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Parasha No. 34
Bemidbar: “In the wilderness”

Bemidbar (Numbers) 1, 1 - 4, 20


- Themes and meaning of the parasha
- The 4th book of the Torah
- Number of letters, number of people
- Sensitivity
- The essence of the Jewish people
- The organization of holiness is Jewish life
- The urban geography of holiness in the wilderness
- The urban plan of holiness
- The standards
- The meaning of the standard of the divine name: a symbol of love
- And women?
- The march, holiness on the move
- Recommended reading
- Customs
- A test of our wish for unity
- Stages of study
- Summary

This commentary is dedicated
to all those who belong to a family,
section or camp within the Jewish people,
and who have difficulty appreciating those who are different, in the aim
of strengthening our Jewish unity.


Themes and meaning of the parasha
We begin the 4th book of the Torah.
More than half the journey has been accomplished.
How many letters have we read and studied? Here is the precise count:

Number of letters, words.. in each book of the Torah


Letters Words Verses Sections


We have come to the 186,384th letter of the Torah. Is this number correct?
Why bother counting?
Because every letter of the Torah carries a particular meaning and transmits a world we cannot see but was revealed at Sinai.
Every letter is connected to what we call neshamot, the particular strengths of the Jewish people, living souls. Each person represents one of these rich dimensions (letter of the Torah, word, verse…..).
Respect and love every letter and learn to understand them.
This is the same as understanding and loving every member of the Jewish people. This injunction is said every day at the beginning of the morning prayers:
hareni mekabbel alai mitzvat asse shel "veahavta lereakha kamokha"

Herein, I take it upon myself to accept the positive mitzva "you will love thy neighbor like thyself."
Vehareni ohev et kol ehad mibene Yisrael ke nafshi umeodi…
And here I love every one of the sons of Israel like my being and my possessions….

Ribbi Yaakov Abuhatzera expresses this beautifully: the main reason for the numbering is to awaken (leorer) the people of Israel in order that they will not abandon the study of the Torah, "remember that you must not neglect one letter of the Torah!"

In this spirit, the parasha is called Shabbat Kala (bride) and Shabbat Derekh Eretz (good moral conduct). The reasons will become clearer.

The book Bemidbar is called Humash Pekudim, the book of those who have been counted. When we appreciate someone, we say that he "counts" for us. The book begins with the census and numbering of the children of Israel according to their different groupings (except for the Levites).
The task of numbering is so important that there are no mitzvot in this parasha.

Our Sages say that the aim of the numbering is to ensure that the divine presence (the shekhina) will always have a dwelling among the Jewish people, within each group. The people, in their unity and diversity, are an encampment for the divine presence. This is what gives meaning to its special social structure and history.

All other dimensions are but offshoots of this main principle -- they are not the essence. Other dimensions may vary, according to the era, and according to the ideologies and political systems of the day. In modern times, we have the concept of the state and the rights of citizens and of nations, and these are important, as other concepts have been throughout history, but they are only secondary. They are not the source or essence of things.

The essence of the Jewish people is
--- this presence
--- the link between each individual and this presence
--- the role which each individual must play, which is called the kehuna, his function and mission, messima
: "to be cohanim in creation and for all nations."

Those who symbolize this role among the Jewish people, and those who sustain this role are the Cohens and the Levites.
It is through these roles that Jews are connected to the presence of the shekhina and of the keddusha (divine and holy presence).

A nation is always characterized by its founding acts, especially when a people have as vivid memory as we do of what it means to be Jewish. It is clear that those who wish to rebuild a state of Israel that is not based on a conscience of the founding revelation at Sinai and the founding text, will have the greatest difficulty controlling the elements that form our collective conscience.

The adoption of constitutional principles of other nations as the constitutional principles of the Jewish nation is unsuited to a society whose ethos is governed by the principle of holiness and purification as the basis of morality. Ignoring this reality, by dismissing it as "mystical" (when all politics represent a mystical ideal) is self-defeating: no nation can accept foreign ideologies which require it to renounce
its very essence.

