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Parashat Bamidbar
May 23, 2015 – 5 Sivan 5775 

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 (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 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-born.

Theme #1: Sponge Bob Square Camp

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)

Great care is taken so that, when the Israelites are resting in the wilderness, they are never far from the community.

After the Tabernacle had been erected and they were proceeding towards the Promised Land, to conquer it under Divine leadership, it was desirable for them to be divided in accordance with their standards and groupings, so that everyone would know his place and the camp be properly ordered, that they should not appear as runaway slaves, but constitute a people ready for battle. They were therefore numbered as a part of the policy of instituting order. In this connection, our Sages rightly made the point that, “when He came to rest His Divine Presence amongst them, He numbered them.” -- Moshe Chaim Luzzatto

I am left looking for lessons, the essential truths at the heart of this seemingly mundane recitation. Does this passage teach us the benefits of taking stock, counting up who we are and what we have? Or is it, perhaps, a meditation on neighborhood dynamics, urban planning, the diverse roles that make up a community? Maybe. It’s possible. But maybe what we’re reading here is more just a reminder that sometimes things are a little … boring. Some days you might find yourself spending hours rearranging your living room, or alphabetizing your record albums … All our days are counted -- even the dull ones. -- Eli Horowitz, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, ed.

Certain tribes appear to have banded together, for better or for worse, as they proceeded jointly through the desert. Issachar and Zebulun set up a multi-faceted partnership, whereas Korach son of Kehat and members of the tribe of Reuben (Dathan, Abiram, and On son of Peleth) conspired together to revolt against Moshe, since they felt disadvantaged in terms of their family and status. Similarly, Reuben and Gad and part of the tribe of Manasseh, also neighbors in the tribal encampment, planned together to remain east of the Jordan. -- Gabriel H. Cohn,  from A Divinely Given Torah in our Day and Age, Volume II

Questions for Discussion:

Luzzato posits that the purpose of the Israelite census was not only to ensure that its leadership had a proper count of the nation, but also so that its citizens would understand their respective places in society. To what extent do we benefit from feeling secure in our roles in our relationships, families, and communities? Is it dangerous for these roles to be clearly defined? Permanently defined? To what extent should we be able to determine our “place”?

Horowitz reconciles the lack of plot development in this section of the Torah with the notion that, sometimes, we have to endure moments of dullness and monotony in order to appreciate the exciting ones. Does this Torah portion suffer from a relative lack of excitement? Is it possible for some people to be engaged by the many numbers and details of these passages? Can people find comfort in repetition?

Cohn points out that the order in which the tribal camps are arranged has far-reaching consequences later in the book of Numbers, as numerous tribes banded together with tribes next-door to change the course of Israelite history. What are the pros and cons of relying on those in closest proximity to us? Do the benefits of creating strong relationships with our neighbors outweigh the periodic need to reach out beyond our respective comfort zones?

Theme #2: Levi Alone

Advance the tribe of Levi and place them in attendance upon Aaron the priest to serve him. They shall perform duties for him and for the whole community before the Tent of Meeting, doing the work of the Tabernacles. They shall take charge of all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting -- a duty on behalf of all Israelites -- doing the work of the Tabernacle. You shall assign the Levites to Aaron and to his sons: they are formally assigned to him from among the Israelites. You shall make Aaron and his sons responsible for observing their priestly duties; and any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death. (Numbers 3:6-10)

While the rest of the Israelite tribes have their own niches to carve, the Levites' niche has already been decided: assistants of the holy work of Aaron and his sons.

The tribe of Levi was constantly engaged in the study of the Law and in the performance of the divine service. Nevertheless, the Levites were like the palm tree [of the righteous] in that they also took the time to study the Law of God with others, and brought others closer to the ways of Judaism. -- Baal Shem Tov

To “offer” (bring near) and to “approach” (come near) are variants of the root word k-r-b, which is also the word used in “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the Priest.” Everything is measured by its distance from the Mishkan or Tabernacle: a fearful symmetry ordains that the Levites occupy a position neither too close to nor too far from that sacred and deadly core. In these first chapters, where the focus is on a division of labor necessary to the formation of a coherent society, it is clear that the Levites are the most stable entity, whose cultic labor (avodah) constitutes an alternative to the military service for which the census ordered in Numbers is made. Guarding and servicing the Tabernacle are essential to the tribes as they pass through hostile territory -- hostile also in that it is unfruitful (precisely not the promised land), so that God must often stand in for nature and provide Israel’s nourishment during its long and purgative trek. -- Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Numbers,” from Congregation, David Rosenberg, ed.

Questions for Discussion:

The Baal Shem Tov claims that the tribe of Levi is the ideal group to be stationed in the middle of the Israelite camp, partly because its members are willing to reach out to those in other tribes to enhance their appreciation for God’s commandments. Still, the Levites also found time to focus on their own studies. What are some of the challenges we experience when trying to balance caring for others and ensuring our own self-care?

Hartman is quick to not let us forget the challenges the Levites face in the wilderness, in which they must begin the tradition of the Temple cult in less-than-ideal circumstances. Many of the great pioneers from our history begin their transformative work during the most treacherous of times. What does this say about our periodic hesitation to advance society for the better? What are the benefits of waiting for the ideal time to effect change? What are the benefits for starting as quickly as possible, regardless of the odds of success?

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