You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Bamidbar.
From Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
In this week’s parsha, we read, “Count (Lift up) the heads of all of the congregation” (Lev.1:2). The expression, “Siu et Rosh’ literally means ‘Raise the Heads’ (of each person), intimating the importance of each and every individual. It was not simply a ‘counting,’ but distinguishing every individual as precious, so that the individual knows that s/he is precious. Hence, the charge to ‘LIFT UP’ through the counting..
Probably the most efficient way to take a census is to ask the head of each household for data regarding one’s family. Having Moses count each and every person, and name them was not only very inefficient, but extremely laborious and tiresome considering the great numbers involved. So this process was to teach the value of the uniqueness of each individual. No one can be treated as a mere number. Moshe had to meet each member of his people and show each one the honor and respect s/he deserved, as a human being created in the image of G-d (Sanhedrin 37A). How awful it feels to be taken for granted, to not be known. As Martin Buber suggests: Each human being wishes to be confirmed in one’s individuality and wishes to have presence in the being of another. To be seen and to be heard is so soul fulfilling; to be listened to carefully, not to be mistaken for someone else, and to especially feel that another’s heart is opened to us. We all want to be seen in our uniqueness, and appreciated for the complex human being that we are.
The Torah affirms the reality of ‘uniqueness,’ when it describes that the flag of each tribe had a distinct design signifying the unique nature of that tribe (‘Ish al diglo b’otot L’veit avotam’ (Lev.,2:2). For eg., on the flag of Judah a lion was depicted, the king of the animals, because the royal house of David was descended from him. On Zevulun’s flag was a ship symbolizing their occupation as seafaring businessmen, which enabled them to support the Torah study of Issachar. The Torah may be suggesting that in our desire for uniformity, for outward similarity, we have frequently brought division into the very center of our community. Therefore, the Israelites were distinctly commanded that so long as the tribes were stationed around the Ark, each was to march under its distinguishing banner. The community was to consist of diverse elements, aggregated into a Unity by common attachment to the central Sanctuary. There was to be a Oneness, a unity, by accepting the diverse elements. Although each tribe was distinct they were bound up in a common destiny. Each tribe was to maintain its separate identity, and yet be a unit in the whole.
This is the true ideal of a flourishing and vital community. This is an arrangement which makes for progress and harmony. Yet we persistently neglect it. We rather want every member of the community to march under one banner. We fail to make provision for differences in temperament, upbringing, education and taste. We refuse to admit the elementary fact that what suits one may not suit another. We demand that others should be like us or should be all alike. The result of this attitude is that others drift slowly away from Judaism, or they form themselves into a separate and distinct body for the satisfaction of their religious needs. In this way we give rise to division in the community, and often mutual hostility. It seems apparent that such a policy is not the best strategy to create a harmonious community. Instead of one strong body we have several attenuated groups that could benefit from greater connection to a dynamic center. Our energies and resources are currently dissipated instead of being strengthened by interconnections.
The word ‘religion’ is thought by some to be derived from a Latin root meaning to ‘bind together.’ Accordingly, it should be a force which unites people. And sometimes it actually does. But at the same time there are sometimes judgments that reside within its walls that create anguish and distress within its members. At times religious groups have been the cause of frightful atrocities and persecutions. Inhuman crimes have been committed in its name. Sects and factions have fought against each other; and why? Because of the differences of opinion on matters in which it is unreasonable to expect agreement.
The biblical picture of the ideal community is quite elegant. It consists of a common center, around which are grouped diverse bodies. Its Foundation is UNITY and not UNIFORMITY. That is the pattern we should keep before our eyes as being worthy of embracing. Picture the scene in the wilderness…..the Ark in the center of the people, around it on all sides and all directions the 12 tribes, not one indivisible mass, but 12 distinct sections, each recognizable by outward symbols. Every Israelite was in his/her place under the tribal banner to which they were attached. By such arrangement and in such formation, the Sanctuary was properly honored, and thus the people marched on to their goal. If Moses had tried to obliterate the differences between tribe and tribe and demand uniformity, it is quite probable that internal troubles would have constantly arisen to disturb the national unity. But by wisely recognizing the tribal distinctions, and even encouraging and affirming them a harmonious community was born. It is the acceptance of diversity that creates harmony and peace, where each individual has the freedom to discover, give birth to and contribute his/her unique G-d given talents. Having to conform to one way of behaving creates an impossible tension that splits a community; it is not peace that is then achieved, but stress , anger and flight are the consequent outcome.
Unity is more important than similarity! And unity can only be secured by diversity! G-d has not made us all alike, either physically or mentally. We differ not only in appearance, but also in thought and inclination. Our Scripture recognizes these differences; so why should we not do the same? Why do we drive away from our communities men and women who are as eager as we to uplift our world, but are drawn to stand under a different banner from ours? Such an attitude is contrary to Jewish Ideals, and retards progress instead of hastening it. If we desire to march out of the wilderness and enter into the glorious land of promise, we must align ourselves in accordance with the divine command, which is, “The tent of meeting shall set forward, .. every person in his or her place”(Lev.2:17).
Friends, as we prepare to observe the holiday of Shavuot on Saturday eve, we must stand together as one, with all our diversity, as our ancestors at Sinai did when they stood under the Mountain worthy to receive the Ten Commandments. Our Rabbis teach that it was the spirit of love and acceptance of each other that permeated their community and made them worthy of receiving G-d’s Presence and the teachings of the Torah. May we begin this Shavuot to embody this acceptance of diversity, each resonating with one’s particular Torah message, or Torah Verse, or Hebrew letter joining together under the banner of the Lord and the Torah. And may it be so!
Have a wonderful Shabbat and Shavuot,
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
Posted in the Times of Israel
“And I will break war from the land” – Sinai, Shmitah, and the covenant with all life
The haftarah for Parshat Bemidbar, the beginning of the book of Numbers, comes from the prophet Hoshea, and it includes a strange sounding promise: “bow and sword and war I will break eshbor from the land”. This means something like “war and human violence will cease” – but why “break”?
Breaking a sword or bow is clear enough, but breaking a sword from the land implies that the sword is embedded in the land, stabbing the land itself. We hear in many places in scripture that violence between human beings, blood spilled between human beings, pollutes the land, and we can see it with our own eyes. But Hoshea’s image is even more vivid than that.
The first image of a sword in Tanakh is the flaming sword that guards Eden after Adam and Chavah (Eve) are sent away. It is a sword that protects the land, acting as a shield, not cutting anyone but simply blocking a path. Before that, in Eden, we have the image of a world entirely without violence. God gives the fruit trees and the green plants to the humans and all the animals to eat: “for you they will be for eating, and for the wild animals in the land and the birds and everything crawling on the land in which there is a living soul” (Gen 1:29–30). The other animals and human beings eat alongside each other, instead of being each other’s food.
Of course, things go very wrong. But God doesn’t just send Adam and Chavah to wander in the wild. Rather, God returns them to the very spot where the first human was first formed out of dirt from the ground, afar min ha’adamah (Gen 3:23), as if to say, “You know that this soil is you, so you will know how to take care of it.”
The first time blood pollutes the ground, Kayin (Cain) kills Hevel (Abel) in that same place, and “the land opened her mouth to receive [his] brother’s bloods”. (Gen 4:11) Kayin is driven away from the ground itself as punishment, and here the saga of human alienation from the Earth begins in earnest. By the time we get to the sixth chapter of Genesis, we hear seven times that the evil committed by humanity has “ruined the land”. Human violence, chamas, destroys the land.
We know the story: God will wipe humans off the earth in order to bring healing to the land. But first God instructs Noah’s family to gather food for all the animals and for themselves into the ark, to spare a remnant that can carry life forward in the post-flood world. In the ark, then, there is a brief return to something like Eden. The human family eats from the same food supply and sleeps alongside the other animals, living peaceably for the year they are shut in during the flood.
That harmony, however, is shattered the minute they emerge from the ark: “a dread and terror of you will be over all the wild animals and the birds and everything that crawls, and the fish, for I have given them into your hands. Like green plants I give them to you all to eat. Only don’t eat the soul, which is the blood.” (Gen 9:2-4) Humanity will continue to be the source of bloodshed.
This is followed by the first covenant, the Rainbow covenant – which is not made between God and people, but rather between God and all the creatures, and between God and the land. The rainbow becomes a reminder that God will not forsake the other creatures, even if human beings will.
It seems then that Eden is lost forever, but Avram (Abraham) entices God to try one more time to make peace between human beings and the rest of life and the earth, this time by taking one land where one family of humanity will live alongside other species in blessing.
The vision of that world is spelled out at Sinai, where the Israelites are given rules and more rules about how to create a just and holy society. Those rules culminate in the commandments about keeping the Shmitah or Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year, as we read in the Behar and B’chukotai, the two portions that come before Bemidbar. (See “Shmitah: The Purpose of Sinai”.)
The Torah signals to us that the intent of Shmitah is to return to Eden in several ways. One signal is that in the Shmitah year, humanity and the other animals again share the same food. As it says, whatever grows from the land in the Shmitah year “will be for you for eating, for your servant and for your worker and for your sojourner who lives as a stranger with you, and for your animal and for the wild animal that is in your land.” (Lev 25:6–7)
The rabbis picked up on this cue about eating and emphasized it. The halakhah says that people have to take down their fences or leave open their gates in the Shmitah year, so that any creature, wild animals included, could enter and share whatever bounty grew. Not only that, the rabbis also ruled that people shouldn’t eat any produce in their own houses once it had stopped growing in the field. Instead, they would only eat what the wild animals could eat.
It was as if the whole society returned to a time when food was foraged rather than farmed. A time before agriculture, before people ate “by the sweat of their brow”.
Creating a society that could undergo such a radical transformation once every seven years was the fulfillment of the covenant of Sinai. If the Jewish people would uphold this covenant, then, God promised,
I will walk among you, and I will become God for you and you will become My people. (Lev 26:12)
This wasn’t a full restoration of Eden, because people could still eat the (kosher) animals – even though by eating only domesticated animals, the element of terror was replaced by familiarity. But it was a taste of Eden, a full year of it, when people could imagine and experience a different world. If the people will observe Shmitah, God promises, and break the plow from the earth, then “I will set peace in the land” – so that “no sword will pass through your land”.
The final vision, where Eden is restored, evokes for many people the image of lion and calf and wolf and lamb lying down together. Isaiah’s imagery is really about how nations should interact with each other. The ultimate expression of Eden comes not in Isaiah but in Hoshea, in the passage quoted from at the beginning. In one of his most intense and beautiful passages, Hoshea delivers this message in God’s name:
I will cut a covenant for them on that day, with the wild animal of the field, and with the bird of the skies and what crawls on the land – and bow and sword and war I will break eshbor from the land, and I will make them lie down in safety. (Hos 2:20)
This ultimate vision is a new covenant – a covenant with all creatures, recalling the Rainbow covenant after the flood; a covenant with the people, recalling Abraham’s covenant; and the creating of a new world where other animals will no longer be in terror of human beings, recalling Eden.
This new covenant also recalls the covenant of Shmitah (the Sabbatical year). Hoshea’s words echo what we began quoting above from Parshat B’chukotai, which describes the world the Jewish people can create if they fulfill the Shmitah covenant:
You will dwell in safety in your land, and I will set peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you tremble, and I will stop any harmful animal and no sword will pass through your land… I am YHVH your God who brought you out from Egypt, from being slaves, and I broke va’eshbor the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright. (Lev 26:5-6, 12)
We can learn from this that the strange phrase in Hoshea, “and I will break bow and sword and war from the land”, means that just as the people were freed from Egypt, so will the land be freed from human violence. For, Hoshea hints, human violence encages and enslaves the land as oppressively as the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. This freedom is not just for the people, but for the land and for all creatures, and not just once in seven years, but for all time.
And this is the vision of Sinai, and the promise of Torah: to call out liberty and freedom, d’ror, not just to Israel, not even just to human beings, but to all creatures living on the earth and in the land: “And you will call out freedom in the land to all that dwell in her.” (Lev 25:10) It is a call that we are still waiting to hear, a promise yet to be kept. Only then, says God by way of Hoshea, “I will betroth you to me in faith, and you will know YHVH. And I will answer the heavens, and the heavens will answer the earth.”
Then, says Hoshea, again echoing the Shmitah covenant,
I will say to ‘not-My people’, ‘My people are you’, and (this people) will say, ‘my God’. (Hos 2:22–25)
Every war is a war against the earth, every sword or arrow, bomb or missile that draws blood stabs and wounds the earth, no matter which side one is fighting for. May it be God’s will that the bow and sword and war be finally broken from the land, lest the land, and its peoples, become too broken to be healed.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_cYKePztic Link to Shimshai singing the words of Hoshea
From The Hebrew College
Finding our way in the desert of uncertainty
By Tyler Dratch
We are approaching the holiday of Shavuot, yet another Jewish festival in which we work hard to find our way, amongst the limits of our current world. So much of Jewish life these last many months has felt like wandering in a desert. We wish to journey forward, but there is no road showing us the correct way. We move in one direction, and then, with new health data or technical difficulties, we lose our sense of direction all together. It is difficult to become close to each other and to God when we keep losing our way.
The festival of Shavuot is meant to be a moment of clarity and intimacy. We stay up late into the night eager with anticipation for our reenactment of the receiving of the Ten Commandments, our covenant with God. In many Sefardic communities, a traditional ketubah (wedding contract) is read during services, with the names not of two earthly lovers, but of God and Israel. So much of Jewish practice is a journey of winding our way toward holiness, but on Shavuot, in the midst of a flower-filled synagogue, we imagine as if we are standing face-to-face with the Divine. Like a wedding, we make promises to intertwine our lives and to walk together.
There are indeed moments in my Jewish life when I live this kind of encounter of Shavuot—when I feel that I am deeply in God’s presence, that we are simply “on the same page.” It comes to me when I find myself lost in a beautiful prayerful melody during a Friday night service or sitting around a holiday table with family eating delicious food. It comes when I am reading a Jewish text that inspires me, or joining with others to fight for justice. But, perhaps just as often, I experience moments where this clarity eludes me—when I search for connection, but it does not come as easy to me as it might during that Shavuot moment. In these times I am not the lover of Shavuot, but the Israelite searching aimlessly for a Promised Land.
Thankfully, our Torah has guidance for these moments as well. This week’s parsha, Bemidbar, contains detailed instructions mapping how the Israelites will dwell in the desert. Not only do the Israelites need some kind of order to keep their 600,000-member community organized amidst an uncertain journey, but they camp in a specific way, in the honor of their holy Ark. At each stop the mishkan, or tabernacle, containing the presence of God, sits in the middle of the camp, with three tribes of Israel located in each of the four cardinal directions among the ark. Each tribe is assigned a particular camping location vis-a-vis the mishkan, and these locations are signified by symbolic flags:
אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ׃
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. (Number 2:2)
The flags serve as orienting devices, ensuring that every tribe sits in its specific place. Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhak (Rashi) suggests that the flags displayed the colors that correspond with each tribe’s specific gem stone on the priestly breastplate. Like a sports jersey, the colors direct each tribe to their cheering section.
Other commentators, however, suggest that the flags were not significant only for what they signified to their corresponding tribes, but rather for the story they told when seen altogether. Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain), suggests that each flag has a specific symbol on it, corresponding to a particular tribe: a man, an ox, an eagle, and a lion. Not only would these symbols correspond to particular tribal identities, but taken together they paint a specific image of God’s likeness as described by the prophet Ezekiel:
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בִּשְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֗ה בָּֽרְבִיעִי֙ בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֣ה לַחֹ֔דֶשׁ וַאֲנִ֥י בְתֽוֹךְ־הַגּוֹלָ֖ה עַל־נְהַר־כְּבָ֑ר נִפְתְּחוּ֙ הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וָאֶרְאֶ֖ה מַרְא֥וֹת אֱלֹהִֽים…וּדְמ֣וּת פְּנֵיהֶם֮ פְּנֵ֣י אָדָם֒ וּפְנֵ֨י אַרְיֵ֤ה אֶל־הַיָּמִין֙ לְאַרְבַּעְתָּ֔ם וּפְנֵי־שׁ֥וֹר מֵֽהַשְּׂמֹ֖אול לְאַרְבַּעְתָּ֑ן וּפְנֵי־נֶ֖שֶׁר לְאַרְבַּעְתָּֽן׃
In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, when I was in the community of exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens opened and I saw visions of God . . . . Each of (The Cherubim) had a human face; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right; each of the four had the face of an ox on the left; and each of the four had the face of an eagle [at the back (Ezekiel 1:1,10).