The unusual compromise found in the declaration of independence of the State of Israel affirms that the State will be both "Jewish and democratic." This can be interpreted in many ways and the strange, surrealistic, formulation results in much questioning, research, conflict, and compromise. Nothing is lost, but nothing is spelt out. Everything is open to fraternity, fidelity, creativity.
The Tur offers an important moral explanation which should help us: he begins his 1st commentary on Bemidbar by saying: this parasha is placed next to the words "here are the mitzvot, elle hamitzvot," which tells us that if a man does not consider himself like a wilderness, he will not achieve the Torah or the mitzvot. We must therefore make a great effort to discard all our prejudices and possessions in order to enter into the social debates of this parasha.

What I am putting forward here are just the main elements. Let us now study the sources.

The book of Vayikra concentrated primarily on the reconstruction of an individual being and his spirituality. The Sages noted that the number of verses in Vayikra (859) is symbolized in the word "nataf" (perfume) whose numerical value in Hebrew is 859.

In contrast, parasha Bemidbar elaborates on the specific social structure of the people, and demonstrates how everyone has his particular place in a society that has a global function.
One cannot separate the first two parashiot Bemidbar and Naso for they both treat the same theme; Naso deals with questions of purity among the people who will have to leave the camp and will no longer be in a state of purity.

The organization of holiness

Let us look first at the formal exterior organization of holiness, before we examine the inner organization of holiness.

We have discussed the meaning of the first chapter which describes the census of the people of Israel by tribal affiliation, excepting the Levites.
We will now examine the second chapter which describes the arrangement of each tribe around the tent of meeting, the ohel moed.
The third chapter focuses on the descendants of Moshe and Aaron, the numbering of the Levites, the firstborn and their link with the Levites.
The fourth chapter describes the numbering of the children of Kohath and their duties.

Following the method of the Sages, we will now examine this new book, the fourth book of the Torah, and the first parasha in the context of the divine plan.

The organization of holiness in the daily and social life of the people takes two forms:
--- a spatial/static form that defines the areas in which each grouping will live, according to their tribal affiliation as well as their duties in the service of holiness; this can be described in modern terms as the urban geography of holiness;
--- a dynamic form that applies to when the entire nation will move forward and will follow a specific plan, which will be directed towards Jerusalem.

The urban geography of holiness in the wilderness

The Shla notes that the people of Israel are organized in a structure based on numbers 3 and 4. These numbers clearly have meaning. This is a parasha that "counts" and tradition tells us that the meaning of the holy is found in the three-letter root sfr (???) which can be read as sefer (letter), sefar (number), and sippur (story).

The Shla then demonstrates that this structure of on 3 and 4 parallels the structure of Jerusalem; the mahane hashekhina (encampment of the divine presence) is structured in the following, descending, way:
1. the camp (mahane) of the shekhina, in the center of the camp, where only the Cohanim or Cohen can enter in order to carry out their task (avoda), like the Temple in Jerusalem;
2. then the mahane of the leviim or Levites; their function is to sing and play music during the sacrifices, as on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem;
3. finally the mahane of Israel where there are 4 armies made up of 3 tribes with their respective standards, like the city of Jerusalem with its four quarters. Thus they will come from all four corners of Israel to being their sacrifices to the Temple. This is described in Chapter 27 of Tractate Taanit in the Talmud.

Similarly, the central mahane of holiness has three zones:
--- that of the kodesh hakodashim, the Holy of Holies, where only the Cohen hagadol (High Priest) can enter and only on the day of Kippur;
--- the heikhal, the palace with its golden alter, table and menora (candlestick); this is where the Cohanim carry out their daily duties, according to the festivals;
--- the zone of the people.

More complex commentaries, which I do not discuss here, interpret the meaning of this structure in 3 and 4, and students, who wish, can study these interpretations with their teachers.
They will discover the meaning of the two letters shin on the tefilin of the head and the 4 stages of the morning prayer.

