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Torah Sparks

May 27, 2006 – 29 Iyar 5766

Annual: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 769; Hertz p. 568)
Triennial: Numbers 2:1 – 3:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 774; Hertz p.572)
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18 – 42 (Etz Hayim, p. 1216; Hertz p. 948)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The fourth book of the Torah begins with a census of the people Israel, who are about to begin their journey through the wilderness. The census, taken by tribe, counts all males twenty years old and older. The list should specify who is able to bear arms; one of the goals is to establish a count for military service. Twelve men are chosen to lead the census; one is responsible for each tribe except the tribe of Levi.

The final total of men of military age is 603,550. We can posit if the women, the children, and the members of the tribe of Levi were counted, there would be approximately two million people counted among the Israelites. When we consider that it has been just four generations since Jacob and his family went to Egypt with seventy people, we sense the great success of the people Israel in the realm of reproduction. We can also understand why Egypt was so frightened of the Israelites’ multiplying numbers.

The book then describes the encampment around the Tent of Meeting. Three tribes and their banner were encamped in each direction. On the east was Judah, together with Issachar and Zebulun; on the south was the tribe of Reuben, with Simeon and Gad; on the west was the tribe of Ephraim, together with Manasseh and Benjamin; on the north was the tribe of Dan, together with Asher and Naftali. A count is made of each of these tribes.

The tribe of Levi is chosen to replace the first born and serve in the Tent of Meeting. Moses and Aaron take a census of the males of the tribe of Levi age one month and older, coming up with a total of 22,000. There were three clans, Gershon, Kohath and Merari. They were responsible for the service in the tent of meeting and care of the sacred objects. They were encamped around the Tent of Meeting in the middle.

Issue #1 - Nature or Nurture

“On the first day of the second month they convoked the whole community, who were registered by their family ancestry, the names of those aged twenty years and over listed head by head” (Numbers 1:18)


  1. In this week’s portion, when Moses and Aaron counted the total number of Israelites, they counted by bloodlines, not getting just a single total number. How important is lineage and bloodlines in establishing our identity? According to the biblical commentator Rashi on the verse quoted above, “People brought their genealogical documents and witnesses who verified the circumstances of their birth, this applied to each individual to establish their kinship with a tribe.”
  2. Judaism puts particular importance on bloodlines. We are Jewish based on the biological status of our mothers (unless we have converted). We are Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael based on the biological status of our father (gerey tzedek are Yisrael). Our identity is wrapped up in our genetic background. What does this say about adoption?
  3. How important is nurturing irrespective of bloodlines? There is another passage in this week’s portion and another comment by Rashi that demonstrate a very different approach. The Torah says, “These are the descendants of Aaron and Moses” (Numbers 3:1) followed by a listing of Aaron’s family. Why is Moses mentioned? Rashi writes that Moses is listed “because he taught him Torah. This teaches that whoever teaches another’s son Torah, it is as if he gave birth to him.”
  4. The Talmud teaches that the true parent of a child is the one who raises him or her, not the one who gives birth (Sanhedrin 19b). What does this say about adoption? At first glance, it appears there are two contradictory messages in Judaism – lineage is more important, parenting is more important. Nature or nurture. How do we find the balance?

Issue #2 - Spirituality and Religion

"The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply." (Leviticus 27:1-3)


  1. “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).
  2. There seems to be a growing dichotomy in our society between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is good; religion is bad. Spirituality is about a one-on-one encounter with God; religion is about institutions and rules. Spirituality is about spontaneity; religion is about conformity. Spirituality is free form; religion is set in its ways. Are these rules of thumb accurate? Are religion and spirituality twins separated at birth? What is the difference between these clearly related but not identical concepts?
  3. People say that they can have a spiritual experience on the beach at sunrise or on a mountaintop at sunset. There are no rules, no dues, no building funds, no clergy, just a human being standing alone before God. There have been many prominent religious thinkers, the late philosopher Martin Buber among them, who believe that religion stifles spirituality.
  4. Yet the fourth book of the Torah opens with a description of the Israelites’ preparations for their march through the wilderness. A census was taken of men of military age. Each tribe marched in formation under its own banner. The image the Torah paints is of a military campaign, humans organized and marching together. Why the military image?
  5. The military metaphor is apt. The Torah’s religious ideal is not the individual standing alone before God, although there is time for this also. The metaphor is rather the community, organized in an almost military fashion, to do God’s work here on earth. The question is not “How can I relate to God as an individual?” Instead, it is “How can I join a community to do God’s work on this earth?”
  6. This is where religion meets spirituality head on. Religion is about organizing a community of people who share a vision of God, and of what God wants us to do in the world God created. Is it appropriate to say that living a personally spiritual life without religion – that is, by yourself – is not enough to create the kind of world God wants?

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