Understood in this way, the flags of the camp are not meant only to help organize the travelers, but for them to collectively form themselves into an image of God. When the tribes camp in this particular way, their bodies together represent Ezekiel’s vision, and together united, the Israelites help each other see the divine. This interpretation contextualizes God’s lengthy instructions at the beginning of the book of Bamidbar (Numbers). Why does the text go into great detail about this camping map? It is a map to find connection in the uncertainty of a vast desert.
As many of us get vaccinated and more parts of society reopen, we may be finding the edge of the desert. No vaccine can inoculate us from feelings of uncertainty and wandering. On this Shavuot, perhaps we can breath in the moments of closeness and connection we feel toward our tradition. And then, as we leave the holiday and read through our book of wandering in the desert, perhaps this year, we will find ourselves drawn to the structures of our tradition, be they the camping map of the desert or our own sacred practices, in which we bring God’s presence into the world.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The Book of Numbers
Counting, counting and more counting.
As we come close to concluding the 49 days of counting the Omer, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers, or the Book of Counting (Talmud Sotah 36b).
Why is an entire book titled “Numbers?” Technically, because this book begins with the census of the Jewish people, and the later in the same book another census is taken (Numbers 26). But this only carries over the question to the actual census: Why in the first place is it so important to count the people, especially considering that G-d in His all encompassing knowledge knows their precise number?!
Indeed, the Midrash tells us that there are a total of ten censuses. Once when they went down to Egypt (Genesis 46). A second time when they came out (Exodus 12:37). A third time after the incident of the Golden Calf (30:12). Twice in the Book of Numbers: once in formation of the camps, and once in connection with the division of the land. Twice in the days of Saul (Samuel I 11:8; 15:4). The eighth time in the days of David (Samuel II 24:9). The ninth time in the days of Ezra (Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 7:66). The tenth time will be in the future era of Moshiach, when “The flocks shall again pass under the hands of Him that counts them” (Jeremiah 33:13).
What is the great significance of counting the people? So important that a census was taken nine times in history – and one more will be taken in Messianic times; so important that an entire book of Torah is named “Numbers?”
Rashi, the classic Biblical commentator, says:
“Because the people were dear to G-d, He counts them all the time. He counted them when they left Egypt. He counted them after they fell in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf, to know the number of the survivors. And He counted them when He came to manifest His presence within them: on the first of Nissan the Sanctuary was erected, and [one month later] on the first of Iyar He counted them.”
Ramban (Nachmanides) adds that the Hebrew word for “count”, pakod, also means to “remember” and “be concerned with.”
Counting people is much more than a statistical census. It is about the people being cherished, recognized and cared about. When parents travel with their children, especially in foreign territories, they keep counting the children to make sure no one is lost.
This counting is not a mere technicality. It is about the inherent value we place in the person we count.
Psychologically speaking, the single biggest question we ask ourselves is: Do I matter? Do I truly matter? Amidst the billions of people in the world, and the myriad of different species and forms of life, let alone the trillions upon trillions of atoms and cells – one cannot help but wonder: Do I count? Does it make any real difference whether I exist or not?
Subjectively, of course each of us has our value to the people around us. And we make the best with what we have. And our egos of course work overtime to make us feel that we are self-important. But in the grand scheme of things is each one of us truly indispensable?
No small question. Because if you are dispensable, how invested will you be in your choices after all? If I don’t matter, then everything I do doesn’t matter.
Comes the book of Numbers and tells us: G-d counts each one of us. The greatest and the smallest are not more and not less than one unit. Because no one is optional, no one is dispensable.
You and you and you and you – and every individual on this earth – has a unique mission, an essential contribution to make that no one – NO ONE – else can accomplish but you!
And this inherent value is not just when you actually do the counting, but “all the time,” as Rashi says: “It validates you.”
Why then was the census only of those “From the age of twenty and upward?” Because this is the age, as the verse continues to explain, of “all who are fit to serve in the army.”
Every individual counts from the moment of birth throughout our entire lives (and beyond). But when individual indispensability is challenged and questioned, then it is especially necessary to emphasize and focus the power of each person’s inherent value.
A child born to healthy parents, nurtured and protected is constantly made to feel how he or she matters. Loving parents – the way it was meant to be – imbue their child with validation, confidence and a sense of absolute worth.
When do we need to be reminded – and empowered – that each of us is indispensable, when we go out into the “battlefield” of life, where people often live by the cruel “rule” of “survival of the fittest.” In a hostile environment, in an insecure world – where people threaten and feel threatened by each other – then we need to count each individual, essentially declaring: Don’t succumb to your depersonalization. You matter, you count, you are absolutely necessary.
This also explains why the census was taken only nine times throughout history and will be taken a tenth time in the future. If counting is vital to human value, why not count them “all the time” literally? Because during these ten times the essential indispensability of individuals was challenged – and they reflect the ten different universal situations when human worth is questioned – and that’s when we need the special emphasis of the census. But these countings infuse us with the constant feeling of importance, as if we are being counted “all the time.”
The vital message of individual worth – the indispensability of each of one us – is relevant today more than ever. Paradoxically, the more the world progresses technologically, the more depersonalized life seems to be. In this age of mass production, statistics and communications at the speed of light, our individual contribution can often get lost in the fast shuffle.
People today are often valued not for who they truly are – and for their unique contributions in life – but for their buying power, performance, looks, youth, and other superficial elements, rendering us into commodities rather than souls. Just read any marketing or advertising plan, how people are broken down into demographics that have little or nothing to do with their individual indispensable mission in life.
No wonder so many of us feel, despite all our comforts and high standards of living, insignificant. And nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the “battlefield” of the marketplace.
Indeed, the very nature of materialism can be seen as inherently impersonal. Can two bodies with no soul connect? Unless we find a deeper common denominator, one piece of matter will have no relationship with another except for selfish gain.
Add into the equation the dysfunctionality of our times. How many people today grew up in homes where not only were they not nurtured (which in itself is the greatest invalidation), but received the continuous message (in words, in absenteeism, or in outright abuse): “You don’t matter; your feelings don’t matter; you are only here to serve my needs; you are worthless; etc. etc.” – all the devastating forms of annihilating human dignity, of no less an innocent, vulnerable child…
Thus we are told: Each of you entering into the “battle” of life is counted – counted as a unique individual. Regardless who you are, what you have accomplished, what class you occupy on the social scale, how much equity you have built up; regardless of what others think of you and what you think of yourself – you are absolutely significant.
And this count is “all the time.” The actual count is not all the time, but its effect is perpetual: It imbues you with a constant sense of value and self-worth; of always knowing that you are needed.
That is the message of the Book of Numbers: Birth is G-d saying that you matter.
Yes indeed, you matter and you are needed.
From Reconstructing Judaism
By Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
Se’u et rosh kol adat B’nei Yisrael… / שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
Take a head-count of the entire community of the Children of Israel… (B’midbar 1:2)
Sefer Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah, begins and ends with a census count. This is why the book is known in English as the Book of Numbers. The Hebrew name, Bamidbar, means “In the Wilderness”. Baidbar is an apt name for the book, for its chapters cover 39 of the 40 years that the Children of Israel sojourned in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. But the Sages also occasionally refer to this book as Chumash Ha-pekudim, “The Book of Countings”.
The historical reasons for these precise census counts are not clear, and Biblical scholars can only speculate about the politics of ancient Israel that might have made it necessary to enumerate the population of each of the twelve tribes.
But beyond the realm of history, the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the wilderness are a spiritual journey, from the dehumanized, fragmented condition of slavery to the restoration of our full humanity as a holy community in conscious relationship with the Source of Life. Through this lens, Torah commentators understand God’s desire that we be accurately counted as a sign of love.
Commenting on our verse, the medieval commentator Rashi explains that, “Because they were dear to God, God counted them often.” God is here a teacher with her class on a school trip, constantly counting to make sure no one gets left behind. God is a loving parent, gazing repeatedly at each of his children until they complain, “Why do you keep looking at me?” This is the thrust of the midrashic understanding of why God wants to count us over and over.
It’s beautiful. God counts us because of love. And we are not just numbers – our verse says, “Se’u et rosh kol adat B’nei Yisrael”, which literally means “Lift up the head of every person in the community”. That is to say, take account of them one by one, every single individual. If you are counted, then you count, you matter. To YHVH, every single person matters.
With this understanding, the opening of the Book of Numbers offers a stark contrast to the opening of the Book of Exodus. Exodus’ Hebrew name is Sefer Shemot, The Book of Names. Shemot opens by describing the degradation of the Children of Israel under the rule of Pharaoh. The title Shemot can be read as ironic, as Pharaoh thinks of, describes, and reduces the Children of Israel to a nameless swarm, a mass source of undifferentiated labor. Pharaoh dehumanizes the Children of Israel, treating them as unworthy of individual value. Pharaoh takes away their names, and they become interchangeable cogs in his designs. (I am thinking of the Nazis tattooing numbers on Jews’ forearms. I am thinking of Muhammad Ali rejecting his name Cassius Clay as his slave name, imposed upon him by white folk who did not think he really counted as a person, and instead claiming his own unique identity by taking a name of his own choosing.)
The process and desired result of liberation is a society in which no one is reduced to an interchangeable number, but rather a society in which everyone counts and is accounted for. The Book of Numbers begins with a people now free from forced bondage, and the Creator wants every single one of them to lift their head proudly, to let their face be seen in its utter uniqueness, and to know that they are equally worthy of love as any other child of God. The journey to the Promised Land is the journey towards a society in which we all remember that everyone counts.
From My Jewish Learning
Two Halves of a Whole
There is more than one meaning behind the counting in Bamidbar.
BY RABBI DOROTHY A. RICHMAN
This God did not lead us by the nearer way
when Pharaoh let the people go at last,
but round-about, by way of the wilderness-
pillars of fire and cloud marking night and day
to the edge of the flood-tide–uncrossable and vast.
If God had led us by the nearer way,
we cried, we would not die here; let Egypt oppress
us as it will; let us return to the past…
God did not lead us by the nearer way,
but into rising waters, which do not part unless
with an outstretched arm we step forward, and stand fast…
– Dan Bellm, “The Crossing: Geulah”
This week’s Torah portion, and the penultimate book of the Torah that it begins, narrates the experience of the Israelites negotiating the round-about way of the wilderness. The two names given to the book, Numbers in English and Bamidbar in Hebrew, tell different stories about the mission of the fugitive slaves as they move from Egypt to the promised land of Israel.
“Numbers” was chosen as the book’s English title because of the census-taking that occurs at its beginning. In the opening chapter, the people are counted in preparation for war. Counting the people is a move toward stability and order: each clan is named, given a place in the camp, and reckoned.
This counting exemplifies human action and organization. Its purpose is communal protection. Given the dangers of the wilderness, especially its other inhabitants, the traveling Israelite camp must be secured and armed to protect itself. Numbers tells the story of control and the need for security.
The Hebrew name for the book, Bamidbar, means “in the wilderness.” Unlike Numbers, Bamidbar connotes chaos and disorder. The very definition of a wilderness is that it is untamed. Yet, it also connotes an interim space, a knowing-where-you-want-to-go-and-not-yet-being-there period of transformation. It was into this kind of wilderness, generations earlier, that God sent Abraham on his revolutionary journey, away from the place he knew and toward one he would be shown, telling him that his descendants would be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).
“In the wilderness” suggests the situation of the Israelite people: they are escaped Egyptian slaves moving toward physical and spiritual freedom. Their round-about detour into the wilderness provides opportunities for the Israelites to learn how to become a blessing in the world.
A Different Census
In addition to the first census of our Torah portion, a military one, there is another counting toward the portion’s end. Perhaps each census corresponds to one of the names given to the book. The first, the military census, is the “Numbers” census. It focuses on the physical security of the Israelites. The second, a counting of the Levites, provides for the carrying of the Tent of Meeting — the place where God continues revelation throughout the wilderness years.
The Tent of Meeting serves as a movable, responsive, dynamic Torah. This second numbering asks, “How can we move the Torah forward? How can we travel with it into a strange, new, and difficult land?” The Bamidbar counting focuses not on physical security but on spiritual progress.
From the time that Abraham received the promise that his descendants would be a blessing to the families of the earth, we have understood that our Jewish mission transcends the needs of our own community. Perhaps the two names of this fourth book of the Torah together create a whole. The order and strategy of Numbers may have helped save our people from the dangers of the wilderness, yet it is that very experience of the wilderness, our work together to carry the blessing of God forward, that makes us worth saving.
Responsibility & Community
After traveling to the developing world on AJWS service delegations, I was often asked by people in the Jewish community, “Why Honduras? Why Ghana? Why not Israel? Your local Jewish community?” The question concerns me.
Our challenge, in today’s global community, is to both safeguard our community and move the Torah forward. How can we travel with our ancient teachings into the strange, new, interconnected land where we now live? Numbers and Bamidbar Jews, we both step forward and stand fast. Torah may be a blessing for us, but, according to the promise given to Abraham, it exists to make us a blessing for others, as well.
Provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service.
From Maggid Jhos Singer
This week’s parasha opens the fourth book of Moses, Bamidbar/In The Wilderness (the book is known in English as Numbers, so named because it opens with a long, complicated census). Only the men are counted in a series of tallies, organizing them by tribe, age, and fighting ability. It’s a draft of sorts. The tribes are given positions where they will camp around the Mishkan. The camps are large, ranging from 32,200 to 74,600 men. But one tribe—Levi—is notably missing.
God spoke to Moses, saying, “Surely, do not count the tribe of Levi; do not calculate their number together with the children of Israel.” (Bamidbar 1:48-9)
The tribe of Levi was small (22,000) and strange. Not destined to be warriors, the Levites were instead ordained to serve the spiritual needs of the people. Their lot was to carry out communal rituals, redeem individual failings, facilitate healing, and to tend and maintain the spiritual center of the camp. Surrounding that center were the other tribes, each bearing its own name and flag.
The Children of Israel shall camp, each with his flag, as a sign of their father’s house, they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance. (Bamidbar 2:2)
This week was particularly tough in the realm of geo-politics—lots of flag waving, lots of tribes, lots of death, lots of pain. The need for healing, redemption, and community is great. But instead of pulling together, we saw tribe attacking tribe. Our spiritual center in disarray, our Levites scrambling for higher ground, our hearts broken and our bile boiling. The ancient social system laid out in this week’s Torah portion was non-operational.
According to contemporary Chasidic thought, the Levites of today are those who walk the spiritual path of Torah study. The discipline required to navigate our weird, sometimes disturbing, always challenging, dreamtime spirit-text strengthens the mind to transcend the limitations of this world. This is the path of spiritual transformation, which, in turn, is the path of material transformation.
I can hear you thinking, “Oh come on, Jhos, do you really expect us to believe that studying Torah is going to bring an end to the conflict in the world?” Well, yeah, I do. And here’s why: our Torah is a mere hologram of our world, and the sooner we can navigate it with grace and calm, wisdom and insight, the sooner we can apply our learning to our daily grind. Torah study is life practice.