The urban plan of holiness

1. The concentric zones of the levels of kedusha (holiness):

2. In the perimeter, the tribes are positioned thus:

--- East, 186400 men and their families, the tribe of Yehuda (746000 and Nachshon), Zevulun who will travel and trade, and Yissakhar who will study,

--- North, 157600 men and their families, the tribe of Dan (from whom will come the Judges and Samson), the tribe of Naphtali (the gazelle and diplomacy), and the tribe of Asher (known for the beauty of its women),.

--- West, 108100 men and their families, the warriors, Ephraim, Binyamin and Menashe,

--- South, 151450 men and their families, the camp of morality, teshuva and blessings with the tribe of Reuven, Gad and Shimeon.

It is evident that everything is arranged in two groups of 3 and 4.

The Shla analyzes this on the basis of Tzioni, which refers to the letters of the Name of God, for whom Israel is the symbol and messenger. This name has 4 letters (youd, ke, vav, ke), although this is in fact 3 because the letter he or ke is repeated (I have used the letter ke instead of he out of respect for the divine name). These letters therefore take on a living shape.

The 3-zone structure of the camp is the same as that of the Temple in Jerusalem, as is the right to enter each particular zone, which depends on the level of participation in the ritual rites of purification and holiness: the zone of the people of Israel, then the zone of the Levites, who are the singers and musicians, and the zone of the Cohanim, with the zone of the Holy of Holies reserved for the High Priest, the Cohen Gadol.

This structure is not based on social class: the differences here refer to the 3 levels of a human being: the nefesh or identity, the ruah or spirit, the neshama or soul. For example, the word nefesh is found in Bereshit 46, 27 when Yaakov and his family depart for Egypt numbering 70 nefesh or persons. Nothing in Judaism is confused with anything else in the name of equality; instead everything is given a specific place in order to define each spontaneous action in the highest spiritual terms. The is what is called korban (rapprochement: drawing together), a word that is mistakenly translated as sacrifice which is just one aspect of this "rapprochement."

The process of elevation is also achieved through the tithe: every member of the people of Israel draws nearer to God by giving 10% of his possessions to the Levites who in turn give 10% to the Cohanim, who belong to the 1st level which is that closest to God.
Those who understand these principles and words will understand the text of the Torah and the meaning of customs in Jewish life, and the book of Leviticus will not longer seem incomprehensible.
The 3 levels also refer to the three patriarchs. When one achieves the complete 4 (with David who prepared everything for the construction of the Temple), one speaks of a structure that carries holiness, which is called merkava, chariot. This is the term that is used when one speaks of that which carries holiness.

This 4-based structure is also called the 4 worlds of accrued holiness, and the morning prayer is similarly based on 4 parts.
So is the square design of the Temple and its 4 distinctive sides. This is seen in the way the objects are arranged in the Temple where the material is placed in the North and the spiritual in the South. The goal is to circulate holiness until it permeates concrete life (Judaism is neither a spirituality nor a nirvana), and this is done through the functions of the Cohen of the North and the Cohen of the South around the 4 corners of the altar.

Students will find a reminder of many features of the Temple in their own home which is a "small sanctuary" mikdash katan (the arrangement of the challot on the table, the direction of the bed, etc.), where everything is also ordered towards holiness.

Direction - the meaning of the standards

It is clear that what is involved is not a static architecture or arrangement but a dynamic one which is governed by the conscience, the will of the heart, and the interdependence between beings, and between the material and spiritual worlds. Anyone who is an artisan or interior designer, or anyone who prepares a meal or present for someone they love, will understand the importance of a specially-prepared gesture or gift.

The standards

Let us study the meaning of the standards (Bemidbar 3, 2), though this also relates to all forms of sacrifice (7, 12),to colors (Shmot 28, 17) and numbers (Bereshit 35, 22, and 46, 27), etc. Already in the blessing of Yaakov and of Moshe we find the symbols and psychology of groups of tribes, with their own symbol (Bereshit ch. 4 and Devarim ch. 33).
Each tribe was given a special combination of the 4 letters of the Name of God (called tzeruf), which out of respect cannot be reproduced here but which is described in ch. 5 of Shaare Ora by Rav Gikatilia. The particular virtue of each combination, which reflects the typology of each tribe, corresponds to specific verses in the Torah and to one of the 12 months of the year. There is indeed a Jewish zodiac of great importance, which the magicians of Pharaoh tried to penetrate in order to use it against the people and against Moshe. Analysis of the zodiac is not a part of this commentary, but those who wish to know more about the subject can study it with their rabbi.

