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
- 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
- A test of our wish for unity
- Stages of study
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
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
Number of letters, words.. in each
book of the Torah
LETTERS WORDS VERSES SECTIONS
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
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.
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
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 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 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.
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.
- 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.
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
"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
--- 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:
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
--- 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
--- 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
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
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.
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
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
--- 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
--- then the West camp, the tribes of Ephraim, Binyamin and
--- then the North camp, the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali.
Some commentators place the ark of the covenant in 2 or in 3rd
Here, too, try to find the meaning of the order.
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
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
--- 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
--- 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
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
--- (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
--- 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