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Parashat Bamidbar
May 24, 2014 – 24 Iyar 5774

Annual (Numbers 1:1-4:20): Etz Hayim p. 769; Hertz p. 568
Triennial (Numbers 1:1-54): Etz Hayim p. 769; Hertz p. 568
Haftarah (Hosea 2:1-22): Etz Hayim p. 787; Hertz p. 582

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

God orders Moses to take a census of the people so that the Israelites can prepare for the possibility of warfare or other obstacles. The total of 603,550 males over the age of 20 does not include the Levites, who must be responsible for the activities and maintenance of the Tabernacle at all times.

The tribes are told to camp in a square, with three tribes on each side of the square, and with the Levites and the Ark in the middle.

The Levites must report to and assist Aaron and his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, who serve as priests in the wake of Nadav and Avihu's deaths. The levitical clans of Gershon, Kohath and Merari are assigned specific duties; the Kohathites are required to watch over the most sacred objects of the Israelite cult.

God outlines a procedure for Moses to redeem the Israelite first-borns. 

Theme #1: Picking Up Where We Left Off

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. (Numbers 1:1-2)

The book of Numbers opens with a census of the generation of the Exodus -- and with a link to the end of the book of Leviticus.

It must also be noted that the definition of males able to bear arms also corresponds to males of the age of majority who will support the central sanctuary by means of the Temple tax (Leviticus 27). Thus, the census and organization of the people is not simply a military matter; it is also a cultic matter insofar as it points to the responsibility for supporting and the placement of the tribes in order around the Tabernacle for the march through the wilderness. It indicates a concern to portray the march as a cultic procession with Judah in the lead and Levi tending to the Tabernacle at the center of the nation. -- Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible

When Israel received the Torah, the nations of the world were envious of them, and wondered why the Jewish people should be deemed worthy of coming closer to God than all the other nations. But the Holy One, blessed be He, closed their mouths, saying to them: “Bring Me your book of genealogy as My children bring it to Me.” There at the beginning of the book, it is written: “These are the commandments which the Lord commanded to Moses for the Children of Israel of Mount Sinai.” (Leviticus 27:34) Next, it is written: “And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.” (Numbers 1:1) … “Take the sum of all the congregation of the Children of Israel …” (Numbers 1:2), and they were deemed worthy of receiving the Torah only because of their pedigree. -- Yalkut

When Scripture mentions the place, it says first, “in the wilderness of Sinai”; it employs a general expression. Afterward it says “in the Tent of Meeting,” and expression of precise detail. In contrast to this, when it mentions the date, first it says the specific, “on the first day of the second month,” and afterward the general, “in the second year after they had gone forth.” What is going on here? The explanation may be that indeed even with regard to the place, the specific is mentioned and afterward the general. … Thus we understand that the Tent of Meeting is the general place of all the world, while the whole wilderness of Sinai is but a local particularity. -- Or HaChayim

Questions for Discussion:

To Sweeney, the census that opens the book of Numbers has a direct connection to the book of Leviticus, taking into account cultic matters as well as military matters. Thus, cultic matters remain squarely at the center of ancient Israelite life. To what extent is ritual (especially in the synagogue) the center of modern Jewish life? Is meaningful ritual the key to a successful Jewish community? Or does it play more of a secondary role in the 21st century? Is this the way it should be?

One can understand the Yalkut’s story as an example of the Jewish people gaining the respect of other nations because of God’s promises to us. Is this what it means to be “the Chosen People”? Or is there a better way to understand that phrase? And should we be concerned how other nations react to the notion of chosenness? Do we put ourselves at risk if we are not concerned?

Or HaChayim indicates that the Tent of Meeting and the wilderness of Sinai should be considered as both general locations and specific locations. What does this mean? How can a place be important both in a particular space and time and for all time? What are other examples of this? Is a place like the White House -- which is both an historical landmark and a contemporary place of important business -- an appropriate example, or should we understand this with a deeper meaning?

Theme #2: Come Together

On the first day of the second month they convoked the whole community, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses -- the names of those aged twenty years and over being listed head by head. (Numbers 1:18)

Before each adult male Israelite is counted, the Torah text briefly considers the role of the entire Israelite community.

Parashat B’midbar is always read immediately preceding Shavuot. This is because we read in B’midbar, “each person under his own banner,” (Numbers 1:52) which is to say that each person will be in his proper place. And this is the reason for the commandment of “setting bounds” just prior to the giving of the Torah. -- Chidushei HaRim

The implicit clan plays a role similar to that of kol ha-edah, the whole community … in the later history of Israel. They are witnesses and audience, but they also receive the benefits of the ritual interaction. Clearly, their role is marginal but a societal reality. (Religion was not a private affair in the Ancient Near East but always involved other members of family, clan, tribe and people.) -- Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

There is an apparent inconsistency 
between the reference to the ability to bear arms and the strange expression in verse 18 which derives from the verb “to be born” and seems to refer to a “register of births” in which newborn children would be entered. But perhaps this expression is here simply meant to be understood in the general sense of receiving and entering names. -- Martin Noth, Numbers


Questions for Discussion:

Chidushei HaRim makes a reference to the Israelites’ preparations prior to the Revelation at Sinai. How can someone properly prepare for what s/he anticipates to be an important moment in history? Is it enough to be in one's “proper place,” or is it better to open ourselves to surprise?

Klingbeil points out that the inclusion of an entire community is sometimes a relatively unessential endeavor, as it is difficult to include an entire population in matters that are best executed by a smaller group of people. Is this an example of “too many cooks spoil the soup?” In our communities, how can we enable the general populace to feel that they are full participants in group activities without causing chaos?

Noth notes that it can be easy to be confused regarding which Israelites are allowed to serve in the military; are they 20 years old? Can it be someone of any age? While no one in their right minds would expect a young child to be a soldier, it begs the question: What place do children have in our communities? In what ways must they be counted the same as adults, and in what ways must they be held to different standards? What is the proper age of majority? Should there be one age in which children should be given all of the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood (as the Bar/Bat Mitzvah suggests, at least regarding mitzvot), or should there be a more gradual process?

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