all conditions, whether as individuals or collectively. The history of our people from the appearance of the first Jew, Abraham our father, with Torah and faith in a living God and until today highlight this. In three venues the Torah was given: In fire - Abraham our father leapt into the fiery furnace for his faith, this represents the devotion of the individual. In water - Nachshon, followed by all the Israelites leapt into the Sea {of Reeds} and represents the commitment of the people. In the wilderness - Israel followed God through the wilderness for forty years; this is an example of ongoing faithfulness. (Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Basing themselves on Bamidbar Rabba, our sages of blessed memory, learned about the manner in which Torah is acquired. What are the actions or attributes necessary for the acquisition of Torah?
  2. What are some of the contemporary challenges to acquiring Torah as reflected in the categories created by these texts?

Discussion Theme 2: Counting, Being Counted, and Being Accountable

"Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head." (Numbers 1:2)

"All the Israelites, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms-" (Numbers 1:45)

"The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:2)

Derash: Study

  • I do not understand the nature of this commandment to enumerate the Israelites and to do it within their ancestral houses. Perhaps, it was to inform the Israelites of the kindness of the Holy One for they went to Egypt as one clan of seventy people and now they are as abundant as the sand. This is what our sages taught, that out of love, the Holy One counts them often. In Bamidbar Rabba I saw that the Holy One wanted each and every Israelite to be counted in honor and dignity and not to go to the head of the house and ask how many in your family? How many sons do you have? But rather each one must pass before you in awe and glory and you shall count each of them by name! (Ramban)
  • Moshe was to mention every person by name. (Abarbanel)
  • Here we see the importance of Israel; each one is a chief, an important individual. And since Torah obligates us, Jews must feel an urgent sense of responsibility for all their actions, since the individual can affect the balance between good and evil. (Sh'la)
  • The Holy One commanded the Israelites {to count everyone} since the rule holds that a thing which has been counted as part of a quorum is never lost. The Holy One did not want the Israelites to become dissipated (lost) amongst thenations and therefore commanded that they be enumerated and included into a quorum that cannot be lost. (Hidushey HaRim)
  • "The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house."
  • Each Jew has to understand and think that he is unique in his nature and no one like him has existed every before; for if there had been exactly like him then there would be no purpose in him and in truth each person is something new in the world, and one must refine and repair one's characteristics and one's knowledge of Torah that are connected to his soul until such time as all the nations are refined by the people of Israel. (Beit Aharon)
  • God commanded us to be counted because an entity which is quantified by counting does not lose its identity and impact even when outnumbered. (Yoreh Deah 110, Hagah 19)
  • Man is NOT an innocent bystander in the cosmic drama. There is in us more kinship with the divine than we are able to believe. The souls of men are candles of the Lord, lit on the cosmic way, rather than fireworks produced by the combustion of nature's explosive compositions, and every soul is indispensable to Him. Man is needed, he is a need of God.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How do the commentators understand the Torah's desire to safeguard the dignity and integrity of every individual?
  2. The Book of Numbers presents the sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness. What reasons are given for the census taking precedence over other events and episodes?
  3. What does the Torah's requirement that the Israelites be counted by their ancestral houses teach us about the importance of family and community?
  4. What effect does the act of counting, of being included personally, have on the Israelites? On us?
  5. What does this teach us about our role in the world?

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