I have heard the criticism that Torah is sexist, violent, abusive, angry, patriarchal, xenophobic, chauvinistic, and fear-mongering. Yeah, of course it is. How else would it show us how ugly we can be? The spiritual practice of study is to recognize that the Torah is not endorsing those things, but rather inviting us to see them as malleable, repairable, and in need of healing. The text invites us to encounter what is grotesque and depraved in a safe place, a realm where we can slow down, look deeply, and let our soul’s wisdom guide us into and through the brokenness in the real world. It provides us with an arena to encounter the other, deal with adversity, and enter the shadows. Think of it as an ancient version of a D&D* spirit quest.
As in this week’s parasha, while flag wavers and warriors are in the majority, they will never be the nucleus of the community. The community’s core is spiritual. And when we exercise our spiritual minds we align with the Levites. Armed only with sharp vision, deep compassion, and intense faith, the Levites cultivate their ability to gather us, contain us, and heal us. Fearlessly they stand before the wounded, without judgment. They minister.
May this Shabbat bring us back to our own spiritual centers. May we find the strength and tenderness, courage and kindness, power and humility to live in the heart of our Torah, in the heart of our community, and in the heart of our one true soul.
* Dungeons and Dragons
“Speaking of Wilderness”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel
Bamidbar: In the desert. A new sefer begins a tale of wilderness life which will end, some 38 years later, with the passing of leadership from Moshe to Yehoshua before entering the land of Israel.
This particular parsha focuses primarily on taking a census, organizing the tribes, and distinguishing the Levites. The framework is a marshalling of the troops, generally for the travel through the desert – which no one knows at this point will be “40 years” – and perhaps for war.
This preparation is carefully organized. The census of the tribes is completed in good order. Their arrangement in the camp and is described in detail. The number of Levites is carefully aligned with the number of first-born males as priestly duties are about to be shifted to the Levites. In the last aliyah of the parsha, the duties of the tribe of Kohath are described regarding the precise preparations for travel with the vessels of the sanctuary. God insists that Aaron supervise; he is concerned that the Kohathites be protected in this most holy work, “lest they die.”
The next parsha continues with the other clans of the Levites in their duties. In many ways, Bamidbar and Nasso continue the concern with priestly purity that we encounter in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). The people depend on their relationship with God, and that in turn depends on the devoted service of all the families of the Levites, to the purity and proper operation of the Mishkan. They are examples of devotion for the rest of the people, in moral and religious ways.
And yet – Bamidbar also points toward something else. The English name of the book that begins here emphasizes the census, by calling it “Numbers.” But the word Bamidbar meaning “in the Wilderness” or “in the Desert” has a different tonality. Moreover, the word can be vocalized differently in Hebrew, so that the consonants of midbar become medaber, meaning a speaker. This is a hint to another reality in the book of Bamidbar: how we speak, how we use our linguistic ability. And be-medaber, what is inside the speaker.
In Bamidbar and the following parsha, God is the one who speaks, setting forth the order of things. But when the people begin traveling, we soon we hear another kind of speech, what the Torah calls mitonenim, murmuring, “speaking evil in the ears of the Lord.” (11.1). At first, one might think this is relatively normal. The complaints center around the food – and isn’t that typical for an army? God resolves the problem by sending quail.
But other issues rapidly emerge. In the next chapter, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moshe: “Are we not prophets also?” Among the highest leadership we suddenly see dissension and jealousy. The false report of the spies – another select group of leaders – occupies parshat Shelach. In the following round of trouble, even the Levites, those whom God chose to take the place of the first-borns, enter the fray: Korach starts a nasty argument over authority. He adds another layer of disturbance, crafting his language carefully to confuse the people. The Sages call this genaiva da’at, “stealing the mind.” Eventually, silence descends – it’s not clear exactly when, but the silence itself is deadly. People are dying and being buried in the desert every year for the sin of the spies. Then, near the end of the 40 years, in parshat Chukat, Miriam dies, and then Aaron. Now their leaders are disappearing, and the people complain again, this time of lack of water. They provoke an ugly confrontation with Moshe, who we should remember is grieving over the loss of his sister, and who now bursts out in angry speech. Then comes the story of the prophet Balaam who claims to be a professional in language – the language of cursing.
The external order begins so elegantly: the order of an army, the precision of the priests. But internally, says Bamidbar, there is a desert, a wilderness, at the hearts of the people. Fear, doubt, jealousy, insecurity affect everyone from hungry youths to experienced leaders. Their emotions burst out in words of desperation, anger, challenge. What will we eat? Are we not prophets also? Why did you send us here to die? We look like grasshoppers in their eyes! You take too much on yourselves! Listen, you rebels!
Bamidbar deliberately gives us the perfection of an opening scene, like a peaceful castle before the hordes descend. Its name, however, portends something quite far from perfection, alerting us to listen to the wildness, the “bewilderments” that tear societies apart. In many ways Sefer Bamidbar is an astute social psychology of leadership and its discontents. It reminds us that the most artful design, the greatest mechanical precision, the most careful counting and accounting, do not begin to touch the alchemical fires of the human heart.
From Rabbi David Kasher
FLAGS OF LOVE AND WAR – Parshat Bamidbar
What’s the big deal with burning a flag? A flag is just a symbol of the state, after all; it isn’t the state itself. Who cares if someone wants to set a colored piece of cloth on fire?
A lot of people, it turns out. Most modern nations have some sort of law against flag desecration, some of them imposing punishments of imprisonment, or even death. The United States Supreme Court, an exception, has ruled that it is unconstitutional to prohibit the destruction of a the flag for the purposes of political protest; but many – including both recent U.S. candidates for president – have called for that ruling to be overturned.
We sure do love our flags. But can we love them a bit too much?
Flags were important in the ancient nation of Israel as well, as we learn this week in the first reading from of the Book of Numbers. The book begins with a census (hence the name, ‘Numbers’), and then moves on to describe the official placement of the tribal camps, formed whenever the Children of Israel would stop during their journey through the desert. We read:
The Children of Israel shall camp, each with his flag, as a sign of their father’s house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:2)
אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ
The tribes were arranged in a square around the Tabernacle, with three tribes positioned on each side (except the north, which had only two, because the priestly tribe of Levi camped closer the Tabernacle). And each tribe had its own special flag, with – according to the midrash on our verse above – a specific color and emblem. That midrash is worth reading through, to see just how much thought the rabbis put into these flags, and how vividly they were described:
Reuben’s was red, and had a picture of mandrakes.
Shimon’s was green, and had a picture of the city of Shechem.
Levi’s was green, back, and red, and had a picture of the Urim and Tumim.
Judah’s was sky blue and had a picture of a lion.
Issachar’s was bluish-black and and a picture of a sun and moon.
Zevulun’s was white and had a picture of a ship.
Dan’s was sapphire and had a picture of a snake.
Gad’s was grey and had a picture of an encampment.
Naphtali’s was wine-red and had a picture of a deer.
Asher’s was pearl, and had a picture of an olive tree.
Joseph’s was deep black, and had a picture of two princes.
Benjamin’s was multicolored and had a picture of a wolf. (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7)
רְאוּבֵן אַבְנוֹ אֹדֶם וּמַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ צָבוּעַ אָדֹם וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו דּוּדָאִים. שִׁמְעוֹן פִּטְדָה וּמַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ צָבוּעַ יָרֹק וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו שְׁכֶם. לֵוִי בָּרֶקֶת וּמַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ צָבוּעַ שְׁלִישׁ לָבָן וּשְׁלִישׁ שָׁחֹר וּשְׁלִישׁ אָדֹם וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו אוּרִים וְתוּמִים. יְהוּדָה נֹפֶךְ וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דְּמוּתוֹ כְּמִין שָׁמַיִם וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו אַרְיֵה. יִשָֹּׂשכָר סַפִּיר וּמַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ צָבוּעַ שָׁחֹר דּוֹמֶה לְכָחֹל וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו שֶׁמֶשׁ וְיָרֵחַ … זְבוּלוּן יַהֲלֹם וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ לְבָנָה וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו סְפִינָה …. דָּן לֶשֶׁם וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְסַפִּיר וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו נָחָשׁ…. גָּד שְׁבוֹ וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ לֹא לָבָן וְלֹא שָׁחֹר אֶלָּא מְעֹרָב שָׁחֹר וְלָבָן וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו מַחֲנֶה… נַפְתָּלִי אַחְלָמָה וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְיַיִן צָלוּל שֶׁאֵין אַדְמוּתוֹ עַזָּה וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו אַיָּלָה… נַפְתָּלִי אַיָּלָה שְׁלֻחָה. אָשֵׁר תַּרְשִׁישׁ וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְאֶבֶן יְקָרָה שֶׁמִּתְקַשְּׁטוֹת בּוֹ הַנָּשִׁים, וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו אִילָן זַיִת … יוֹסֵף שֹׁהַם וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ שָׁחֹר עַד מְאֹד וּמְצֻיָּר לִשְׁנֵי נְשִׂיאִים אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה.. בִּנְיָמִין יָשְׁפֵה וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְכָל הַצְּבָעִים לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר הַצְּבָעִים וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו זְאֵב
These flags were regal, artfully crafted, and each one displayed an image drawn from the particular story of the son of Jacob who founded that tribe. They were clearly symbols of great pride.
But even as these flags were being so exuberantly waved about, the same midrash imagines Moses beginning to worry about all the pomp and ceremony surrounding tribal identification:
When the Holy Blessed one told Moses to make these flags as they desired, Moses began to feel distressed. He said, “Now there will be future conflicts between the tribes. If I say to the Tribe of Judah to camp on the east side, he will say he can only camp in the north, and the same with Reuben, and with Ephraim, and with every single tribe. What shall I do??
בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁאָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמשֶׁה עֲשֵׂה אוֹתָם דְּגָלִים כְּמוֹ שֶׁנִּתְאַוּוּ, הִתְחִיל משֶׁה מֵצֵר, אָמַר עַכְשָׁו עֲתִידָה הַמַּחֲלֹקֶת לְהִנָּתֵן בֵּין הַשְּׁבָטִים, אִם אֲנִי אוֹמֵר לְשִׁבְטוֹ שֶׁל יְהוּדָה שֶׁיִּשְׁרֶה בַּמִּזְרָח וְהוּא אוֹמֵר אִי אֶפְשִׁי אֶלָּא בַּדָּרוֹם, וְכֵן רְאוּבֵן וְכֵן אֶפְרַיִם וְכֵן כָּל שֵׁבֶט וְשֵׁבֶט, מָה אֲנִי עוֹשֶׂה
We see in Moses’ anxiety a keen intuition about the perils of nationalistic fervor. It is true, the more a group becomes attached to their tribal, ethnic identity, the more they tend to be insistent in their claim to a particular plot of land – and willing to fight for it. Moses is worried for good reason: flag-waving has often enough been a prelude to violence.
But then the midrash continues with God answering Moses back, arguing the other side:
The Holy Blessed one said, what does it matter to you? They won’t need you. They know their own dwelling-places. They have a diagram passed down from their father Jacob telling them exactly how to dwell under their flags, and I am not changing that. They already have a traditional ordering from their Father Jacob. Just as they arranged themselves as they surrounded him on his deathbed, so will they surround the Tabernacle.
, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא משֶׁה מָה אִכְפַּת לָךְ אֵין צְרִיכִין לָךְ, מֵעַצְמָן הֵן מַכִּירִין דִּירָתָן, אֶלָּא דְּיָתֵיקֵי יֵשׁ בְּיָדָן מִיַּעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם הֵיאַךְ לִשְׁרוֹת בַּדְּגָלִים, אֵינִי מְחַדֵּשׁ עֲלֵיהֶם, כְּבָר יֵשׁ לָהֶן טַכְסִיס מִיַּעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם כְּמוֹ שֶׁטָּעֲנוּ אוֹתוֹ וְהִקִּיפוּ אֶת מִטָּתוֹ כָּךְ יַקִּיפוּ אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן
The flags, God assures, will not only help the tribes locate themselves in an orderly fashion out on the desert plain, but will also provide them with a deep and meaningful sense of belonging in the world. As they raise their banners, they remind themselves of where they come from, and connect themselves to their ancestors. Remember that the Torah called the flags “a sign of their father’s house.” As the midrash imagines it, that is literally the house of their father Jacob, who first mapped out his sons’ positioning by summoning them to his bed in a certain arrangement, to receive the final blessings – many of which contain the symbols that will one day appear on their flags.
And there are other little clues in our parsha’s layout of the tribal encampment that link us back to the story of Jacob. The north, east, south, west placements may remind us of a verse back in Genesis, early in Jacob’s life, when God blesses him in a dream, saying:
Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. (Gen. 28:14)
וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה
A careful reader will also note the mention of the camp of Ephraim, and then, just afterwards, the camp of Menashe, and remember a similar ordering in the story of Jacob giving blessings to his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. For though Menashe was the elder, and therefore in line for the first blessing, Jacob insisted on blessing Ephraim first. And so, says the Torah:
Thus he placed Ephraim before Menashe. (Gen. 48:20)
וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-אֶפְרַיִם, לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה
The flag procession replicates the blessings of Jacob – both ‘to’ and ‘from’ – because these tribal identities descend from a family tree whose roots can be traced back to a beloved father. This is not just a matter of territory or pride; these flags also represent a profound connection to home, and tradition, and even love.
Our midrash, then, in the dialogue between Moses and God, astutely lays out the tension inherent in any form of nationalism. On the one hand, when masses of people are mobilized together through shared ethnic identity, there is always a great danger of their coming to violence. But on the other hand, through these tribe-like national affiliations we are able to experience a sense of belonging to our society, as if it were our own family.
Nations can breed hatred; but they can also cultivate love. Flags can be symbols of aggression, or of affection.
With that dichotomy in mind, it is worth remarking that after the Book of Numbers, the word for ‘flag,’ (degel – דגל) appears in only two other books in the Hebrew Bible – and their contexts offer a striking parallel to the binary we have seen so far.
The next time we find the word used comes in the book of Psalms, in the following verse:
Let us sing for joy in your salvation, flagged (nidgol) by the name of our God. May the Lord fulfill all that you ask for. (Psalms 20:6)
נְרַנְּנָ֤ה ׀ בִּ֘ישׁ֤וּעָתֶ֗ךָ וּבְשֵֽׁם־אֱלֹקינוּ נִדְגֹּ֑ל יְמַלֵּ֥א ה כָּל־מִשְׁאֲלוֹתֶֽיךָ׃
This is the flag-waving of victory, of the satisfaction of desires. One senses behind these words a battle recently won, the glorious triumph over an enemy. Rashi even alludes to such imagery when he comments:
flagged – meaning, gathered together and made strong
נדגול נתאסף ונעשה חיל
The word he uses for ‘strong’ (chayil – חיל), is one usually reserved for soldiers. And why not? For who else carries a flag just after a victory?
The other book which mentions flags, however, gives them a very different connotation – for it is a very different book: the Song of Songs, the sensuous poetic account of two lovers in pursuit of one another. And here is the first mention of our word:
He brought me into the wine-house, and his flag (diglo) of love was draped over me. (Song of Songs 2:4)
הֱבִיאַ֙נִי֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַיָּ֔יִן וְדִגְל֥וֹ עָלַ֖י אַהֲבָֽה׃
Now a flag is a tender sign of love – even intimacy. And the Song of Songs persists in using this image, again and again asking us to imagine the flag as symbol of love:
My beloved is pure and flushed, and flagged (dagul) among the multitudes. (Song of Songs 5:10)
דּוֹדִ֥י צַח֙ וְאָד֔וֹם דָּג֖וּל מֵרְבָבָֽה׃
So a flag can be a marker of love, or the banner of war. Which is it, then, in our parsha, when the Children of Israel first set up camp under their flags? As they form this one nation made up of many tribes, are they bonding together as a family, or defensively marking out separate, tribal territory?
