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Torah Sparks

May 31, 2008 – 26 Iyar 5768

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 Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses to take a census of the men of military age, 20 years and older. Moses and Aaron, along with a designated leader from each tribe, conduct the census. The total for each tribe and the grand total are listed.

The Levites are not included in the general census. God tells Moses that the Levites are to be in charge of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. They are to carry it when the people travel, they are to set it up and take it down, and they are to camp around it to guard it. God tells Moses and Aaron how to arrange the camp, with each tribe given a designated place surrounding the Tabernacle. Their order of march is also specified.

God then tells Moses that the Levites are to serve Aaron and the priests, doing the work of the sanctuary so that the priests may perform their sacred function. The Levites will now replace the first-born of each family as those dedicated to God. Moses is told to conduct a census of the Levites, counting all the males from the age of 30 days up. The specific duties of each ancestral house of Levites are described. God tells Moses to record every Israelite first-born male from 30 days up. The Levites are formally substituted for the first-born.

Another census is taken of the house of Kohat among the Levites, counting those between 30 to 50 year old. The duties of this house, the transportation of the most sacred objects, are described.

Come and Get It!

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: (Bamidbar 1:1)

  1. Why in the wilderness of Sinai? Our sages have inferred from this that when the Torah was given it was accompanied by three things – fire, water, and wilderness... Why was the giving of the Torah marked by these three features? To indicate that as these are free to all mankind so also are the words of the Torah free... Yet another exposition... Anyone who does not throw himself open to all like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah. (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7)
  2. Why was it given in the wilderness? Because if it had been given to them in the Promised Land, the tribe in whose territory it was given would have said “I have a prior claim to it.” Consequently it was given in the wilderness, so that all should have an equal claim to it. (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:26)
  3. The Torah was given in public; given openly in a free place. For had the Torah been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world: You have no share in it. But now that it was given in the wilderness publicly and openly in a place that is free to all, everyone who wishes to accept it could come and accept it. (Mekhilta BaHodesh 1)
  4. And so we hope in You, Lord our God, soon to see Your splendor, sweeping idolatry away so that false gods will be utterly destroyed, perfecting earth by Your kingship so that all mankind will invoke Your name, bringing all the earth’s wicked back to You, repentant. Then all who live will know that to You every knee must bend, every tongue pledge loyalty. To You, Lord, may all bow in worship, may they give honor to Your glory. May everyone accept the rule of Your kingship. (Aleinu, Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 161)

Sparks for Discussion

According to the midrash, the Torah was given in the wilderness so no one could claim exclusive ownership of it. How does Bamidbar Rabbah understand this? What more radical claim does the Mekhilta make? Which of these do your believe is closer to the truth? What is it we are praying for each time we say Aleinu?

From time to time, a communal leader proposes that the American Jewish community undertake a campaign to reach out to the “unchurched” and actively seek converts to Judaism. How do you feel about this? How would the Jewish people be different if 10 percent of our members were Jews by choice? 25 percent? 50 percent?

Everyone Counts

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

  1. Head by head – by means of shekels, half a shekel a head. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Surely this is just the opposite of what the Torah had commanded on an earlier occasion (Shemot 30:12): When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. Rashi explains this to mean: When you desire to discover their total number, do not number them by their heads but let each one give a half shekel and by numbering the shekels you will know their number. How then could the Almighty have commanded them here to number them by their heads? (Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437-1508, Spain and Italy)
  3. I have further seen in Bamidbar Rabbah on the text listing the names . . . head by head as follows: The Holy Blessed One ordered Moses to number them in a manner that would confer honor and greatness on each one of them individually. Not that you should say to the head of the family: “How many are there in your family? How many children have you?” But rather all of them should pass before you in awe and with the honor due to them and you should number them. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])
  4. They were not just like animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own, like a king or priest, and indeed God had shown special love towards them and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status, for they were all equal and individual in status. (Akedat Yitzhak [Rabbi Isaac Arama, 1420-1494, Spain])
  5. The Torah uses the word rosh, literally “head,” to teach us the importance of the Jewish people, that each is a head, each is important in himself. Each Jew must accordingly feel the great responsibility he has for all his actions, for every action of his can improve the condition of the world or, Heaven forbid, make it deteriorate. (Shnei Lukhot HaBrit [Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1556-1630, Europe and Israel])

Sparks for Discussion

It is a well-established custom that we do not count Jews. We determine if there is a minyan present by counting “not one, not two . . .” or by reciting a verse with ten words. As Abravanel notes, this is supported by the verse in Shemot that calls for taking a census by means of the half shekel in order to avoid a plague. Why do you think counting people is so problematic? What happens when we refer to people by numbers?

What is different about the census of Bamidbar? Why do most commentators believe that it did not require use of the half shekel? What can this teach us about how we relate to people whom we don’t know?

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