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Torah Sparks

Parashat Bamidbar
May 11, 2013 – 2 Sivan 5773

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 Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

While the Hebrew name of the Torah's fourth book, Bamidbar – "in the wilderness" – provides the setting of its opening parashah, its familiar English name, Numbers, suggests the content of these initial chapters. A census is taken of the Israelite population. Excluding the tribe of Levi, there are 603,550 Israelite men of military age. The Levites, replacing Israel's first-born, are placed in charge of the Tabernacle, its assembly and transportation. This inaugurates their unique role in the cultic and spiritual life of the nation. Still, they are to remain subordinate to the priestly line of which Aaron was founder and progenitor.

Chapter 2 provides a detailed account of the order in which the Israelite tribes proceed through the wilderness and their structured arrangement when they make camp, with each marking its territory with an ancestral tribal banner. The tribes are divided into four groupings, east, south, north, and rest of the Tabernacle. The Levites are encamped separately, close to the Tabernacle.

Another census, counting all male Levites from the age of one month, finds some 22,000; the number is recorded "by ancestral house and by clan." A second census of the Tribe of Levi, counting men between ages 30 and 50, is taken in order to calculate the work force that would be assigned various tasks, including carrying the Tabernacle. Similarly, the duties of Aaron and his priestly line in maintaining and preparing the sacred accoutrements and ritual objects within the Tabernacle are listed.

Theme #1: "Maker's Dozen"

"These are the elected of the assembly, the chieftains of their ancestral tribes: they are the heads of the contingents of Israel." (Numbers 1:16)

Derash: Study

"The Torah… personalizes the numbers in this week's parasha and in the book of Bamidbar generally. It does give us the names of the leaders of the tribes and their fathers and families and traces for us their lineage. It tells us that some of them had large families and others much smaller ones. It points out the difference in numbers and in leadership of each of the tribes so that we should not view the Jewish society then – and certainly now – as being monolithic… Lifting the count of the Jewish people from mere statistics to a position of human empathy and understanding is part of the goal of this week's parasha." (Rabbi Berel Wein)

"A nation needs its guides and shepherds, its scouts and leaders of the flock, who will carry out the function of leadership: the ability to feel and the power to think." (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)

"We seek a leadership construed not primarily in terms of the accomplishment of plans but equally in terms of its humanizing effect on the people being led." (Rabbi Eugene Borowitz)

"There are neither good nor poor congregations. Jews are the same everywhere. There are only good or poor leaders." (Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver)

"Most of you think we politicians are part of a television show – we handshake to the point we don't represent the people. I believe we lead a people and pave the way even if we are in the minority and act against opposing winds." (Shimon Peres)

Questions for Discussion

Were the tribal princes named in order to humanize a section of the Torah which is replete with numbers and statistics, or in order to emphasize the spiritual significance and impact of effective leaders?

How do we balance the virtue of establishing a leadership cadre reflecting the diversity of its constituents (see Rabbi Wein) with our desire for leaders chosen on the basis of individual achievement, talent, and personal merit?

Is it true that there are no "poor congregations" or communities? Is the onus for communal quality and success placed fully on community leaders? How do communities, organizations, and congregations limit and at times impede the ability of their leaders to effect change and achieve success? How do congregations most effectively empower their leaders toward these ends? Are the qualities to be sought out in leaders of an absolute standard, or a function of the community to be lead?

Rabbi Steinsaltz defines the essential elements of leadership as "the ability to feel and the power to think." How are leaders to balance these tasks and values? What is a congregational or community leader to do when these two responsibilities seem to conflict with each other… when our hearts and our heads, as it were, issue conflicting instructions?

What does it mean for leaders to "handshake to the point we don't represent the people"? Does familiarity necessarily breed contempt of our leaders? When is it proper for leaders to act in the best interests – yet against the express desires and stated preferences – of the communities they lead?

What qualities do you most value in your religious leaders? Congregational lay leaders? Political leaders?