All of that potential is within them. They might go either way. In fact, the rest of the Book of Numbers will continue play out this tension. There will be episodes of mutiny, civil war and assassination in the chapters ahead. But the people will also gather together for national ceremonies, communal blessings, and collective mourning. Through their long desert journey, they will be learning what it means to be a nation – the good, the bad, and the sometimes very ugly. And when the Book of Numbers draws to a close, they will find themselves standing at the Jordan, ready to cross over into the promised land, where all of these lessons of nationhood will be put to the test.
It is a test which continues, even today, for every nation standing under a flag.
Becoming Like the Wilderness
BY EITAN FISHBANE, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF JEWISH THOUGHT
With the start of Sefer Bemidbar, the narrative of the Torah turns to the long journey of Benei Yisrael through the wilderness—punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf and preparation for entry into the Land of Israel. Passage into the sacred terrain first requires an arduous ordeal of wandering—a physical process of movement and quest. Penitence, pilgrimage, and transformation are anchored in the space of wilderness.
Moshe, too, after killing the Egyptian and prior to his divine call to leadership, retreats to the wilderness, a period of withdrawal into a space outside the habitation of society. It was only in that space, R. Bahya ben Asher suggests, far from the yishuv (dwelling place) of the population, that Moshe could reenact the prophetic encounter of his ancestors, a withdrawal for the sake of spiritual and moral elevation (commentary to Exod. 3:1). Like Moshe the solitary shepherd, the people of Israel must undergo a spiritual transformation, a process of purification—from the impure state of idolatry to the refined condition necessary to enter the holy land. This purification is represented by the desolate nature of the wilderness—a vast emptiness that facilitates a breakthrough in mind and soul. As Kathleen Norris has written, evoking life on the Great Plains of Dakota as a spiritual practice:
Here the eye learns to appreciate slight variations, the possibilities inherent in emptiness. It sees that the emptiness is full of small things… A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky… Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state (Dakota, pp. 156-7).
The experience of what appears to be emptiness is an opening into another state of spiritual perception, an opening of the heart into the concealed indwelling of divine holiness. The sublime interior of the human soul is revealed in that moment of mystery and grandeur before the vastness of the All.
Likewise, R. Bahya asks, restating an earlier midrashic teaching (Tanhuma, 6; Bemidbar Rabbah, 1:7): why does the Torah emphasize God’s speech to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי)? It was to teach that “a person does not attain the Torah until they have made themselves empty and abandoned like the wilderness” (אין אדם קונה התורה עד שיעשה עצמו הפקר כמדבר) [commentary to Num. 1:1]. To receive the revelation of Torah—or perhaps a bit less grandly, to let Torah take root in one’s heart—a person must first make themselves into a midbar, an inner empty wilderness that is cleared of all the weeds and brush that obstruct true perception and feeling. A wilderness that returns to the first purity of nature.
Just as divine revelation and the Torah arise from the physical space of wilderness, of midbar—at the burning bush and then at Mount Sinai—a heart infused with divine Torah arises through a person’s mindful cultivation of their own interior wilderness. One should seek to attain the level of hefker—of feeling unbound by the pride and egoism of ownership, of being unattached to materialism. In hefker consciousness, we train our spiritual sight to see the Divine Presence that dwells beneath the surface, beneath the many golden calves of our obsessions, possessions, and wayward priorities. This is a radical reinvention of the concept of hefker, a neutral halakhic category of abandonment and ownerlessness (e.g. BT Eruvin, 45b).
In this transformed reading, the midbar may be said to embody a pure state of emptiness—an inner cleansing that allows us to go deeper into the spiritual path. Becoming hefker kemidbar is a process of letting go of our imprisonment in materiality, in ephemeral and finite desires—to be liberated into the vastness of an inner wilderness. As R. Nahman of Bratzlav taught (Likutei Moharan I:52), the most profound opening of the heart to God takes place in the physical space of darkness and wilderness, the frightening ground of loneliness and alienation. It is in hitbodedut (solitude) that we are able to empty our minds and hearts of society’s overwhelming drumbeat, where the ultimate bitul hayeish (erasure of superficial, mundane consciousness) becomes possible, and we are truly opened in all of our vulnerability before Divinity. In that place of midbar, we are able to break open the heart in ways we didn’t know were possible, to cry out to God from a place of the deepest emotional honesty. The midbar is an inner place of psyche as much as it is a terrestrial location.
But it was hefker kemidbar as a state of moral piety that was first articulated by the Sages (see BT Sanhedrin, 49a; Bahya ben Asher, Kad Hakemah, “Orhim”; Metzudat David on I Kings 2:34), and this interpersonal dimension remains a powerful feature of the ideal to which we aspire. As these sources teach, one should make one’s home hefker kemidbar, free and open for all—cultivating an ethic of hospitality in which the poor and the less fortunate feel free to come and be cared for. The model of wilderness, of midbar, is here taken to be an inspiration to live a life of openness and kindness toward other human beings. As the modern monk Thomas Merton said: “The speech of God is silence. His Word is solitude…It is in deep solitude and silence that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brother and my sister” (Entering the Silence, 2:398). In this reading, hefker is understood in the most charitable and positive sense of “free for all,” as opposed to the more pejorative meaning of hefker as a chaotic and uncontrolled “free-for-all.” The openness of a midbar-state-of-being is one that inspires kindness and generosity: the gentleness needed to sincerely love one’s fellow person. That gentleness is the silent speech of God flowing though man and woman to be realized as moral living. Integrating Merton’s insight with the Jewish sources we have considered, the retreat of solitude is filled with the living word of God, the breath of divine sustenance. It is our spiritual work to let that divine solitude refine the openness and gentleness with which we treat our fellow human beings.
To paraphrase the teaching: You will attain the true soul of Torah only when you have made yourself hefker kemidbar—a person cleansed of superficial obsessions, gentle and generous toward other people, one who has nullified the grip of pride and egoism. As the early Hasidic rebbe R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk (Pri Ha’aretz, Letter 27) taught, true wisdom and humanity rises from the cultivation of deep humility:
The Torah only stands firm in one who makes himself like a midbar hefker before those who are poor of mind and rich of mind, and he doesn’t think of himself as better than his friend. On the contrary, he should be completely nullified before his friend, and it is through this that they become united and bound up one with the other.
True spiritual refinement, the deepest attainment of hefker kemidbar, must not remain at the level of individualistic mystical growth and the personal quest for divine revelation. To realize the ideals of piety, to ensconce the living Torah in the wholeness of oneself, a person must aspire toward a genuine humility, to avoid the harmful path of judgmentalism and arrogance. It is in the bond of loving friendship and fellowship, in kindness and humility toward the other, that the Torah—and God—are most radiantly revealed.
Wendy’s comment: I also have been inspired by the book, Dakota
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Sound of Silence (Bamidbar 5776)
Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. So the sages connected the two. Shavuot is the time of the giving of the Torah. Bamibar means, “In the desert.” What then is the connection between the desert and the Torah, the wilderness and God’s word?
The sages gave several interpretations. According to the Mekhilta the Torah was given publicly, openly and in a place no one owns because had it been given in the land of Israel, Jews would have said to the nations of the world, “You have no share in it.” Instead, whoever wants to come and accept it, let them come and accept it.
Another explanation: Had the Torah been given in Israel the nations of the world would have had an excuse for not accepting it. This follows the rabbinic tradition that before God gave the Torah to the Israelites he offered it to all the other nations and each found a reason to decline.
Yet another: Just as the wilderness is free – it costs nothing to enter – so the Torah is free. It is God’s gift to us.
But there is another, more spiritual reason. The desert is a place of silence. There is nothing visually to distract you, and there is no ambient noise to muffle sound. To be sure, when the Israelites received the Torah, there was thunder and lightening and the sound of a shofar. The earth felt as if it were shaking at its foundations. But in a later age, when the prophet Elijah stood at the same mountain after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he encountered God not in the whirlwind or the fire or the earthquake but in the kol demamah dakah, the still, small voice, literally “the sound of a slender silence.” I define this as the sound you can only hear if you are listening. In the silence of the midbar, the desert, you can hear the Medaber, the Speaker, and the medubar, that which is spoken. To hear the voice of God you need a listening silence in the soul.
Many years ago British television produced a documentary series, The Long Search, on the world’s great religions. When it came to Judaism, the presenter Ronald Eyre seemed surprised by its blooming, buzzing confusion, especially the loud, argumentative voices in the Bet Midrash, the house of study. Remarking on this to Elie Wiesel, he asked, “Is there such a thing as a silence in Judaism?” Wiesel replied: “Judaism is full of silences … but we don’t talk about them.”
Judaism is a very verbal culture, a religion of holy words. Through words, God created the universe: “And God said, Let there be … and there was.” According to the Targum, it is our ability to speak that makes us human. It translates the phrase, “and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7) as “and man became a speaking soul.” Words create. Words communicate. Our relationships are shaped, for good or bad, by language. Much of Judaism is about the power of words to make or break worlds.
So silence in Tanakh often has a negative connotation. “Aaron was silent,” says the Torah, after the death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10:3). “The dead do not praise you,” says Psalm 115, “nor do those who go down to the silence [of the grave].” When Job’s friends came to comfort him after the loss of his children and other afflictions, “Then they sat down with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, yet no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.” (Job 2:13).
But not all silence is sad. Psalms tells us that “to You, silence is praise” (Ps. 65:2). If we are truly in awe at the greatness of God, the vastness of the universe and the almost infinite extent of time, our deepest emotions will indeed lie too deep for words. We will experience silent communion.
The sages valued silence. They called it “a fence to wisdom.” If words are worth a coin, silence is worth two. R. Shimon ben Gamliel said, “All my days I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing better than silence.”
The service of the priests in the Temple was accompanied by silence. The Levites sang in the courtyard, but the priests – unlike their counterparts in other ancient religions — neither sang nor spoke while offering the sacrifices. One scholar has accordingly spoken of “the silence of the sanctuary.” The Zohar (2a) speaks of silence as the medium in which both the Sanctuary above and the Sanctuary below are made.
There were Jews who cultivated silence as a spiritual discipline. Bratslav Hassidim meditate in the fields. There are Jews who practise taanit dibbur, a “fast of words.” Our most profound prayer, the private saying of the Amidah, is called tefillah be-lachash, the “silent prayer.” It is based on the precedent of Hannah, praying for a child. “She spoke in her heart. Her lips moved but her voice was not heard” (1 Sam. 1:13).
God hears our silent cry. In the agonising tale of how Sarah told Abraham to send Hagar and her son away, the Torah tells us that when their water ran out and the young Ishmael was at the point of dying, Hagar cried, yet God heard “the voice of the child” (Gen. 21:16-17). Earlier when the angels came to visit Abraham and told him that Sarah would have a child, Sarah laughed inwardly, that is, silently, yet she was heard by God (Gen. 18:12-13). God hears our thoughts even when they are not expressed in speech.
The silence that counts, in Judaism, is thus a listening silence – and listening is the supreme religious art. Listening means making space for others to speak and be heard. As I point out in my commentary to the Siddur, there is no English word that remotely equals the Hebrew verb sh-m-a in its wide range of senses: to listen, to hear, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise and to respond in deed.
This was one of the key elements in the Sinai covenant, when the Israelites, having already said twice, “All that God says, we will do,” then said, “All that God says, we will do and we will hear [ve–nishma]” (Ex. 24:7). It is the nishma – listening, hearing, heeding, responding – that is the key religious act.
Thus Judaism is not only a religion of doing-and-speaking; it is also a religion of listening. Faith is the ability to hear the music beneath the noise. There is the silent music of the spheres, about which Psalm 19 speaks:
The heavens declare the glory of God
The skies proclaim the work of His hands.
Day to day they pour forth speech,
Night to night they communicate knowledge.
There is no speech, there are no words,
Their voice is not heard.
Yet their music carries throughout the earth.
There is the voice of history that was heard by the prophets. And there is the commanding voice of Sinai, that continues to speak to us across the abyss of time. I sometimes think that people in the modern age have found the concept of “Torah from heaven” problematic, not because of some new archaeological discovery but because we have lost the habit of listening to the sound of transcendence, a voice beyond the merely human.
It is fascinating that despite his often fractured relationship with Judaism, Sigmund Freud created in psychoanalysis a deeply Jewish form of healing. He himself called it the “speaking cure”, but it is in fact a listening cure. Almost all effective forms of psychotherapy involve deep listening.
Is there enough listening in the Jewish world today? Do we, in marriage, really listen to our spouses? Do we as parents truly listen to our children? Do we, as leaders, hear the unspoken fears of those we seek to lead? Do we internalise the sense of hurt of the people who feel excluded from the community? Can we really claim to be listening to the voice of God if we fail to listen to the voices of our fellow humans?
In his poem, ‘In memory of W B Yeats,’ W H Auden wrote:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.
From time to time we need to step back from the noise and hubbub of the social world and create in our hearts the stillness of the desert where, within the silence, we can hear the kol demamah dakah, the still, small voice of God, telling us we are loved, we are heard, we are embraced by God’s everlasting arms, we are not alone.
 Mekhilta, Yitro, Bachodesh, 1.
 Ibid., 5.
 1 Kings 19:9-12.
 BBC television, first shown 1977.
 Avot 3:13.
 Megillah 18a.
 Avot 1:17.
 Israel Knohl.
From Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
UNIVERSAL TORAH: BAMIDBAR
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4:20
Haftara: Hosea 2:1-22.
IN THE WILDERNESS
It was fitting that the Giving of the Torah took place in no-man’s-land amidst the stark desolation of the Wilderness. Here no temporal king could claim that he played host to the event, thereby meriting a special share in the glory. The Children of Israel were chosen to receive the Torah not because they were the most glorious, but because their hearts had been broken through exile and slavery. For the only way to receive the Torah is through humility, symbolized in the lowly Mount Sinai.
Having been appointed as guardians of the Torah, the task of the Children of Israel was to bring it up from Sinai to the Promised Land, from which they were to shine its light to all the inhabitants of the world. Genesis traces the roots of the Torah and of the souls of Israel who were to be its bearers, and Genesis is thus the “head” of the Torah. Exodus is the “hands”, describing how G-d redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt “with a mighty arm” and made them into a unique nation through the gift of the Torah and the presence of His Sanctuary in their midst as the focus of their national life. Leviticus is the “heart” of the Torah, setting forth its main laws in all areas of life.
Now we come to the Book of Numbers — the “legs” — tracing the journeying of the Children of Israel on foot through the wilderness to the borders of the Promised Land, with all the accompanying trials and tribulations. Our parshah of BAMIDBAR begins in the Wilderness of Sinai, almost a year after the Children of Israel’s arrival to receive the Torah. By now they had been taught all the main laws of the Torah, and the Sanctuary was in place and fully functional. The next stage was to take to the road and carry the Ark of the Covenant — encompassing the entire Torah — up to the land. The commandment to Moses with which BAMIDBAR opens, to take a census of the people and organize them by tribes, was a preparation for their departure from Sinai, which is narrated in BEHA’ALOSCHA (Numbers ch. 10).
As described in our parshah, the twelve tribes of Israel were to be encamped around the Sanctuary in four groups of three tribes each. When they traveled through the wilderness, they were to travel in the same formation. The positions of the twelve tribes were the same as those of Jacob’s twelve sons when they carried his funeral bier from Egypt to the Cave of Machpelah.
Ramban (Nachmanides) opens his commentary on BAMIDBAR by pointing out that the way the people encamped around the Sanctuary was directly parallel to the way they encamped around Sinai at the time of the Giving of the Torah. We find in next week’s parshah that they were commanded to send those who were ritually impure away from the Sanctuary and out of the camp (Numbers 5:1ff). This parallels the command to Moses to put boundaries around Mount Sinai at the time of the Giving of the Torah — for “the stranger who draws near will die” (1:53; 18:7). At the end of our present parshah, we learn that even the Levites, whose task was to carry the Sanctuary parts during their travels, were forbidden to see the Sanctuary in its “moment of shame” while being dismantled (Numbers 4:20). Correspondingly, the Israelites at Sinai were forbidden to break through and go up the Mountain in order to feast their eyes.
