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Torah Sparks

BEMIDBAR
May 26, 2001 - 5761

Prepared by Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg
Temple Sinai, Hollywood, FL

Edited by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Num. 1:1-4:20; Hertz Chumash, p. 568
Triennial Cycle III: Num. 3:14-4:20; Hertz Chumash, p. 576
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22; Hertz Chumash, p. 582

(1:1-47) God orders Moses and Aaron to take a census of the male Israelites of military age, 20 years and older. Along with their designated assistants from each tribe, they take the census; the grand total, except for the Levites, is 603,550.

(1:48-54) The special tasks of the Levites in caring for the Tabernacle.

(2:1-3:13) The organization, order, and physical layout of the camping and travel of the Israelites in the desert. The total enrollment of the Israelites, minus the Levites, is reiterated, and we learn of the special enrollment of the Levites, their tasks, and how they came to replace the first-born sons.

(3:14-39) The enrollment of the Levites from the age of one month and up, according to their respective clans, descended from Levi's sons Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Jewish women, the Leviah (bat-Levi) retains her status regardless of whom she marries. While a bat-Kohen lost the right to eat trumah if she married an Israelite man or Gentile, the Leviah retained her right to eat maaser in such circumstances. Furthermore, if the Leviah's husband is an Israelite man or a Gentile, their firstborn son is exempt from pidyon haben (first-born redemption) because she is a Levite. This is a notable exception in a tribal system which otherwise always goes by the father. (Judith Antonelli, "In The Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah", p. 332-333)

(3:40-51) The census of the first-born males; their replacement by the Levites.

(4:1-20) A second census of the Levites between the ages of 30 and 50, this time in order to determine the number needed for their tasks during the period of wilderness wandering. The census of the Kohathites and their appointment to the special task of carrying the holy vessels.

Theme 1: No Idol Zone

The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai saying: record the Levites by ancestral house and by clan; record every male among them from the age of one month upward. (Num. 3:14)

  1. Originally the Temple service devolved upon the first born but, when they committed the sin of the Golden Calf, the Levites, inasmuch as they had not erred in the matter of the calf, were privileged to enter in their stead. (Numbers Rabbah 3:5)
  2. In the late 1950's, not too long after Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power in the former Soviet Union, he addressed a gathering of the party faithful. Beginning by excoriating the crimes and misdeeds of his predecessor, Josef Stalin, Khrushchev promised a new era of freedom and civility. Yet as he was decrying the purges, crackdowns, and horrific crimes of his predecessor, a meek voice called out from the back of the room. "Mr. Chairman," a man asked, "why didn't you say something? Where were you when all this was happening?" Khrushchev heard the question, his face turned red as he retorted in a menacing voice, "Who said that?" There was silence. The new Premier screamed louder, "Who is the one who asked where I was? I want to see him now!!" A stillness filled the room, no one moved. A sly smile spread over Khrushchev's face. He looked toward the back of the large room. In slow and calculated staccato spurts he began to shout, "I know exactly where you are! I know exactly where you are standing!" The nervous silence was unbearable, as the large audience awaited the fate of the poor man. "I know where you are standing," repeated the feared leader of the world's largest communist country. "You are standing in the exact spot where I stood when Stalin used to make his speeches." (Retold by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, "Parashah Parables 3, p. 129-130)

Discussion Sparks:

The question is: do we speak up often enough in the presence of wrong behavior or do we hold back or hide in the crowd? When somebody makes a racial or ethnic slur, do we tend to ignore it? And how uncomfortable should we feel about gossip? Can we know at what point it no longer is just casual gossip? How does all of this apply to teenagers and potential dangers that exist for them because of not wanting to stand out?

Theme 2: The Levitical Mystique

All the Levites who were recorded, whom at the Lord's command Moses and Aaron recorded by their clans, all the males from one month and up, came to 22,000 (Num. 3:39)

  1. Only 22,000 Levite males are recorded... the tribe merely "reproduced and increased in a normal way, and therefore did not become as numerous as the other tribes." Nachmanides (Ramban) also suggests an alternate view: that Levi became a small tribe because of Jacob's anger with Shimon and Levi for their violence in Shechem. There might, however, be a much simpler explanation. Levi may have been numerically a predominantly female tribe. Perhaps, for some reason, the tribe simply consisted of many more daughters than sons. This possibility would also shed light on the "women and Levites" linkage in the resistance to the Golden Calf... It would seem then that a woman who was from the Levi tribe was in a class by herself. Unlike other ancient societies the Jewish women, the Leviah (bat-Levi) retains her status regardless of whom she marries. While a bat-Kohen lost the right to eat trumah if she married an Israelite man or Gentile, the Leviah retained her right to eat maaser in such circumstances. Furthermore, if the Leviah's husband is an Israelite man or a Gentile, their firstborn son is exempt from pidyon haben (first-born redemption) because she is a Levite. This is a notable exception in a tribal system which otherwise always goes by the father. (Judith Antonelli, "In The Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah", p. 332-333)

Discussion Sparks:

One of the bonuses of egal itarianism, is that a whole new approach to biblical studies has come to us as women have become more intensely involved in the ongoing interpretation of the Torah. Does it matter if Judith Antonelli is historically correct? What lessons does she teach with her approach? How does it change the way we read the text? What difference does her teaching have for Jews today? Should a Leviah be given any special recognition in modern-day Judaism? (P.S. I am married to a Leviah.)


 
 
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