Theme #2: "The Wrath Pack"

"The Levites, however, shall camp around the Tabernacle of the Pact, that wrath may not strike the Israelite community; the Levites shall stand guard around the Tabernacle of the Pact." (Numbers 1:53)

Derash: Study

"The Hebrew word for ‘fury,' qetsef, means, at least etymologically, ‘foam,' as in a mouth foaming with rage. The fury in question is God's punitive fury that would be triggered by any violation of the sacred space of the sanctuary." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"The Levites' main function in guarding the tabernacle had nothing to do with their skills as security guards and everything to do with promoting a vibrant Jewish life for the entire community. After all, the entire tabernacle was already fortified with a heavily armed military encampment, composed of all the other tribes. What was the job of the unarmed Levites? Teaching holy words, bringing uplifting music and ritual to worship, and ministering to the needs of the people. I imagine the Levites made it their top priority to ensure a thriving Jewish congregation, aware that no external threat could ever destroy a community that was strong and united from within." (Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake)

"Negef or Ketsef, ‘wrath' (1:53) is technically not a legal penalty; it is reflex action, God's angry response in the wake of idolatry (25:9,18-19; 31:16), rebellion (7:11-15), an unexpiated census (30:12), as well as the inevitable outcome of illicit contact with sancta (1:53; 18:5). However, the priestly tradition effectively restricts the outbreak of divine plague/wrath for encroachment upon sancta to clergy alone." (Jacob Milgrom, JPS Commentary)

"Men are passionate, men are weak, men are stupid, men are pitiful; to bring upon them anything so tremendous as the wrath of God seems strangely inept." (William Somerset Maugham)

"The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire." (Jonathan Edwards)

Questions for Discussion

Both Professors Alter and Milgrom depict God's wrath – Divine anger – in particularly negative terms: akin to the attack of a mad dog (foaming! a la Alter), an unthinking reflexive response (see Milgrom). Where in Scripture is God's anger understandable, thoughtful, welcome, well-placed, admirable? What human offenses merit God's "wrath"? How might God's justified displeasure find expression in human experience?

How does the Jewish view of God's wrath differ from that of Jonathan Edwards (whose 18th Century sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," was preached in my native Northampton, Massachusetts – JHP)?

If, as Professor Milgrom asserts, God directs his wrath toward "clergy" alone – the religious leaders of the Jewish people – is the Levites' protective position an act of pastoral inspiration and selfless concern for their religious charges… or a desperate and self-serving act of self-preservation?

Do religious and community leaders today play a role similar to that of the Levites described in our verse? What (and against what) do our religious and moral leaders guard? What consequences hang in the balance? How do our religious leaders today protect the "tribes of Israel"?

Rabbi Blake does not address the issue of God's anger. Is there danger in exclusive emphasis on the positive without considering the perils of sin and religious "trespass"? How might our response to this question change if we take a programmatic rather than theological perspective? That is, does the goal of community building require us to deemphasize the possibility of displeasing God?

Consider Maugham! Is the protective role of the Levites a sign of inherent human weakness… passion, weakness, and stupidity?! What other – perhaps more virtuous – motives might lead Israelites to venture too close to the Tabernacle? What does it mean in the 21st Century to draw too close to God?

Historic Note

Parashat Bamidbar, detailing the tribal populations of the as yet landless Israelite nation, is read on May 11, 2013. On May 11, 1949, by a vote of 37-12, the State of Israel became the 59th member of the United Nations. On May 11, 1960, agents of the State of Israel captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar 5773 falls on 2 Sivan – the 46th day of the Omer. This day is marked as Yom Ha-Meyuchas – the "Day of Distinction." The distinctiveness of the day – which is without historic significance or notable liturgical celebration – arises mainly from the fact that it is immediately preceded by Rosh Hodesh and immediately followed by Shloshet Y'mei Hagbalah, the "Three Days of Demarcation" commemorating the period of preparation and purification before the Sinai Revelation. That is, Yom Ha- Meyuchas is "distinguished" by the calendrical company it keeps! (See Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, Ha-Elef Lecha Shlomo.) According to Sefer Ta'amei Ha-Minhagim, however, it was on Yom Ha-Mehuchas that God told Israel: "You shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6) – the source of the Jewish People's shared "Yichus" – our spiritual pedigree… and our historic, national mission.

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