These and other parallels point to the profound conceptual link between the Sanctuary (and Temple) and the Giving of the Torah. The Giving of the Torah at Sinai was a one-time event: the Torah “came down” from heaven to earth, providing man with a ladder of ascent to G-d. Having come into this world, the Torah had to remain the central focus of our attention forever afterwards. The Ark of the Covenant with the Tablets of Stone and Moses’ Torah scroll thus had pride of place in the Holy of Holies at the very center of the Sanctuary, with the Twelve Tribes encamped around it. [Similarly, in the Synagogue, it is customary to read the Torah from a desk in the middle of the Synagogue among all the people.]
From the Wilderness of Sinai, the Children of Israel were to carry the Ark of the Covenant up to the center-point or “navel” of the earth in Jerusalem, “for the Torah will go out from Zion and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem”. This was the spot where Jacob dreamed of a ladder joining earth back to heaven. The Hebrew word for ladder is SuLaM, which has the same numerical value as SINaI (=130).
Law as Love (Bamidbar 5775)
One of the most amusing scenes in Anglo-Jewish history occurred on 14 October 1663. A mere seven years had passed since Oliver Cromwell had found no legal bar to Jews living in England (hence the so-called “return” of 1656). A small synagogue was opened in Creechurch Lane in the City of London, forerunner of Bevis Marks (1701), the oldest still-extant place of Jewish worship in Britain.
The famous diarist Samuel Pepys decided to pay a visit to this new curiosity, to see how Jews conducted themselves at prayer. What he saw amazed and scandalised him. As chance or Providence had it, the day of his visit turned out to be Simchat Torah. This is how he described what he saw:
And anon their Laws that they take out of the press [i.e. the Ark] are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing … But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.
This was not the kind of behavior he was used to in a house of worship.
There is something unique about the relationship of Jews to the Torah, the way we stand in its presence as if it were a king, dance with it as if it were a bride, listen to it telling our story and study it, as we say in our prayers, as “our life and the length of our days.” There are few more poignant lines of prayer than the one contained in a poem said at Neilah, at the end of Yom Kippur: Ein shiyur rak ha-Torah ha-zot: “Nothing remains,” after the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the land, “but this Torah.” A book, a scroll, was all that stood between Jews and despair.
What non-Jews (and sometimes Jews) fail to appreciate is how, in Judaism, Torah represents law as love, and love as law. Torah is not just “revealed legislation” as Moses Mendelssohn described it in the eighteenth century. It represents God’s faith in our ancestors that He entrusted them with the creation of a society that would become a home for His presence and an example to the world.
One of the keys as to how this worked is contained in the parsha of Bemidbar, always read before Shavuot, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah. This reminds us how central is the idea of wilderness – the desert, no man’s land – is to Judaism. It is midbar, wilderness, that gives our parsha and the book as a whole its name. It was in the desert that the Israelites made a covenant with God and received the Torah, their constitution as a nation under the sovereignty of God. It is the desert that provides the setting for four of the five books of the Torah, and it was there that the Israelites experienced their most intimate contact with God, who sent them water from a rock, manna from heaven and surrounded them with clouds of glory.
What story is being told here? The Torah is telling us three things fundamental to Jewish identity. First is the unique phenomenon that in Judaism the law preceded the land. For every other nation in history the reverse was the case. First came the land, then human settlements, first in small groups, then in villages, towns and cities. Then came forms of order and governance and a legal system: first the land, then the law.
The fact that in Judaism the Torah was given bemidbar, in the desert, before they had even entered the land, meant that uniquely Jews and Judaism were able to survive, their identity intact, even in exile. Because the law came before the land, even when Jews lost the land they still had the law. This meant that even in exile, Jews were still a nation. God remained their sovereign. The covenant was still in place. Even without a geography, they had an ongoing history. Even before they entered the land, Jews had been given the ability to survive outside the land.
Second, there is a tantalising connection between midbar, ‘wilderness,’ and davar, ‘word.’ Where other nations found the gods in nature – the rain, the earth, fertility and the seasons of the agricultural year – Jews discovered God in transcendence, beyond nature, a God who could not be seen but rather heard. In the desert, there is no nature. Instead there is emptiness and silence, a silence in which one can hear the unearthly voice of the One-beyond-the-world. As Edmond Jabès put it: “The word cannot dwell except in the silence of other words. To speak is, accordingly, to lean on a metaphor of the desert.”
The historian Eric Voegelin saw this as fundamental to the completely new form of spirituality born in the experience of the Israelites :
When we undertake the exodus and wander into the world, in order to found a new society elsewhere, we discover the world as the Desert. The flight leads nowhere, until we stop in order to find our bearings beyond the world. When the world has become Desert, man is at last in the solitude in which he can hear thunderingly the voice of the spirit that with its urgent whispering has already driven and rescued him from Sheol [the domain of death]. In the Desert God spoke to the leader and his tribes; in the desert, by listening to the voice, by accepting its offer, and by submitting to its command, they had at last reached life and became the people chosen by God.
In the silence of the desert Israel became the people for whom the primary religious experience was not seeing but listening and hearing: Shema Yisrael. The God of Israel revealed Himself in speech. Judaism is a religion of holy words, in which the most sacred object is a book, a scroll, a text.
Third, and most remarkable, is the interpretation the prophets gave to those formative years in which the Israelites, having left Egypt and not yet entered the land, were alone with God. Hosea, predicting a second exodus, says in God’s name:
. . . I will lead her into the wilderness [says God about the Israelites]
and speak tenderly to her . . .
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
As in the day she came out of Egypt.
Jeremiah says in God’s name: “‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.” Shir ha-Shirim, The Song of Songs, contains the line, “Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning on her beloved?” (8: 5).
Common to each of these texts is the idea of the desert as a honeymoon in which God and the people, imagined as bridegroom and bride, were alone together, consummating their union in love. To be sure, in the Torah itself we see the Israelites as a recalcitrant, obstinate people complaining and rebelling against the God. Yet the prophets in retrospect saw things differently. The wilderness was a kind of yichud, an alone-togetherness, in which the people and God bonded in love.
Most instructive in this context is the work of anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep who focused attention on the importance of rites of passage. Societies develop rituals to mark the transition from one state to the next – from childhood to adulthood, for example, or from being single to being married – and they involve three stages. The first is separation, a symbolic break with the past. The last is incorporation, re-entering society with a new identity. Between the two comes the crucial stage of transition when, having cast off one identity but not yet donned another, you are remade, reborn, refashioned.
Van Gennep used the term liminal, from the Latin word for “threshold,” to describe this transitional state when you are in a kind of no-man’s-land between the old and the new. That is what the wilderness signifies for Israel: liminal space between slavery and freedom, past and future, exile and return, Egypt and the Promised Land. The desert was the space that made transition and transformation possible. There, in no-man’s-land, the Israelites, alone with God and with one another, could cast off one identity and assume another. There they could be reborn, no longer slaves to Pharaoh, instead servants of God, summoned to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Seeing the wilderness as the space-between helps us to see the connection between the Israelites in the days of Moses and the ancestor whose name they bore. For it was Jacob among the patriarchs who had his most intense experiences of God in liminal space, between the place he was leaving and the one he was travelling to, alone and at night.
It was there, fleeing from his brother Esau but not yet arrived at the house of Laban, that he saw a vision of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending, and there on his return that he fought with a stranger from night until dawn and was given the name Israel. These episodes can now be seen to be prefigurations of what would later happen to his descendants (maaseh avot siman le-banim, “the acts of the fathers are a sign of what would later happen to the children”).
The desert thus became the birthplace of a wholly new relationship between God and humankind, a relationship built on covenant, speech and love as concretized in the Torah. Distant from the great centres of civilization, a people found themselves alone with God and there consummated a bond that neither exile nor tragedy could break. That is the moral truth at the beating heart of our faith: that it is not power or politics that link us to God, but love.
Joy in the celebration of that love led King David to “leap and dance” when the ark was brought into Jerusalem, earning the disapproval of King Saul’s daughter Michal (2 Sam. 6: 16), and many centuries later led the Anglo-Jews of Creechurch Lane to dance on Simchat Torah to the disapproval of Samuel Pepys. When love defeats dignity, faith is alive and well.
 The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 14 October 1663.
 In his book Jerusalem, 1783.
 Edmond Jabès, Du Desert au Libre, Paris, Pierre Belford, 1980, 101.
 Eric Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, Louisiana State University Press, 1956, 153.
 Gennep, Arnold Van. The Rites of Passage. [Chicago]: University of Chicago, 1960.
 See Ramban, Commentary to Gen. 12: 6.
Is BaMidbar not an essential/etsem component of YHWH’s extending chesed, to include chanan, the gift of a bit of latitude He extends to us, as He transitions us from the kingdom of darkness/death, into His kingdom of Light/Life? The former place being where it is we are wholly and totally working to save ourselves, to that of helping YHWH in saving us, to BaMidbar’s conclusion where it is we’re wholly and totally dependent upon YHWH to save us Himself going into Dabarym, and this followed by then proceeding into Yahwsha – and all that Yahwsha stands/represents?
Came across Your blog, and since I was focusing on BaMidbar, and how it does seem to me, my opinion, that BaMidbar is YHWH manifesting His chesed and chanan as He shows and demonstrates in Yisra’el Himself as our lone Savior – and those who make the journey/arach to reach Dabarym prior to Yahwsha/the Promised Land, no longer helping, only trusting and relying upon G-d/Elwhym to yasha/save us…
From the Maqam Project
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Seen and Unseen
Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah Reading: Hosea 2:1-22
“The total number was 603,550” – Numbers 1:46
The Book of Numbers begins with a head count of the entire Jewish People, before they depart from their Sinai encampment, on the way to the Promised Land. Moses organizes this massive endeavor, with the help of representatives from each of the Tribes, and in the end comes to a count of approximately 600,000 people who make up the Israelite nation.
Bamidbar Rabbah (2:13) records the famous teaching that just as there were six hundred thousand Jews at Sinai, there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. This beautiful midrash has given rise to countless sermons about the value of the individual – just as a Torah requires each and every little letter in order to be complete, so too our community needs every single one of us. Absolutely lovely stuff.
However, there is an itsy-bitsy problem. The Torah does not contain 600,000 letters. In fact, not even close to it! The Torah contains just about half that number, at 304,805. While the rabbis lacked the sophisticated software that can produce an accurate count like that in seconds, they surely knew that their count was off by an entire order of magnitude. What then can that midrash be understood to mean?
The mystical tradition has long taught that the black letters of the Torah scroll only make up half the story; the other half – and potentially the more revealing truths – are contained in the white spaces that accompany each letter. Just as in conversation where what is not said is often more important than what is actually spoken aloud, the white spaces that surround the black letters are equally vital to understanding what Torah is trying to teach us. Counting the white spaces, along with the black letters, we arrive at 600,000 – and the midrash is saved!
Yet, another, more troubling contradiction lurks below the surface of this text. When the Torah records that 600,000 stood at Sinai, it is again only telling half the story. As feminist critics like Judith Plascow, Rachel Adler, and others have taught us – a closer look at the text reveals that twice that number participated in Revelation and twice that number marched from the mountain. The Torah records only the names and stories of the men, the women who stood aside them have been erased from our counting. Again, half is visible and half, invisible.
Just as our understanding of Torah is only complete when we count both the black letters and the white spaces, our understanding of ourselves is only complete when we notice the whole community. That means really seeing those who have traditionally counted and those who have been excluded, who have historically faded into the background like the white spaces.
Let’s teach our eyes to see the whole of what is in front of us, both light and dark, both seen and unseen.
From Chaya Lester
B’Midbar: Stand on Your Flag!
We read in this week’s parsha about the architecture of the tribes’ encampments in the desert. The text makes a point of mentioning that each individual is to pitch by their flag, “eish al diglo”. (Numbers 2:2) Midrash Rabba elaborates on this image beautifully, telling us that Revelation at Sinai was attended by twenty-two thousand chariots of angels, each one decked out with flags. The Israelites saw the angels’ flags and greatly desired to have flags of their own, to which God readily agreed.
What was so desirable to the people about these angelic banners?
The Netivot Shalom suggests that the reason each angel bears a flag is that each has its own unique mission. After all, the Hebrew word for angel, malach, literally means ‘messenger’. An angel is a divinely encoded message, capable of performing one mission and one mission alone.
Human beings, on the other hand, are eclectic and multifaceted. We are awash with multiple messages and meanings. In this sense, it would be anathema to suggest that the complexity of our lives could be encompassed by a single strip of fabric. And yet, that is the beauty of a flag. It is a concise, if over-simplified, symbol or sign of something much vaster. It makes sense that the word following flag in the text is “b’otot – as a sign”. Flags are essentially signs, signifiers of something else.
Just look at our most commonly used flags – words. The word ‘love’ is a single syllable that represents an inexhaustible array of meanings, feelings, actions. A hundred million poems worth of meaning are encoded in that single banner of a word. This consolidation of multiple meanings into a single sign of utterance is the basis of human expression. All language is, in fact, sign language.
As we see in the Midrash, the people of Israel admired the angelic single-mindedness of this type of flagging and desired it for themselves. They yearned, as we all do, to consolidate and express their own singular message and calling in the world. For sometimes we can get lost in the myriad missions we are moved to enact. Something wonderful happens when we are able to focus, to take the rich ineffable girth of our lives and concentrate it into a singular encompassing expression.
And yet our flags are essentially different from those of the angels. We return to the phrase, “eish al diglo”. While this often gets translated as “every man under his flag”, the word “al” does not mean “under” at all. On the contrary, it means “above”. What could this subtle and surprising detail connote?
I would augur that while it might be that angels stand under the flag of their singular mission, we humans are granted the gift of having flags, yet standing above them. We have the ability to be at once focused, as well as limitless. We are complex and multifarious, and that itself is an essential part of our calling and mission in the world.
Our goal is to stand above our flags, to use them but not to be used or limited by them. To claim our calling in the world and enact it with grace and commitment, but also to embrace the widest possible vision of ourselves. And in this we are more transcendent than even angels. In this we are replicas of the limitless Divine.
Integration exercise: Of all the talents and passions that God has gifted to you, attempt to focus in on one symbol that somehow encompasses or signifies it all. What is a single simplified symbol of the mission which is yours and yours alone to enact in life? Chose a word, a phrase, a picture, an emblem. Make your flag and fly it. Know that this is a symbol that signifies your essence. Also know that you stand above that flag and are so much more than can be placed on a rectangular form.
A coat capacious
to capture the wind
A consolidation of self
into a spot to sing from
A sign you are going
a sign you have come
A sign you have made it
a sign you’ll make more
A whisper, unmediated
what standing stands for
A chorus of symbol
a cipher of self
With this four-cornered fabric
your essence is spelt
And yet beyond spelling
beyond signals and signs
your highest expression
out of the lines.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
What’s in a Name? (5771/2011)
In Parshat Bamidbar, Moshe and Aharon conduct a census of the Israelites, with the help of the tribal leaders. Though each individual is counted, Torah only tells us the names of the tribal leaders. They have unusual names, such as:
God is My Rock son of God is Light
Diviner son of My Generous People
God’s Abundance son of Knowing God
Perhaps these are symbolic names they take when they commit to positions of leadership, names that express national values in their spiritual community. A look at the Hebrew language supports this.
The Hebrew word for name is shem. When we speak of acting for the sake of something, we say we are acting l’shem – in the name of – that thing. In Kabbalistic Hebrew, the shem of God means any manifestation of God’s presence. With their names, the leaders have pledged to act for the sake of their values, and to help make God’s presence manifest in the community.
What’s in your name? If it was a gift from your parents, what did they mean to transmit to you? If it is shared with a partner or spouse, what values does your choice to share a name express? If you chose it yourself, what did you pledge to bring into the world? In what way would you like your life to count?
