Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
The Israelites continue their final preparations to leave Sinai, as the Levitical clan of Gershon is commanded to watch over the Tabernacle curtains and the clan of Merari is made responsible for the Tabernacle structure. Impure Israelites are ordered to leave the camp, while those who have harmed another person must make financial restitution.
We learn that when a married woman is accused (without definitive proof) of adultery, she is brought to the priest. Her husband brings an offering of barley flour, and the woman is required to drink bitter water. If drinking that water causes her belly to distend and her thigh to sag, it is proof of her guilt, but if her body does not change, she is vindicated.
An Israelite is allowed to make a vow of the Nazir, in which he or she abstains from drinking alcohol, trimming his or her hair, or going near a dead body. At the conclusion of the vow's fulfillment, the Israelite brings an offering and can resume the previously-forbidden activities.
The priests are introduced to a three-fold benediction to bless the people.
The chieftains of each tribe bring an identical gift for the Tabernacle over the course of 12 days.
Theme #1: Levi’s Genes
Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans. (Numbers 4:21)
The descendants of Levi are counted, but not in the order you might expect.
Another explanation: “She is more precious than rubies” refers to Kohath and Gershon. Although Gershon was the firstborn and we find that Scripture always shows honor to the firstborn, yet, because Kohath bore the ark where the Torah was deposited, Scripture gives him precedence over Gershon. For [God] first said, “Take a census of the Kohathites” and afterward [God] says “Take a census of the Gershonites”, etc. This explains, “She is more precious than rubies -- meaning, than the firstborn, who is designated by this word because he came out of the womb first. -- Numbers Rabbah 6:1
And Kohath was born in the thirty-fifth year of my life, towards sunrise. And I saw in a vision that he was standing on high in the midst of all the congregation. Therefore I called his name Kohath which is, beginning of majesty and instruction. -- Testament of Levi 3:51-53
“Aaron and his sons shall come.” They shall put each implement into the container stated explicitly for it in this passage, and the Levites, the sons of Kohath, will need [to do] nothing but to carry. -- Rashi on Numbers 4:5
Questions for Discussion:
As we see in Numbers Rabbah, the priority of Kohath over Gershon represents yet another occasion when the biblical text “chooses” a younger child to receive the privileges of the firstborn, despite the societal expectation against this. Why does this continue to happen in the Torah? Is the text trying to tell us that all people are upwardly (or, downwardly) mobile? That firstborns should not take their places in the world for granted? Or that the Jewish world can (and often does) fly in the face of the conventions we usually expect?
In the rare text known as Testament of Levi, we find an explanation of Kohath’s name, thus giving us a theory why his descendants are given such honor. This is another example of a biblical trend, known as nomen omen, in which a person’s name foreshadows their place in life. In most cases, modern parents take similar great care in choosing their children’s names. Is it fair for parents to expect that their children to live up to the name they choose for them?
Rashi indicates that Kohath, while having important responsibilities, will have some of the “difficult” work done for them in advance. Since the Kohathites have such important responsibilities, is this as a sensible way to allow the Kohathites to work smarter and not necessarily harder? Or is this an example of “pampering” the Kohathites in an unnecessary way? Is it appropriate for leaders with great responsibilities to have mundane matters taken care of by other people so that the leaders can focus fully on their jobs?
Theme #2: Equality?
Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged. (Numbers 5:6-7)
The inclusion of both men and women in the above passage is fleeting, yet noteworthy.
Rab Judah said on behalf of Rab, and so was it also taught at the school of Rabbi Yishmael: Scripture states, “When a man or woman commits any wrong …”, Scripture has thus made woman and man equal regarding all the penalties of the Law. – Talmud Bava Kama 15a
The formulation [“a man or woman”] is actually quite rare in biblical law. -- Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20
This law proves that women sometimes did control property, and that with such control, they assumed some of the same rights and obligations as men. So if they wronged another person, it was their own responsibility -- not their husbands’ or fathers’ -- not only to confess but also to compensate those they had wronged, including an additional 20 percent penalty. Through this law, the Torah, acknowledging that adulthood carries with it both moral and economic accountability, conferred that social status upon women. -- Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam
Questions for Discussion:
Bava Kama interprets our Torah text as an affirmation that people are held responsible for their transgressions, regardless of their gender. Is it logical for men and women to be punished in an equal manner while, at the same time, holding them to different standards in matters of privilege? Or should we not worry about matters of privilege and simply appreciate equal treatment when it exists in the Torah?
Levine’s comment reminds us that, while it may be refreshing to read about how women are considered equal in matters of biblical punishment, the mention of women in these laws is an exception that proves the general rule. When studying Torah, is it sensible to be “hung up” on whether a word is included or not included? In other words, can we reasonably assume that women are included in other laws, even when the word “woman” is not included in the text? How might that change our understanding of gender equality and inequality in the Torah?
Frankel sees this text as an affirmation of women’s periodic involvement in land ownership. Does this make this passage more memorable for women’s empowerment, or for other times when women are not empowered?