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Torah Sparks

May 19, 2007 – 2 Sivan 5767

Annual: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 769; Hertz p. 568)
Triennial: 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 Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

God directs Moses and Aaron to take a census of the male Israelites of military age, 20 years old and older. The census, which yields population figures for each tribe, totals 603,550. The Levites are to be counted separately, for a nonmilitary purpose.

Chapter 2 focuses on the organization, order, and physical layout of the Israelites’ camp, and of their travels in the desert.

Chapter 3 deals with the substitution of the tribe of Levi for the first-borns of all the tribes in the role of religious functionaries.

In Chapter 4, a census of the Levites is undertaken, clan by clan, in order to verify the manpower needed to perform the Levites’ various tasks during the period of wilderness wandering. The specific tasks assigned to the Kohathite clan are specified in the closing verses of our parashah, while the tasks of two other clans within the tribe of Levi are spelled out in the opening verses of next week’s Parashat Naso.

Topic #1: Creating a Hospitable Environment for Religion

This week’s parashah contains no long-term mitzvot, no commandments intended to endure beyond the wilderness generation. This may not be very surprising, because most people assume the wilderness/desert to be Godforsaken. On the other hand, the religious patterns of the Israelites were only partially formed, and this desert period was an opportunity for the collective religious identity of the Israelites to take shape. The desert experience was never intended to delay the religious growth of the people; to the contrary, it was a unique religious opportunity. The revelation at Mount Sinai was an important beginning, but a people will not be molded by a single momentary experience, no matter how lofty, without ongoing follow-up.

Until their experience at Mount Sinai, the Israelites had looked to God more for emancipation than for religious direction. Once they had received the Ten Commandments, they began to understand that life after Pharaoh would require them to take some responsibility. The construction of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary) supplies one focal point for religious expression. Further commandments were then given, fleshing out the details of a system whose headlines were the Ten Commandments. Indeed, in this week before Shavuot, we may view Passover as a symbol of emancipation, while Shavuot, the anniversary of the revelation at Mount Sinai, symbolizes a commitment to discerning God’s will and acting upon it.

Chapter 2 describes the pattern in which the Israelites encamped in the desert. This was also the pattern in which they traveled. One reason for this configuration was the need to provide for defending the camp against attackers. (The encounter with Amalek, narrated in Exodus 17:8-13 and Deuteronomy 25:17-18, makes it quite clear what can happen when defense is relegated to a back burner.) The order of march served a purpose beyond national defense. There was a positive religious motivation reflected in the format of the encampment. How did the pattern of the camp hope to reinforce the religious commitment that was intended to be a focal point for the people of Israel?

Within our modern synagogues, what design features are intended to draw our attention to important aspects of our commitment to Judaism? When something is said to be central to our lives, how do we demonstrate that? As we think about synagogue design, how does the footprint, program and order of the building reflect our stated values? If our young people are important to us, does the building reflect that commitment? Could a newcomer determine the congregation’s values by the way the building is designed and maintained?

Topic #2: The Hazardous Work of Transporting the Mishkan

We have already established that the ritual work of the Mishkan was potentially hazardous for the Kohanim (see Leviticus 10:1-2). The Levites were also at risk, particularly during the desert years, because they were charged with the responsibility of transporting the Mishkan and its sacred contents. The dire consequences of touching the Ark are clearly illustrated in the following incident, drawn from the time of King David (obviously post-desert):

They loaded the Ark of God into a new cart and conveyed it from the home of Avinadav which was on the hill; and Avinadav’s sons, Uzzah and Ahio, guided the new cart. They conveyed it from Avinadav’s house on the hill, [Uzzah walking] alongside the Ark of God and Ahio walking in front of the Ark…. But when they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. (II Samuel 6:3-7)

In light of these hazards, the tasks and responsibilities for work in these sacred areas had to be delineated clearly. Chapter 4 of Numbers provides just such a delineation.

  1. What tasks were assigned to the Kohathites (4:1-20)? What tasks did the Kohanim have to complete before the Kohathites could do their job?
  2. What tasks were assigned to the Gershonites (4:21-28)?
  3. What tasks were assigned to the Merarites (4:29-33)?

What would make a person be willing to take on such potentially dangerous duty? Are there still times today when the status or importance of a position makes the risks worthwhile?

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