Reb Mimi Feigelson
This Shabbat, we journey through the desert / Ba’Midbar. It is crucial to know that we are all teachers and students. In the wisdom that we share what we have to share, in our questions we have what to learn. I pray that as a community we find those in our lives that we help shine in God’s world, and I pray that we find those that enable us to shine. May it be a peaceful and bright Shabbat for all of us.
Monday the 12th of Iyar, 5771 / May 16th, 2011
Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4 – 4:20
Haftarah Reading: Hosea 2:1-22
In our studies during the second semester we looked at Rabbinic sources from the Gemara, the halacha / the code of law, and even some Chassidic sources that dealt with models of leadership. It was a means for us to understand how we stand in the world as rabbis, and what the strengths and challenges of the multiple paradigms are. It was also an opportunity for us to look at ourselves and question ‘how is it that we, individually, see our path in leadership?’
Hiding among the plethora of sources is a line from the Tosfote Yom Tov, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, who was a student of the MaHaRaL of Prague and a Rabbinic Leader in the first half of the 17th century. He is most known for his extensive commentary on the Mishna.
The second chapter of Bava Metzia, “Elu Metzi’ote”, deals with returning lost objects to their owner. At the end of the chapter we’re taught that after one tends to their own lost objects, primacy goes to lost objects of their teacher. While the Mishna uses the phrase “Rabo” / “his Rabbi,” the Talmud and Rashi on the page clarify that we are speaking of a special Rav – the one, that a student “has learned most of their wisdom from”/. It may be wisdom in Torah, or Talmud, or Codes, or Philosophy or even Chassidic thought (without being too personal…). The unique phrase that is used is “Rabo Ha’Muvhak” – one’s outstanding teacher.
But the Tosfote Yom Tov takes on the hat of a linguist and says that Muvhak doesn’t mean outstanding but rather derived from the word Bohak / shining. That a Rav Muvhak is a teacher that makes their student shine. This is the Rav that takes primacy in the life of a student. The teacher, the Rav that makes their student shine.
Over the years I have allowed myself to expound on this teaching and speak also of the concept of a ‘Talmid Muvhak’, not in its original Rabbinic meaning – a designated student, one that carries the Torah of their teacher in an outstanding way – but rather, paraphrasing the Tosfote Yom Tov, a Talmid Muvhak is a student that makes their teacher shine!
When standing exactly one week from Israel’s 63rd Independence Day my mind drifts in two directions. The first is that Gilad Shalit is sitting in captivity since most of you started rabbinical school five years ago. Not that I’m comparing the two… And second, of a story that I, like every other child growing up in Israel, grew up with – Chanaleh and Her Shabbat Dress.
It is a story of Chanaleh that receives a beautiful new white dress for Shabbat and in her excitement she goes outside, waiting to greet the Shabbat queen with her new dress. Subsequently an old man, carrying a sack of coal is sitting by the side of the road, tired from the heavy burden that he is carrying. Chanaleh offers to help him, and only after she parts from him does she see that her new dress is stained with coal spots. She starts to cry and the moon tries to console her. He asks if she is sorry that she helped the man, to which she responds “No.” The moon tells her to go home, and promises that he will help her. When she enters her home, the moon shines upon her the most glorious rays of light, that make her dress shine even brighter than it was when she left the house!
I know you are thinking, why is Reb Mimi sharing a story of a girl and her dress to an ordaining class of only men???
Dear ones, when you come up to the Bima in just a moment, you will receive a shinning new talit; one that will hold you in prayer, and distinguish you in your service of God. I pray that it doesn’t stay white for long! I pray that you walk in the streets of God’s world, and your rabbinic cloak carries the many stains of all those that you help along the way, easing their burdens. That you find those sitting on the side of the road, and help them find their way Home; that you return them to their owner, bring their souls back to God. That you walk with them with such sincerity, that you forget, for a moment, about your beautiful talit. And that when God asks you of the challenge of not being able to study more, to learn more, to write more because your time has been ‘tainted’ by demands of others, that you, like Chanaleh, are grateful for the gift of being a helping hand and soul, and do not regret the time spent with your sojourners.
I pray that you yourself become a Rav Muvhak, one that makes others shine, that you find ways to illuminate their beauty. And I pray that those you encounter along the way are your Talmidim Muvhakim – those that make you shine, as you walk the path of your Rabbinate.
Dear ones, I part from you as Reb Shlomo, my teacher, taught me to bless our children every Shabbat: when you entered Ziegler we sang to you / “shalom aleichem” – we greet you in peace / “bo’achem l’shalom – may your presence with us bring you peace and clarity of your vision and mission in God’s world; / “bar’chuni l’shalom” – may you bless us, your teachers, with the wisdom and insight to walk with you, as you need to be escorted; / “tzetchem l’shalom” – may your journey into the rabbinate, and the unfolding of your divine work, be blessed with peace; and last, as in the S’fardic tradition that I hold by for decades, / “shivt’chem l’shalom” – may you sit in peace, may you find communities and partners that will support you in your work. And in an improper grammatical reading – may you return in peace – may you come back to visit, to call, to write. May you never forget, that for us, your rabbi’s and teachers at Ziegler you are always connected to us, and always have a home in our hearts.
Mazal tov and I love you very much.
Wendy’s Comment: This beautiful teaching can apply to all of us who are teachers for each other.
From American Jewish World Service
Rabbi Eliot Kukla
Whenever I am on an airplane, the in-flight entertainment makes me cry. Even if what is playing is the most outrageously juvenile comedy or a lengthy infomercial, I find my eyes strangely misty. I used to think I was the only one, but when I began talking about this with my friends I found out that many people feel similarly vulnerable in the air. There is something about that sense of having already left home, but having not yet arrived at our destination, that strips us of our usual composure.
Parshat Bamidbar—which literally means “in the desert”—is all about this challenging time and space in between departure and arrival. It concerns the lengthy period of wandering in the desert after the Israelites left slavery but had not yet arrived in the land of milk and honey. Every year, we read this parshah in the middle of counting the omer, a ritual that marks the 49 days between Passover (Exodus from Egypt), and Shavuot (receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai). This moment of Jewish time is all about having left our point of origin, but not yet having arrived at our destination. We are neither here nor there.
In fact, most of the Torah takes place in this literal and metaphoric wilderness. There is a brief moment of being at home in Canaan in the beginning of the book of Genesis, but it’s followed quickly by exile and slavery in Egypt at the beginning of Exodus. The rest of the Torah is about the journey back to the Promised Land—a trip that is never quite completed.
Why is so much of the Torah and so much of the Jewish holiday cycle focused on the “in between”? Perhaps because most of life, as well, takes place in the desert—the biblical equivalent of floating in an airplane between where we left and where we’re going. Brief moments of clearly delineated arrivals or destinations—like graduation, the birth of a child or the beginning of a much-anticipated promotion—often punctuate long periods of waiting and wandering.
This is also true in our lives as global justice activists. As seekers of justice we often only feel productive when our work leads to a clear accomplishment—the passing of legislation, the prohibition of an injustice, the saving of a life. These moments of arrival are important and energizing, but so are all the steps in between.
It’s important to realize that just because we have not arrived at a destination, it doesn’t mean we are nowhere at all. After all, the wilderness is a place to be. Anyone who has spent time in the desert soon sees that what looks empty is actually gloriously alive. It is filled with odd bugs and countless grains of sand, broad horizons and sparkling stars. Likewise, the desert zones of our justice work are alive. Advocating for debt forgiveness (even if it is not yet accomplished) can lead to change down the road, and may help us refine our understanding of fairness; donating money (even if we don’t yet have a lot to give) makes a difference to those who receive it, and helps us to experience generosity; learning more about global health issues (even if these problems are not yet resolved) is a step toward change and helps us to appreciate our own moments of health and healing.
The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, is euphonically linked to m’daber, speaking. God speaks to us in the wilderness because when we are in between familiar landscapes we are open-hearted and can truly listen. When we are at a moment of arrival or departure we think we know what justice looks like; but it is in the wilderness, as we wander toward our next oasis, that we are stripped of certainty and hence vulnerable and open to new ideas and possibilities for what change might look like.
Perhaps in some cases actually reaching the destination isn’t even the goal. The generation of Israelite slaves never made it to the Promised Land, but it was during a nebulous period of wandering in the middle of the desert that they became a cohesive people. Likewise, as we struggle for justice in our own time, may we appreciate the moments of being in the wilderness on the way to social change, since this might be where the real change is happening after all. It’s important to remember that each step of wandering along the road towards justice, no matter how lost we feel, is wholly holy.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
May 25, 2011
O holy Shabbes BeMidbar
Midbar means Wilderness
from the root — word or thing
The place of the word
or of no words
the place of the single word
the place of speaking
the word that works.
The matter, the thing
economy of words
heat of the matter
this is where it happened
the combustible puff of self
inscrutable chemistry of the desert sun
that is why we return there.
BeMidbar, in the Wilderness.
the language of truth
this is the thing [see Numbers 30:2].
Davar — the pure articulation
Midbar – the place
speaking from essence source
to essence source.
We are unfolding the essentials
encountering the midbar most deeply
as we are leaving it.
Isn’t that good storytelling –
not telling the full story until the end?
I watch my feet
Attentive to the next step –
The next step only.
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure
Hebrew cognate maqom
C  D [3/4] E half-flat [3/4] F
From Rabbi Avram Davis
Bamidbar: How we see each other
From Rav Kook
BeMidbar: The Holiness of Sinai
Our sense of holiness and closeness to God is not constant. There are special times when we experience a heightened awareness. These moments reflect a kedushat sha’ah, a transient holiness.
Also in the life of the nation, there are special times of kedushat sha’ah. This is the central theme of sefer BeMidbar (Numbers), which recounts Israel’s unique experiences during their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai desert — a time when bread fell from the heavens and water spouted from rocks, a time of Divine protection and unparalleled prophetic revelation.
The book opens with the words,
“God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert in the Communion Tent….” (Num. 1:1)
The phrases ‘Sinai Desert’ and ‘Communion Tent’ are motifs repeated throughout BeMidbar. They call our attention to the special kedushat sha’ah of that generation.
Unlike Jerusalem’s permanent holiness, the holiness of Sinai was temporary, for the duration of Matan Torah. Unlike the permanence of the Beit HaMikdash — a bayit, a permanent structure — the Communion Tent was provisional — an ohel, a tent. And unlike the 613 mitzvot that apply to all times, the mitzvot that God commanded the Israelites in the desert — how to encamp, the signal blasts, the order of transporting the Tabernacle — were only for that generation.
One should not think that kedushat sha’ah is on a lower level than permanent holiness. On the contrary, it is precisely because of its lofty nature that this holiness cannot last forever. The deficiency is not in it, but in we who experience it. We are unable to maintain this level of holiness on a permanent basis.
One example of the temporary holiness of BeMidbar was the use of special banners for each tribe in the encampment. The Midrash explains that these flags were the result to Israel’s desire to emulate the angels. Angels appeared at Matan Torah in chariots bedecked with flags, and the Israelites desired to have similar flags. These flags represent the singular holiness of Mount Sinai and Matan Torah. They express the lofty holiness of angels, a holiness that the human soul is unable to fully attain.
Moses and Aaron
The dichotomy between temporary and permanent is reflected in that generation’s leaders: Moses and Aaron. Moses served as the kohen during the Tabernacle’s dedication — a priesthood of kedushat sha’ah that lasted one week. Aaron, on the other hand, commenced a lineage of kohanim for all generations. Even today, kohanim emphasize their connection to Aaron’s permanent holiness in their blessing, ‘Who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron.’
The foundation of the Jewish people required both types of holiness. They needed both Moses and Aaron, both kedushat sha’ah and kedushah la-dorot. BeMidbar was an era of Divine providence and miracles, the historic revelation at Sinai and Moses’ unparalleled prophesy in the Ohel Moed. But it was also the time to establish the foundations for Israel’s permanent holiness, to set down the Torah and mitzvot that would guide all future generations.
(Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah 5689 (1929).)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Reb Zalman
The Underpinnings of Spiritual Intimacy
The following text by Reb Zalman is from this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos BaMidbar. [Notes by Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor]:
(Numbers 4:2) Make a count of the sons of…, etc.
[NOTE: The Hebrew used, Naso et rosh / make a count has another meaning of “lift up the head.”]
Lifting up the head.
In order for the intellect to become a garment for the soul, the intellect has to spread itself and make a lot of wide space as follows:
(Psalms 24:7) Se’u / Raise up she’arim rosheichem / your mind’s imagination–
(Proverbs 31:23), Her husband is known b’she’arim / in the gates–
Read she’arim / gates as ha-hash’arot / the imaginal expansions, (i.e., awakeness as a shafel).
[NOTE: And read, “her husband” as referring to God.
Reb Zalman tells of a conversation with his daughter Shalvi as a young child:
“Abba, after you sleep, you wake up, right?”
“Yes” he replied.
“Abba, after you are already awake, can you wake up even more?”
I’ve heard Zalman often cite his late teacher, Reb Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch for cultivating the imaginal faculty in his hasidim.]
For, what the soul feels of divine light is transient; it very often passes by quickly even without giving the mind a chance to wrap the abundance that the soul received into an understanding. The intellect needs it packaged in subtlety and wisdom, as mystery teachings,
[NOTE: Kabbalah gives us language for the soul’s epiphanies, thereby making them more accessible to us and establishing the possibility for a social context for transpersonal experiences. ]
so that the intellect will be able to contain the light that was poured down into the soul.
The main point of the mystery teachings is not for giving someone a special reputation and pride, so they can brag, “I have a secret! I have a secret!” Rather, the point is to transform the holy flow into ideas with stretch
[NOTE: Elastic enough to accomodate multi-faceted experiences. What comes to mind is the Passover Seder: There is something in the Seder for us at every age of our lives, at every stage of our development. ]
so the enlightenment coming into the soul can dress itself into garments of speech and words thereby making the connection to the root of the person’s soul.
[NOTE: In “The Space Within,” Reb Zalman explains that the world of feelings is a murky realm without many words to describe it. It thus often remains hidden, and soul experiences remain unshared.]
And to this process, we must also add faith that the mystery teachings point to something that is real. Through this faith, that imaginal expansion caused by the soul’s epiphany can come into the intellect’s grasp.
[NOTE: I see this faith as belief in sovev kol almin or God transcendent. Mimale kol almin or God immanent without connection to sovev gives skepticism a space, keeps us at a distance from the light.]
That faith will be needed because, at times, the mystery teachings and the holy flow come from a source in conflict with popular beliefs.
Therefore, one who takes part in hir “tribe,” (a tribe in the sense that one’s soul root and their soul roots are one and the same, and in the sense that they all additionally believe that they share awareness of those elastic ideas), such a person will be able to also understand that lifting up one’s head, enabling comprehension, will bring the soul’s light also to feeling and to action.
And this is the language that connects the Rebbes with their hasidim because the Rebbes lift the consciousness to a higher level.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
“Parashat BaMidbar,” p. 34
Reb Avraham Greenbaum
The Beauty of Diversity
by Avraham ben Yaakov
The book of Numbers – fourth of the Five Books of Moses – opens with the people of Israel still encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai after receiving the Torah, but now poised to leave on their journey to their promised homeland where their mission would be to practice what they had been taught. For: “The main thing is not study but practical action” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:17).
Prior to the people’s departure from Sinai, Moses was instructed to take a census of the Twelve Tribes and assign them to their positions both when encamped and when marching, and to assign to the various families of the Levites their respective duties relating the Sanctuary, which was to be the central focus of the nation’s life.
The figures of Moses’ count recorded in our portion give the book of Numbers its traditional English name. For many Bible students the significance of the many details contained in this “national archive” of the people of Israel may be obscure. Yet it is noteworthy that the positions of the various tribes and families around the Sanctuary were by no means random.