The meaning of the standard of the divine name: a symbol of proximity and love for the creator.
The Shla notes that there was one standard for three tribes, thus each standard bore the permutations of the names of God which corresponded to the three tribes.
This is expressed in verse 4 of Psalm 122:
"wither the tribes go up, the tribes of Ya" (Hashem).
She sham alu shevatim, shivte Ya.
This verse demonstrates the extraordinary proximity between God and Israel. It is this reality which is brandished and proclaimed, which is the meaning of the word standard in Hebrew.
But it is more than proximity that is being proclaimed, it is also love, ahava.
Indeed, commenting on Bemidbar 2, 2, the Midrash Rabba and the Midrash Tanhuma note the two important concepts, proximity and unity:
"We will rejoice in thy salvation and in the name of our God we will set up our banners" (Psalm 20, 6).
Nerannena bishojuatekha uveshem elokenu nidgol.


"He brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love" (Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs 2, 4).
Vedihlo alai ahava.
Here we are certain that Hashem has fulfilled all our desires, as is written in Psalm 20, 6: "Hashem will fulfil all thy desires," yimale Hashem kol-mishalotekha.
In answer to our endless discussions on the meaning of Jewish identity and the place it should have in relation to our other identities, the teaching of the Torah says:
Your Jewish identity is not simply patriotic devotion to the State of Israel and its flag, it is an identity of union with Hashem, a national state of proximity with Him and a state of being loved by Him.
This point is made many times by the Shla:
the neshamot (souls) of Jews have their root in a zone that is very close to God himself.
It therefore follows that
--- we must view all Jews in the same way that God views them; in their place.
--- we must acknowledge their uniqueness and their difference, in their place.
--- we must see them as cloaked in God's love, which enables them to know Him and His design (His Torah where everything has been give for all time).
--- all has been already been given and is contained in the name "ben" (son) which was given to Israel - to all Israel, according to the names of the standards, not just to one individual who may call himself "the" son -- the error made by those who did not know the true teaching of the Torah.
--- we must live this love with respect (see my comments on this in times of conflict and elections).
--- this fraternal love must be lived with gemilut hasadim (benevolence and philanthropy), with tzedaka each time we confront need, as ordained in many mitzvot, and with maaser (giving of 10th of our possessions to the community).

The standards must also be understood in relation to the colors of the 12 stones of the ephod of the high priest; each had 6 sides, which corresponds to the 72 permutations for the Name of God.
The people of Israel knew and saw all this: we too must know this, and those who wish to, can study more in order to understand the complex meanings of these symbols. Those who still doubt their importance, should know that the symbolism of 3 and 4 is worn every day by men in the 2 forms of the letter shin (one three-branched and one four-branched) which adorn the tefilim they wear every morning: the three-branched letter is a symbol of the present state of holiness and the four-branched letter a symbol of the future state of holiness. The commentators find the source for this in the word that is formed by two shins in Shmot 28, 39.

There are symbols that refer to the angels, their structure, to colors and to the names of the patriarchs, as shown on this plan:

Thus the standard of Yehuda bore the lion, the alef and two yood.

The symbols proclaimed on the standards clearly had important practical meanings for the people of Israel:
--- a practical structure based on the configuration of 4,
--- recognition and respect for the particular character of each tribe,
--- this character was concrete and divine,
--- equal presence of the three patriarchs in each tribe, represented by the initial of
the patriarchs on their standards,
--- absolute complementarity ensured by the presence of the initials of the
patriarchs within each tribe, but with a different letter for each tribe,
--- the fact that the essence of the people and each member is contained within
invisible and divine symbols,
--- this structure is that of a true family,
--- it is also that of the transmission of the Torah.

It is therefore important not to project onto the Torah modern political concepts or personal cultural ideologies.
We must erase these ideas from our minds, so that we can be free to discover the Jewish system and its teachings.

