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Torah Sparks

May 23, 2009 – 29 Iyar 5769

Annual: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 769; Hertz p. 568)
Triennial: Numbers 2:1 – 3:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 774; Hertz p. 572)
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18 – 42 (Etz Hayim, p. 1216; Hertz p. 948)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

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

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

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

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

1. Like No Other

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. (Numbers 2:2)

  1. Every Jew must know and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never anyone exactly like him; had there been someone just like him, there would have been no need for him. Indeed, every single person is someone new in the world, and it is his duty to improve all his ways, until all of Israel have attained perfection. (Bet Aharon, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  2. [Only one human being was first created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One, for a man stamps many coins with one die and they are all alike one with the other, but the King of kings of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped all humanity with the die of the first human being and yet not one of them is like his fellow. (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)
  3. Even as men’s faces are not alike, so their understanding is not alike. Each man has an understanding that is his very own. (Tanhuma Pinhas 10)
  4. Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person; do not underrate the importance of anything, for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun. (Pirkei Avot 4:3)
  5. In the world to come, I shall not be asked, “Why were you not Moses?” I shall be asked, “Why were you not Zusya?” (Attributed to Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, 1718-1800, Poland)

Sparks for Discussion

What does it mean to say that each human being is unique? That no two people (other than identical twins) have the same DNA? That no two look alike? That no two think alike? Do you think that each person has a unique role or mission in the world that no one else can fulfill? If we take the idea of human uniqueness seriously, what does that mean for how we treat each other? What does it teach us about how we are to live our own lives? What is the key to understanding Rabbi Zusya’s teaching?

2. It Takes a Shtetl

This is the line of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadab, the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Itamar. (Bamidbar 3:1-2)

  1. Yet it mentions only the sons of Aaron. And they are called the line of Moses because he taught them Torah. This teaches that whoever teaches the son of his fellow Torah, Scripture credits him as if he had fathered him. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: The name of that man, Joshua ben Gamla, should always be mentioned on good occasions. But for him, the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel. Formerly, if a child had a father [living], his father taught him Torah; if he had no father, he did not learn Torah... Then it was ordained that teachers of young children should be set up in Jerusalem... Even so, if a child had a father, the father would take him up to Jerusalem and have him taught; if he had no father, the child would not go up and study. Then it was ordained that teachers of youths be set up in each district and that youths enter school at the age of 16 or 17. But when a teacher was annoyed with one of them, that student would rebel against the teacher and leave school. So Joshua ben Gamla came along and ordained that teachers of little children be set up in each district and in each town, and children enter school at the age of 6 or 7. (Talmud Bava Batra 21a)
  3. Once Rav came to a certain place [where there was a drought] when, though he had decreed a fast, no rain fell. Presently a reader stepped down in front of Rav before the ark and recited, “He causes the wind to blow,” and the wind blew; then, “He causes the rain to fall,” and rain fell. Rav asked him: What is your occupation? He replied: I am a teacher of young children, teaching Scripture to children of the poor as well as to children of the rich. From him who cannot afford it, I take no payment. Besides, I have a fishpond, and I bribe with fish any boy who refuses [to study] until he comes in to study Scripture. (Talmud Taanit 24a)
  4. Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi: The world ensures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren. Not even for the building of the Temple are children to be deprived of their study of Torah. Resh Lakish said to Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi: I have a tradition from my forebears (others say: from your forebears) that if there are no schoolchildren in a town, it is bound to be destroyed. (Talmud Shabbat 119b)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators insist that the education of children – specifically, their Jewish education – is not solely the responsibility of their parents. Why? Do you agree? What level of Jewish education do you believe the community should provide and support? Day schools? Supplementary schools? Informal education, such as summer camps and youth programs? Does support mean that the community should pay tuition? Pay part of it? In addition to financial support, what can the larger Jewish community contribute to its children’s education?

The majority of children in Conservative synagogues receive their Jewish education in supplementary schools (afternoon Hebrew schools). Given the limited time available for study, what do you think these schools should emphasize? What do you think a student should have mastered by the time of bar or bat mitzvah? By high school graduation?

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