“And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: ‘The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his flag according to the emblems of their paternal houses; they shall encamp at a distance facing the Tent of Meeting ‘” (Numbers 2:1-2).
Each of the tribes had their own ensign relating to the unique attributes of that tribe. For example, the sign of Judah, the royal tribe, was the lion, king of the beasts; that of Zebulun, a tribe of merchants, was a ship, while that of Issachar, famed for their astronomical knowledge, was the sun and the moon. The assigned positions of each tribe in groups to the east, south, north or west of the sanctuary were also bound up with their distinctive character traits, for in Torah teaching the directions of the compass all have their own special connotations. East, where the sun rises, signifies blessing, west signifies receiving, while south and north respectively signify kindness and strength.
The Torah here teaches us that we are not all required to try to be the same as one another, because each one of us is God’s unique creation, each with his or her own distinctive gifts and attributes.
“The greatness of the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One blessed be He, is seen in the fact that while a man may make many coins with one mould, all identical with one another, the Holy One blessed be He stamps every human in the mould of the archetypal Adam, yet not a single one is identical with any other” (Sanhedrin 38a).
What we must do is to learn how to dwell with one another together in harmony despite the many differences between us all. This can be done when everyone knows that they have their own special place, mission and function as part of God’s greater purpose, signified by the Sanctuary itself, which everyone had to face from a respectful distance.
Throughout history diversity has been and continues until this very day to be a source of conflict within and between families, social groups, nations and races, each attempting to dominate others and coerce them to their will and viewpoint. Too often people find it easier to continue old patterns of aggression and warfare instead of striving to make peace, which can only be done when we accept that within the transcendent unity of God there is room for different outlooks, viewpoints and ways of life, and that they can coexist peaceably as long as we agree on certain common denominators – above all, the prohibition of violence and murder, robbery and injustice, which are among the main pillars of the Universal Noahide Code of Law. If we will all look towards God’s “Sanctuary” – the Noahide Code, which contains the blueprint for universal peace – we will be able to live side by side with each other, all fulfilling their own unique mission in God’s greater plan.
Israel does not call upon all the peoples of the world to give up their own identity, individuality and traditions in order to convert to Judaism. Rather, they invite all nations to pursue their own unique missions and interests within the boundaries of what is permitted under the Noahide Code, while eschewing aggression, wanton violence and killing, exploitation and other prohibited behaviors.
Through increasing knowledge and awareness of God – Who transcends all opposites and contradictions – it will eventually be possible for all the different types and kinds of people to coexist peacefully, as in Isaiah’s prophetic allegory:
“And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of HaShem, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6).
Reb Sholom Brodt
Meaningful Life – Meaningful Living:
A Parshas Bamidbar Pre-Shavuot Meditation
Visualize yourself in the desert, present with your family, with your tribe and with your people as Moshe Rabbeinu conducts the census. When it will be your turn to pass in front of Moshe Rabbeinu and his brother Aharon, the Kohen Gadol you contribute your half-shekel, and state your name and the name of your parents. Visualize yourself in the presence of the holiest and most humble person in the world- your Rebbe – Moshe Rabbeinu, the servant of Hashem. You are elevated and you feel so worthy; you realize that you are unique and that you have a unique and purpose in the world. You are now aware and can honestly say “the world was created for my sake.”
But you don’t feel haughty. Instead you feel exalted and humbled at the same time and you sincerely pray that Hashem will help you fulfill your purpose and mission.
You also realize that every one else is also unique and that everyone has a special holy purpose in the world. You count no less than and no more than anyone else – Hashem desires every one of you and all of you.
Meditate on this and try to learn a lesson in humility. Learn how you too can make someone feel really important! Understand that only by your being fully present and your embracing every one else’s presence, will the Shechinah dwell in our midst; and so be present and unite, sincerely and joyously with all your brothers and sisters.
The Shabbos Before Shavuot
According to the Jewish calendar it always works that we read parshat Bamidbar on the Shabbos before Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. Shabbos is the headquarters of all that is holy and the holiness of the upcoming holiday begins to descend on the preceding Shabbos.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that this Shabbos is similar to the Shabbos before a wedding, when the ‘chattan’ is called up to the Torah in spiritual preparation for the wedding. Shavuot is the great wedding between Hashem and B’nai Yisrael, and hence this Shabbos we prepare for our wedding.
The Rebbe explains that the fact that the Torah was given to us in Midbar Sinai, in the wilderness or desert of Sinai teaches us that we are to make a home for Hashem even in the wilderness, even in the desert. Hashem commands us and gives us the strength to build His sanctuary, a true and joyous Torah home and community even in a spiritual desert. Wherever we are we can and must connect to Hashem.
The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that the Shabbos before Shavuot provides us with the spiritual nourishment that we need in order to be ready to stand once again at Har Sinai, together with each other in unity, to receive the holy Torah. Indeed, parshat Bamidbar contains important lessons that we need to learn in preparation for receiving the Torah.
The Individual And The Community
As each individual was counted, or lifted up, they became aware of their uniqueness in the community. Each person is unique and possesses a unique place in the community. No one can take someone else’s place. It is so important to know that you really cannot take someone else’s place, to know that ‘you’ cannot ‘be’ in someone else’s place. ‘You’ have to be ‘yourself’ in ‘your place’ and I have to be ‘myself’ in ‘my place’; each one of us has to make our unique contributions towards the completion of Knesset Yisrael, the community of Israel, which is the vessel in which we receive the light of the Shechinah. Each one of us possesses a unique gift to contribute to home of Hashem, to the community of Israel, to the holy city of Yerushalayim, to Eretz Yisrael, and to the world.
A community is more than just a collection of individuals living in the same location and maybe even sharing similar beliefs. In the community that Hashem wants to dwell in, every individual person counts, and has their personal identity and unique place. Each individual is encouraged to contribute his or her real and unique talents to the community. Each individual welcomes and values and loves every other individual as well.
This is what we need to read in the Torah on the Shabbos before Shavuot. To receive the Torah, I have to receive it both as an individual and as a complete member of the community of Israel. To receive the holy Torah, we have to be one with each other and one with Hashem and one with the Torah.
From Melissa Carpenter
Blue and Red
And Aharon will come, and his sons … and they will take down the covering curtain, and cover the Ark of the Testimony with it. Then they will place over it a covering of tachash skin, and they will spread a garment of perfect techeylet over that … Then they will spread out over the Table of the Presence a garment of techeylet, and they will place upon it the dishes, ladles, offering-bowl, jars of the libation, and perpetually renewed bread. And they will spread out over them a garment of fabric dyed scarlet, and then clothe it in a covering of tachash skin. (Numbers 4:5-8; Bemidbar)
tachash = An unknown word. Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened and water-proofed, blue-processed, and ochre-dyed. Those who guess tachash is the name of an animal translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal. Some commenta-tors argue in favor of the tachash being a marine animal, on the ground that its skin would make a waterproof covering.
techeylet = A dye derived from a Mediterranean snail. Translations for this word include: sky-blue, turquoise, aquamarine, indigo, purple, and pale blue-violet.
shani = a vivid red; crimson; scarlet
When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. In the Torah, the correct procedure is critical, since unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death. This week’s Torah portion describes at length how the priests and Levites must handle and transport the sacred items. Only Aaron and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, are allowed to touch the holy items, so they must wrap everything in two or three coverings. The Levites are not allowed to watch the priests wrapping things, and can transport the sacred items only after they are completely concealed.
The Ark, and the table with its contents, get three coverings each, while the lamp-stand with its implements, and the golden incense altar with its equipment, get two coverings each. The outer covering for everything except the Ark is tachash skin, but the Ark gets an extra garment of techeylet fabric over the tachash skin. The table and its contents also get special treatment, with a middle wrapping of scarlet fabric.
Later, in Numbers 15:38, the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of techeylet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do. What color would be the best reminder? Sky blue, I think, since that’s the color of the pavement on which God’s feet appeared in the vision on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:10; see my blog “After the Vision” on Feb. 7). And sky blue is one of the most likely colors of techeylet.
An object is “holy” if it is set aside for God. Since sky blue is directly associated with God, it is used for the innermost wrapping of all the holy objects. The outermost wrapping of the Ark is also sky blue, to remind everyone that the Ark is the most holy object, the one associated with the voice of God.
Scarlet, on the other hand, is the color of fresh blood. In the Torah, blood represents the nefesh, the soul that animates the body. Why do the table and the objects on it get wrapped in scarlet? Perhaps the twelve loaves of bread on the table can be seen not just as a human offering to God, but as God’s offering to us humans—a reminder that God is in everything, even the food we eat. Our physical bodies could not live without God’s creation.
The Ark and the Table are lost now. Nevertheless, when we travel to a new place in our lives today, we should bring with us everything that has a holy meaning. And we should wrap these sacred objects, ideas, or words in garments that prevent us from treating them too familiarly—just as Jews today wrap the Torah scroll in a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.
What color do you need to cover your own sacred thing? Sky blue, to remind you of God as the commanding, dangerous, and unimaginable voice above the Ark? Scarlet, to remind you that God is even in the bread we eat to keep our bodies alive? Or the color of tachash skins—which remains a mystery, like God?
Wendy’s Comment: For more about the Tachash, please read the post from Chabad.org
under the Parsha Terumah
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Portable holiness (Radical Torah repost)
Here’s the d’var I wrote for this week’s portion in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah. I also delivered it as a Friday night sermon at Temple Beth El, my parents’ congregation, on the occasion of the Shabbat before my mother’s birthday.
Late in this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, we get a fascinating description of how the Israelites prepared the Mishkan, the tabernacle, for travel.
When it was time to break camp, the Torah tells us, Aaron and his sons would take down the screening curtain and cover the Ark with it. They would cover that with leather, and then with a cloth of pure blue. The table and its accoutrements — bowls, ladles, jars, tongs and fire-pans, libation jugs — would be wrapped in cloths of blue, violet, and crimson, and then in tahash, a yellow-orange leather sometimes translated as dolphin skin. Everything precious in the sanctuary, in fact, was wrapped first in cloth and then in skin, and loaded onto a set of carrying poles for easy transport.
These mentions of fabrics and skins may remind us of the Torah portions we read earlier this spring, which described in loving detail how the Mishkan should be constructed. An astonishing quantity of text is dedicated to the tabernacle and its details. In this week’s portion, we learn that the instruments of sacrifice were wrapped not just in cloths but in b’gadim, garments — a word that ordinarily denotes what people wear. These pieces of the sacrificial system were treated with the same respect as human beings! How can these passages speak to us today, so many centuries distant from a model of interaction with God which required libations and blood, incense and gold?
This week’s Torah portion offers instructions for how to make holiness portable. The Israelites spent forty years wandering — forty, a number that in the rabbinic imagination signified a time of full transition. Forty was the number of fruition. During these forty years of growth, the Israelites carried the Mishkan with them according to these instructions.
Today many of us spend our lives wandering, too, or at least move a few times from here to there. (As the bumper sticker says, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.”) Certainly wandering is borne out in my history. My forebears were born in Eastern Europe, and emigrated to these shores, winding up in San Antonio. Leapfrogging part of the way back East, my sister and I are longtime transplants to Massachusetts. Thanks to the glories of air travel, we can cross these physical distances with ease, but the emotional journey of relocation shapes us even so.
But physical movement is only one part of the picture. Even for those who don’t move physically, life is inherently a form of travel. Our perspectives change as we grow and mature, as we come to see our old surroundings in a new light. The house one grew up in looks different at seven and at seventeen, and different still at seventy. So does one’s family.
In order for us to be healthy, we need some constancy through these moves and changes, through the leaving and arriving that we continually cycle through. Torah tells us in no uncertain terms what constitutes that consistency: we need to carry with us our individual and communal connection-point with God.
In this week’s portion God speaks to Moses b’midbar, “in the wilderness.” In the Israelites’ journey through that wild desert we can see a metaphor for our own transformation. Our lives, like the desert, can be both harsh and beautiful. We don’t always know where we’re going, nor how long it will take us to get there. And sometimes the voice of God is most audible when we create our own holy spaces, and when we make a practice of pausing in those spaces, surrounded by but separate from the hubbub of ordinary life.
Once upon a time the Mishkan provided a doorway, a conduit through which our conversation with God could flow. It allowed us to sanctify the passage of time, to make teshuvah and repent for our misdeeds, to show our gratitude to the Source of All. These are vitally important to our spiritual wellbeing, both as individuals and as a community. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that when we pack up to leave a place — whether physically or metaphysically — we must be sure to bring our relationship with God to wherever we are going.
If we could see it today, the Mishkan would seem strange to us. Beautiful, perhaps, but foreign, and maybe anachronistic. Today we relate to God not through sacrifice, but through study and prayer. (Indeed, the forthcoming Reform prayerbook is called Mishkan Tefilah, “tabernacle of prayer.”) Our connection to ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One, is more portable than ever: not a landline but a cellphone. Any time I wrap myself in tallit and tefillin, or take a walk in the woods speaking aloud, or make a bracha, a blessing, my connection with God hums to life.
In the days of the Mishkan (and, later, the Temple,) sacrifices were offered on behalf of the community. Similarly, today there are prayers we can only say in community, when a minyan is present. Relating to God isn’t just something we do alone. Anywhere that ten gather, the Psalms tell us, the Shekhinah — the divine Presence — gathers, too. What’s important is not where we come together, but how. We may build beautiful synagogue structures to house our worship, but our fundamental connection with God arises not through these windows and bricks but through imrei-finu v’hegyon libinu, the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts.
Once upon a time Aaron and his sons, the forebears of the Levites, were tasked with dismantling and wrapping the Mishkan for travel. In the Reform movement today we have turned gently away from the divisions between Cohen, Levi, and Yisrael. Caring for our connection-points with God is no longer a Levitical duty. Each of us is responsible for discerning what instruments provide us with access to the Source of Blessing — prayerbooks, texts, breathtaking vistas, cherished melodies — and for wrapping them in our own cloths of pure crimson and blue, to carry with us all the days of our lives.
And G-d spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai (Numbers 1:1)
It is customary that on the Shabbat before a wedding, the bridegroom is called to the Torah. Shavuot, the festival which coincides with the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, represents the marriage of G-d and Israel; this is why the Torah portion of Bamidbar (“in the desert”) is usually read on the Shabbat before Shavuot.
(Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)
Raise the head of all the congregation of the children of Israel… by the number of names (1:2)
On ten occasions were Israel counted. Once when they went down to Egypt (cf. Genesis 46). A second time when they came out (Exodus 12:37). A third time after the incident of the Golden Calf (ibid., 30:12). Twice in the Book of Numbers: once in formation of the camps (Numbers 1) and once in connection with the division of the land (ibid. 26). Twice in the days of Saul (I Samuel 11:8 and 15:4). The eighth time in the days of David (II Samuel 24:9). The ninth time they were numbered was in the days of Ezra (Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 7:66). The tenth time will be in the future era of Moshiach, when “The flocks shall again pass under the hands of Him that counts them” (Jeremiah 33:13).
A census expresses two paradoxical truths. On the one hand, it implies that each individual is significant. On the other hand, a head-count is the ultimate equalizer: each member of the community, from the greatest to the lowliest, counts for no less and no more than “one.” G-d repeatedly commands Moses to count the Jewish people to emphasize both their individual worth–the fact that no single person’s contribution is dispensable–as well as their inherent equality.
(The Chassidic Masters)
Every man by his flag, shall the children of Israel camp (2:2)
Each tribe had its own prince and its flag whose color corresponded to the color of its stone [in Aaron’s breastplate–see Exodus 28:15-21]. It was from the tribes of Israel that kingdoms learned to provide themselves with flags of various colors.
Reuben’s stone was a ruby; the color of his flag was red and embroidered thereon were mandrakes [cf. Genesis 30:14].
Simeon’s stone was a topaz; his flag was of a green color, and the town of Shechem was embroidered thereon [cf. Genesis 34:25].