(Exercise: try to transpose these values into your lives as Jews today. The Ari zal begins his teaching in Oeri Etz Hayim in this way.)
These symbols are not esoteric or similar those taught through Masonic initiations, for they are very much a part of Jewish public teachings.
We can now understand what the Torah asks of us, from the first verses: to live under our standard, in our homes lebeit avotam, in our families lemishpehotam.

And women?

We have already learnt, on many occasions through Modia, that the teaching of the Torah centers on the role and nature of women. Now Ribbi Yaakov Abuhatzera demonstrates that the word "lebeit, in the house" (Bemidbar 1, 2) refers to Leah and Rahel, the "mothers" of all the tribes.
Unity within the people of Israel therefore comes from the deepest source (women): but Ribbi Abuhatzera adds that their light can only shine through the good deeds and prayers of Israel. Conversely, an action at the level of fraternity (unity and respect for others) creates a tikkun in the world above and in the sources of life, benefiting the whole world.
In short, our ability to improve ourselves and the world around us is enormous but it expresses itself in sensitivity, attention, action, prayer and respect for women.

Ribbi Abuhatzera explains that the aim of the numbering of the tribes is to awaken teshuva, to return to what is essential in us as individuals and as a people.
He goes even further and demonstrates that the spirits of Cain and Abel continue to influence the people, now as then, and that the spirit of Abel was dominant among the people in the wilderness (this is one of the meanings of degel (standard) whose numerical value is 37 like the name Abel), but this requires more in-depth study to be fully understood

The march, holiness on the move

Bemidbar 2 describes the order in which the camp went forward, which is as follows:
--- at the head, the ark of the covenant, drawn by cows whose important role is described in the Zohar;
--- then the East camp; the tribes of Yehuda, Zevulun and Issakhar;
--- then the bearers of the sanctuary, the sons of Gershon and Merari;
--- then South camp, the tribes of Reuven, Shimeon and Gad;
--- then the bearers of the utensils of the sanctuary and the table, the sons of Kohath
and Aaron;
--- then the West camp, the tribes of Ephraim, Binyamin and Menashe;
--- then the North camp, the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali.
Some commentators place the ark of the covenant in 2 or in 3rd position.
Here, too, try to find the meaning of the order.


Recommended reading

Read the last blessings of Yaakov on his sons and that of Moshe on the tribes in order to understand the character of each tribe in relation to holiness in daily life.

The man who was called to the Torah to read the passage on warnings in the preceding parasha Bechukosai, is called again to read this parasha, and will be called again during the festival of Shavuot.

A test of our will for unity
Learn the history of other cultures, in particular, their character and their music for nothing is more intimate than what one hears and what one loves spontaneously. To love someone means to be sensitive to what the other is sensitive to.

Stages of study
These require you to:
--- draw the plan of the camp, with the names and characteristics of each grouping,
--- then re-read the parasha,
--- study the verses cited above.



1. Reflect on how the many teachings of the Torah affect you personally and your relationships:

--- we must be close to one another, which means know and understand the other as he is and draw close to him until we understand his nature and culture and can truly appreciate him. What do I mean by this? Before making aliya, I learnt literary Arabic in order to be able to read texts in the original language, as I do in my own culture, and in order to teach Arab students with an understanding of their culture and anthropology. I also studied the rich diversity and complexity of oriental music and discovered that one cannot speak of classical music and exclude oriental music, which represents a total change of perspective in the human arts. But the most important goal is the constant, laborious effort we must make to ensure coexistence in our own home: it is not high-powered peace conferences that will ensure this, but the beit hamikdash and the coming or not of the Mashiah.

--- we must be aware that we form one single body, where every member plays a vital and essential role, as one of the indispensable faces of the Torah.