Levi’s stone was a smaragd; the color of his flag was one-third white, one third black, and one third red, and embroidered thereon was [Aaron’s breastplate with] the Urim and Tummim.
Judah’s stone was a carbuncle; the color of his flag was like the color of the heavens and embroidered on it was a lion [cf. Genesis 49:9].
Issachar’s stone was a sapphire; the color of his flag was black like stibnite, and embroidered thereon was the sun and moon, in allusion to the verse, “And of the children of Issachar, men that had understanding of the times” (I Chronicles 12:33).
Zebulun’s stone was an emerald; the color of his flag was white, with a ship embroidered thereon, in allusion to the verse, “Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea” (Gen. 49:13).
Dan’s stone was a jacinth; the color of his flag was similar to sapphire, and embroidered on it was a serpent, in allusion to the verse, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way” (ibid. v. 17).
Gad’s stone was an agate; the color of his flag was neither white nor black but a blend of black and white, and on it was embroidered a military camp, in allusion to the verse, “Gad, a troop shall troop upon him” (ibid. v. 19).
Naphtali’s stone was an amethyst; the color of his flag was like clarified wine of a light red, and on it was embroidered a deer, in allusion to the verse, “Naphtali is a deer let loose” (ibid. v. 21).
Asher’s stone was a beryl; the color of his flag was like the precious stone with which women adorn themselves, and embroidered thereon was an olive-tree, in allusion to the verse, “As for Asher, his bread shall be fat with oil” (ibid. v. 20).
Joseph’s stone was an onyx and the color of his flags were jet black; the embroidered design thereon for the two tribes descending from Joseph, Ephraim and Menasseh, was Egypt, because they were born in Egypt. On the flag of Ephraim was embroidered a bullock, in allusion to the verse, “His firstling bullock” (Deuteronomy 33:17), which refers to Joshua who came from the tribe of Ephraim. On the flag of the tribe of Menasseh was embroidered a unicorn, in allusion to the verse, “And his horns are the horns of the re’em” (ibid.), which alludes to Gideon son of Joash who came from the tribe of Menasseh.
Benjamin’s stone was jasper and the color of his flag was a combination of all the twelve colors; embroidered thereon was a wolf, in allusion to the verse, “Benjamin is a wolf that preys” (Genesis 49:27).
And these are the generations of Aaron and Moses… Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar (3:1-2)
Why did Moses’ sons not merit [to be in the leadership of Israel]? Because they did not experience the Exodus from Egypt and did not traverse the sea with the people of Israel, as they were [in Midian] with Jethro (Moses’ father in-law–see Exodus 18:1-6).
From Rav Kook
BaMidbar: Flags of Love in the Desert
Throughout their travels in the desert, the Israelites were commanded to set up their tents around tribal flags:
“The Israelites shall encamp with each person near the banner carrying his paternal family’s insignia. They shall encamp at a distance around the Communion Tent.” (Num. 2:2)
What is the significance of these banners?
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) says that the inspiration for the banners came from Mount Sinai. Twenty-two thousand chariots of angels, each one decked out with flags, attended the Revelation of the Torah. The Israelites immediately desired to have flags just like the angels, and God agreed. This request for flags, the Midrash teaches, is described in the Song of Songs (2:4): “He brought me to the wine-house, and His banner over me is love.”
From this Midrash we understand that banners relate to some inherent characteristic of angels, though not of people. But we are left with many questions. Why do angels bear flags? Why does the verse refer to Sinai as a ‘wine-house’? And what is the connection between banners and love?
The Specialized Service of Angels
According to the Zohar, the banners of the four major encampments (in each direction: north, south, east and west) corresponded to the four sides or ‘faces’ of the supernal merkava (chariot) in Ezekiel’s mystical vision. Since these four ‘faces’ represent fundamental divine attributes, each encampment related to a particular divine quality.
Before we can explain the meaning of the flags and their connection to angels, we must first understand what an angel is. The Hebrew word mal’ach literally means ‘messenger.’ The essence of an angel is a divine messenger to fulfill a specific mission. An angel cannot perform a task, important though it may be, other than the specific mission for which it was designated.
Now we can better understand the function of the angels’ flags. A banner proclaims a distinctive function or trait. Each angel, limited to a very specific area of Divine service, carries its own distinguishing flag. These flags may be compared to military uniforms, where the dress and insignia indicate the soldier’s unit and assignment.
Human beings, on the other hand, are not limited to serving God in one particular manner. Our divine image encompasses all spiritual spheres (see Nefesh Hachaim 1:10). For us, a banner is too restricting; it does not reflect our true spiritual essence.
Nonetheless, the Jewish people saw in the angelic banners of Sinai an inspiring sight that appealed to them, albeit in a non- obligatory way. Each person has special talents and interests, based on individual character traits and the soul’s inner root. We are not limited in serving God in this particular way, but we are certainly more inclined towards those activities for which we have a natural proclivity. For example, the kind-hearted person may concentrate on serving God with acts of compassion and “chesed”; the strong-willed, with acts of courage and self-sacrifice; and so on.
The Jewish people desired flags like those the angels bore at Sinai. They wanted every individual to be able to choose an aspect of divine service that suited his personality, just as each angel executes a specific function, as defined by his flag.
It is now clear why the verse refers to Mount Sinai as a ‘wine- house.’ Drinking wine releases our inhibitions, revealing our inner character. In the words of the Talmud (Eiruvin 65a), “Wine enters, secrets emerge.” The Israelites envied the beauty and joy they witnessed in divine service of the angels. The root of this pleasantness lies in the innate affinity the angels feel towards their service. Each angel naturally identifies with his particular mission. The Jewish people sought to uncover and emphasize every individual’s personal strengths, in the same way that wine liberates and highlights one’s inner characteristics.
This individualized worship, however, only applies to the service of the heart and the character traits. The banners reflect our feelings of love and joy when serving God — “His banner over me is love” — but not the service itself. Within the framework of Torah study and practical mitzvot, there is no need for distinctive forms of service. Therefore, no banners flew over the central Communion Tent, where the luchot (stone tablets with the Ten Commandments) were stored, since the Torah and its mitzvot relate equally to all souls.
(adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 24-25)
From Avielah Barclay Soferet
Parshat Ba-midbar: Dotted Letters in the DesertShare. Friday, May 22, 2009 at 3:43am
“Three times was G-d exiled: in the Name, in the bursting open of the Name, and in the effacing of this bursting open.”
– Edmond Jabès (Cairo, 1912 – Paris, 1991) Jewish writer and poet
In Sifri there are ten instances where a word or group of words appears where one or all of the letters are dotted in the text. In this week’s Torah portion, Ba-Midbar, we find a curious series of dots over the name of Aharon, the High Priest. Ba-midbar/Numbers 3:39 reads:
כָּל-פְּקוּדֵי הַלְוִיִּם אֲשֶׁר פָּקַד מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, עַל-פִּי יְהוָה–לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם: כָּל-זָכָר מִבֶּן-חֹדֶשׁ וָמַעְלָה, שְׁנַיִם וְעֶשְׂרִים אָלֶף.
All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moshe and Aharon counted at the utterance of the LORD, by their families, all males from a month old and upward, were twenty two thousand.
Ve-Aharon (ואהרן) has five dots, one over each letter. Talmud Bavli Masekhet Sof’rim states that “ten in the Torah are marked by dots”, then lists them. The Netziv on Sifri teaches us that if every letter of a word is dotted (as in this case), then this word abandons its usual meaning. We are invited to look deeper into the text, to engage in discussion, thereby entering into relationship and taking ownership of Torah.
So what do we do here, with Aharon? The name of the כהן גדול Kohen Gadol, the high Priest, is not as it seems.
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin, in his masterpiece The Burnt Book: Reading the Torah, writes:
“Altogether the total count of Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered.” The name Aaron is completey dotted. The Midrash explains that Aaron was not included in the counting of those numbered (he counted but was not himself counted). Because of the dotting, Aaron is excluded, effaced.
And why was Aharon not included in that census even though he was a Levite? Rashi writes that Aharon’s name is dotted because although he was a Levi, he wasn’t included in the Levite census. Why was he not counted?
Rashi goes on: “The tribe of Levi was counted separately from the other tribes of Israel, because it is fit for the legions of a King to be counted separately.”
Therefore, Aharon wasn’t counted with his own tribe of Levi – but Moshe *was*! Aharon, not only as Kohen Gadol, but also as a person, was so unique, so special that he couldn’t be counted or even included in a general census. Aharon was beyond all definition.
And why is the letter Vav (ו) of ve-Aharon dotted? Why “and Aharon” and not just “Aharon”? Why FIVE dots and not four?
According to the Zohar, Aaron was an expert therapist who helped save many relationships. The five dots over “ve- Aharon”, alludes to the five levels of חסד chesed (loving-kindness) which he held and shared. Aaron’s special role is mentioned in Pirkei Avot: “Hillel said, ‘Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving all of G@d’s creations, and bringing them near to the Torah.'”
Aharon brought oneness to our kehilah with peacemaking and kiruv, outreach. His mission is also hinted at in his name: Alef, Hey, Reysh, stand for אהבה רבה, ahavah rabah, or “great love”. His name’s final letter, Nun Sofit (ן), shows his ability to “draw down” this great love from Shomayim into our kehilah below. Just as the body of the final Nun descends below the line, so Aaron could descend to those of us who had fallen, lift us up and bring us closer to the ahavah rabah of G@d.
The English word “dot” comes from the Greek word for the letter “iota”, which in turn comes from the letter Yud. Yud’s gematrial value is ten. Five dots multiplied by ten 5 x 10 = 50. The number fifty represents of Shavu’ot, the fiftieth day after Passover, after our long count of the Omer. So Aharon, as the embodiment of loving-kindness, represents the attitude we must adopt to receive Torah on the fiftieth day.
As we draw to a close of our counting of the Omer and prepare to approach our own personal Sinaitic revelations, may we be blessed with Aharon’s capacity of deveykut, to truly open with love and kindness to cleave to G@d in the full and joyful way we are each meant to.
Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar
Sifrei on Bamidbar
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin’s The Burnt Book: Reading the Torah
Cross-posted at Mah Omeret Ha-Soferet
Copyright A. Barclay
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Bamidbar
Rav DovBer Pinson
Taking a Census of our Life
We start a new book of the Torah this week, The book of Ba’Midbar – this chronicles the Israelites passage through the desert and their growth as a people. The Parsha begins with the counting of the people.
“se’ua” – “take a census of the whole community . . .listing every person by name, one by one.”
Se’ua – translated as census – comes from the root word – to elevate. When we think of counting, we usually think of the individual reduced to a number – yet, in this particular census each person must be listed by “their name” – their individuality.
By taking into account each individual person, the person is then lifted higher into their individuality, revealing their unique potential – the person then truly counts in the bigger picture.
When we see our life as a big jumble of happenings, people, hardships and joys – each thing seems to get lost in the other, and the picture is blurred. A high resolution image is one that has sharply defined pixels – each pixel counting towards the overall clarity of the image. When looking at the picture, we see a high clarity full picture, and zooming in, we recognize each pixel as integral to its overall quality.
Before we move forward into the ‘desert’, the emptiness that precedes the receiving of the Torah, we need to first look back into our past and connect the dots. However, before connecting the dots, we must first recognize each dot as an individual, crucial component of the entire picture.
THE WEEK’S ENERGY
This weeks energy compels us to take a census – to lift and elevate each individual person, event and emotion within our lives to a higher status. We view our lives in ‘high definition,’ so to speak. This week we take a census of the parts of our lives.
Naming each piece of our lives and recognizing it as a unique part of the bigger picture. When a single letter in the Torah is even slightly blurred, the entire scroll is damaged.
The energy of the week is seeing each individual part in high definition, elevating its status in the tapestry of your life
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(In the Wilderness)
NUMBERS 1:2 – 4:20
A census is taken and the camp is organized according to Tribes.
OUR JOURNEY TAKES US into the Book of Numbers. The Torah, as a guide for our journey, illuminates the process of incarnation in Genesis, and the process of liberation in Exodus. Leviticus concerns itself with maintaining a state of holy connection to God and each other. The Book of Numbers recounts the soul’s journey through the wilderness. That spiritual path sets in motion the process of self-awareness, purification, and re-birth.
The Hebrew name for The Book of Numbers is Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness.” The wilderness is the place of our journey. We wander for forty years. During this time the generation of slavery dies and a new generation emerges.
The harsh inner reality of the wilderness purifies whatever traces of enslavement we still carry. This wilderness is the midwife of our new life, after long and hard labor. The wilderness forces us to face the resistance, ambivalence and self-delusion that has kept us from whole-heartedly receiving our birthright: the promised flow of milk and honey that is given to us, and through us, with each moment of life. The wilderness will scare out all our old ghosts and send them forth from the shadows into the full light of awareness.
In the wilderness we are stripped of disguises. Defenses fall away. Each part within us is forced to show its true face.
BAMIDBAR BEGINS with the taking of the census. On the spiritual journey it is necessary to look within in order to know, recognize and fully understand the myriad aspects that make up the self, “the parliament of personality.”1
The census is taken of all those who are able to go forth in battle. The Israelites are counted in order to be deployed. The Levites, those whose job it is to take care of the Mishkan and all the holy things in it, are exempted from this counting.
As we take the inner census of the personality, as we list the aspects which comprise the force of our egos, we do so to place their power in service to the soul, to our true essence, to the spark of God within us. Our Levite is the part of us who must guard that essence.
AFTER EACH TRIBE IS COUNTED AND NAMED, it is given a role and a place on the periphery of the camp, surrounding the Mishkan and its Levites in the center.
Most indigenous peoples share a keen sensitivity to the compass points. Each direction carries a particular wind or force that can become our ally as we journey. We learn where to stand, where to face and how to open ourselves to those energies.
I LOOK TO THE EAST, with Issachar, Judah and Zebulon, to face the rising sun, opening to new beginnings, new possibilities.
I TURN TO THE SOUTH, with Gad, Reuben and Simeon, to receive warmth, comfort and constancy.
I LOOK WEST, with Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin, to find a vision of where my path must lead me.
I FACE THE NORTH, with Asher, Dan and Naphtali, and open myself to the wisdom of my ancestors, receiving their guidance and challenges.
I LOOK TO THE HEAVENS and open to the wide expanse.
AND I LOOK TO THE EARTH beneath me for grounding and support.
The blessing of Bamidbar places my soul at the center of the Mishkan, guarded and surrounded by the part of me that is mindful of holiness. And that circle is surrounded by the circle of my personality, which places itself in service to the soul. Each aspect stands in its place, knowing that it is the God-spark at the center that is in charge.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
EVERY ONE OF THE VOICES THAT CLAMOR inside me thinks that it is the sole TRUTH. The process of discernment requires great patience, self-compassion and often a good sense of humor.
As we begin to sort out our inner voices, we realize we contain different characters – some of whom would like to take charge of our lives but shouldn’t.
AN EXAMPLE: My husband and I were in the kitchen making lunch. He was fixing a cheese sandwich for himself. Earlier that day I had told him that I was trying to reduce my dairy intake because of allergies. Suddenly I turned to him and blurted out, “I want cheese!” My husband smiled and asked, “Who was that?”
The voice that had popped out of me was so young and petulant that it made us both laugh. When I examined where the voice came from, I saw that she was about five years old. She was pouting with frustration. Once I identified the voice, I felt compassion for the little girl, even as I let her know firmly and gently that she would not be deciding what was for lunch.
By listening carefully to the voices within, and identifying their source, we avoid becoming victims of that “parliament of personalities” within us which would pull us this way and that. Often their demands are the result of unhealed wounds from the past. Sometimes, the decisions made by the wrong aspect of our personality are more serious than what to eat for lunch. Great harm can be done to ourselves and others. An even more serious consequence is that we may never allow the holy and wise one within us a chance to be heard.
1 This is a phrase I learned from my teacher Paul Ray.
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