--- we must be aware that this body is diverse and complex, and not force others to conform to our way. Today people are slowly becoming more aware of the terrible consequences of well-meaning intolerance, as took place during previous aliyot (cultural, social and economic discrimination of oriental Jews by those who formed the "elite" in positions of power, the scandal abduction of Yemenite children, recurrence of the same problems with the aliya of Ethiopian Jews, discrimination of oriental music on national radio stations, etc. ). Cries of protest were heard and calls were made for a solution based on unity but…… this solution was always based on "my" culture, i.e. that of the "elite." This means that the conscience of society is only skin-deep. It is a problem of education and a normal problem when exiled peoples come together. It is, above all, a fundamental human problem which is common to all generations. This is why it is taught in the Torah.

2. In order to better understand these issues:
--- learn by heart the names of the tribes, their characteristics, position and duties in the camp,
--- learn to draw the camp in every detail,
--- transpose these "camps" to present Jewish life and devote yourself to the practice of the mitzvot which the Torah teaches us in this parasha, in your thoughts and conduct, by correcting errors, and drawing closer to those who are different to you, visiting them in their own cultural and religious worlds and appreciating them,
--- list your prejudices and those of others, and strive to limit them,
--- learn how to react in order to overcome prejudice.

3. Read the blessings of Yaakov (Bereshit ch. 4) and of Moshe (Devarim ch. 33) and try to understand their diversity and complexity.

4. Always remember that this diversity in the people is an indispensable part of the wealth of our creator as expressed in the standards of the tribes of Israel.

5. Remember that diversity and difference are the sole basis of fecundity: two men and two women can never "make" the wonderful creation that is a child. The same applies to all human relationships.

6. Valorization of the "other" and his or her different nature is the basis of fecundity.

7. We are all obliged to follow these principles and improve the world; this is the task for which we were created: asher bara Elokim laasot, which Elokim created that they should do.

We have the fortune to belong to the first generations who have been given the privilege of working towards this goal, in order to create together a true Adam-Israel. Let us view this as a wonderful gift and not something to be lamented.
The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot), which we reading during the Omer and before Shavuot, remind us that our life is but a brief period which we have been given in order to ameliorate the world, and make it what it should be -- a Gan Eden in which we walk with the creator in fraternity, and not a holiday camp for lazy egoists.

Let us end with these thought-inspiring concepts:
--- (Bereshit 49, 16): ehad shivte Yisrael, one, the tribes of Israel. Rashi adds: "like the beloved of the King."
--- We must all remain true to our origins and our source, and love that of others, in unity.
--- We must emulate David who acted with justice and mercy towards everyone: David ose mishpat u tzekaka lekhol amo (II Samuel 8, 15).
--- The principle of fraternity (keruv levavot, drawing near of hearts) is not an ideal of our times or the product of some historical figure; it represents the very structure of our people within diversity, and it is the teaching and essence of the TORAH.


- Psychology and Repentance
   (in french)

Part 15

Part 16

- Jerusalem excavations
- Terror and counseling
- Peace and peoples
- Israel and Iran
- Visual study & song on snow
for, through our union with the song of nature, the plan of Creation will be fulfilled

Poem: to be moon

In french

Avec Modia, vivez
vos vacances en Israël,
Texte et photos

- Par Modia, arrivez au Kotel
- La vie du Kotel
- Prières au Kotel
- Fête au Kotel
- La destruction du Temple
- Photos rares et émouvantes des abords du Temple
- Synagogues de Jérusalem
- Maisons de Jérusalem
- Les fleurs de Jérusalem
- Ici, tout sur Jérusalem
- "Le" texte sur Jérusalem
- Voir et visiter Israël
- Voyage dans le Nord d'Israël
- Belle carte d'Israël
- Jérusalem et les nations

- Vacances en Israël sur Modia
- Le Kotel en film direct
- et ici aussi, autre caméra

- Trahison historique:
L'antique synagogue de Jéricho


Part 17

- Love towards all people
- Light in war
- Before the hanukiah
- Land of Israel
- Jerusalem excavations 2007
  Proof of the lies propagated
  by the media

In french - Hope in Israel

Part 20
"Encounters with God
in the real"

- You are planning a tour in Israel - Photos
- My photos and judaism
- New year of beauty
- Flowers
Gallery photos

Part 21

- My english songs


Rav Professor
Yehoshua Rahamim Dufour
(Dipur, in hebrew)

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