• Rav Yaakov Beasley





In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner









By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





As we begin the fourth book of the Torah, we note that like its name, the Torah begins with the preparations of the Jewish people “in the desert."  At least geographically, the name makes sense.  Even without knowing that the Jewish people are destined to spend the next forty years in the Sinai wilderness, clearly having completed the giving of the mitzvot at Har Sinai, it is time to move forward.  In contrast, the English “Book of Numbers” shares the rabbinic designation of our book “Sefer Ha-Pekudim” focusing apparently on the opening census.  This accounting, with all its detailed minutiae, occupies the vast majority of our parasha, so much that we read it almost disappointedly, expecting perhaps more fanfare than it delivers.  Last week, we concluded Sefer Vayikra with the dramatic finale of the covenant of Parashat Bechukotai.  Now, we are involved in what appears to be nothing more than bureaucratic blandness; the ancient equivalent of reading the telephone book.  What possible messages could the opening parasha carry for us?  To answer this question, we will investigate the opening comments of four commentators to the Torah’s fourth book.




One of the earliest pashtanim, the Rashbam, sees in the preparations in the beginning of the book as reflecting the Jewish people’s military arrangement for the upcoming wars:


“Take for yourself the count of the congregation of Israel” – the Almighty ordered them to be numbered from twenty years old and upwards, when they could serve in the armed forces, and on the twentieth of the month, the pillar of cloud rose to lead them.  Therefore, the Holy One commanded them to begin the counting at the month's beginning. (commentary to 1:2)


This idea, that the accountings and organization reflected security concerns and military strategy, appears in later commentators as well, including Shmuel David Luzatto of 19th century Italy:


After the Mishkan had been erected, and they were proceeding towards Eretz Yisrael 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 would be properly ordered, so that they did not appear as runaway slaves, but as a people ready for battle.  They were therefore numbered as a part of the policy of instituting order.


The focus on the military aspects of the encampment bothered many others, especially those who looked for the moral message inherent within the camp's arrangement.  Professor Nechama Leibowitz caustically noted "the whole attempt to supply strategic or military motives for the camp arrangement is not in consonance with, or at least does not offer an adequate explanation for the complete understanding of that was involved in the arrangement of the tribes around the Mishkan … indeed a better understanding of the whole chapter can only be arrived at when we remember that the focal point of the camp was the Mishkan …" (Studies in Bamidbar, p. 5).


C.        THE RAMBAN


As opposed to the Rashbam, who saw Sefer Bamidbar as preparation for the future entry into Eretz Yisrael, the Ramban views Sefer Bamidbar as the culmination of a process that began in Sefer Shemot.


In the third book, Sefer Vayikra, the Torah explained the laws of the sacrifices.  Now we are instructed regarding the precepts connected with the Ohel Mo’ed.  Hashem hedged the Mishkan around with restrictions just as He did with respect to Har Sinai when His glory rested thereon.  Compare: “The stranger that draws nigh shall be put to death” (Bamidbar 1:51) with “You shall set bounds to the people round about, saying, take care of yourselves, that you go not up to the mount, or touch the border of it, ‘Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death’ (Shemot 19:12).  In Bamidbar 4:20 Hashem commanded, “But they shall not go in when they see the holy things are covered, or else they will die”; while in Shemot 19:21 it states “Charge the people – lest they break through unto Hashem to gaze, and many of them perish."    Regarding the Mishkan, it states “And you shall keep the charge of the Mishkan … that there shall be no wrath on Bnei Yisrael” (Bamidbar 18:5); just as by Har Sinai it states “Let the Kohanim also, who come near unto Hashem sanctify themselves, lest Hashem break forth upon them” (Shemot 19:22). 

Sefer Bamidbar contains detailed instructions therefore regarding the charge of the Mishkan, the order of the encampments, the standing of the people from afar, only the priests coming near Hashem … all to enhance the glory of the Mishkan, as the Rabbis stated: “The palace of the king which is surrounded by sentinels cannot be compared to that which is not so surrounded.”  This whole book is concerned with temporary precepts, commanded them for their stay in the wilderness and the miracles performed for them, to relate the wondrous deeds of Hashem … It relates that He began to deliver their enemies to them by the sword and contains instructions how they were to divide the land.

There are few precepts of permanent validity in this book.  It also finishes the subject of the sacrificial laws begun in Sefer Vayikra.  (Introduction to Sefer Vayikra)


For the Ramban, Bamidbar is a conclusion, not a beginning.  The appearance of Hashem's presence was the climax of the Exodus from Egypt; the rest of Sefer Shemot dealt with the attempt to create a Mishkan to allow Hashem to dwell among the people.  Vayikra developed the process further, with the rules regarding the Kohanim and who may approach the Mishkan.  The process completes with Sefer Bamidbar, with its emphasis on the holiness of the entire camp.  To 19th German commentator Benno Jacob, this transforms our parasha into the climax of the Torah, finally uniting heaven and earth themselves:


Hashem transferred His presence from Har Sinai to the Mishkan, from Hashem’s sanctuary that His hands have established to sanctuary that Bnei Yisrael had made.  Hashem would then onwards to Moshe from the Ohel Mo’ed and indicate to the Jewish people by means of the cloud when to journey, and when to encamp.  The Mishkan was a mobile Har Sinai in the midst of them … the heavens of heavens transplanted and brought down to earth. (Benno Jacob)




As spiritual as the Ramban's interpretation is, it also suffers from the charge of being almost anti-historical.  Clearly, while the ultimate purpose of the Torah is to fill the entire world with Hashem's presence, the promises to the forefathers shout that this was to begin in Eretz Yisrael, not the Sinai wilderness.  The Abrabanel, in his introduction, gives a decidedly historical bent to Sefer Bamidbar's purpose:


The first book of the Torah, Bereishit, traces the ancestry and origins of Bnei Yisrael from the creation of the world until they entered the Egyptian exile; the second book relates of their exile and redemption, in the physical sense from the bondage of Egypt, and in the spiritual dimension, from the idolatrous beliefs that they entertained and from which they were weaned at Har Sinai, and how they were commanded to build the Mishkan so that the Shekhina could rest upon them.  The third book initiates the Jewish people into sanctity and purity, and into the service of the Mishkan, exhorting both the Kohanim and the people to refrain from abominable and evil rites.  The fourth book relates of the leading of the people, their system of journeying and encampments, their vicissitudes on the way, explaining why they were delayed forty years there, until the generation that had left Egypt had died out, and what happened to Korach and his company who rebelled against Moshe and Aharon …

This book describes, in ten sections, how Moshe led and provided for the people when they were in the wilderness, the acts of their power and might, order of their travels and their encampments and their battles, and what befall them with Moav and Midian, Balak and Bilaam and the with Sichon and Og the Emorite kings and the granting of their lands to Reuven, Gad, and the half tribe of Menashe and everything else that occurred until they came to their resting place and inheritance (Eretz Israel).  The ten sections which comprise Sefer Bamidbar can be divided into two parts. 


Unlike the other commentators, the Abrabanel differentiates between the two sections of Sefer Bamidbar that clearly divide the book – the ideal, hopefully beginning that would see the people begin what should have been their triumphant homeward trek, and the unfortunate reality which saw them stumble and flounder in the desert for a generation.


E.        THE NETZIV


Finally, the Netziv, in his introduction to his commentary Ha-Emek Ha-Davar, develops the distinction suggested by the Abrabanel above into a philosophic understanding of how Hashem interacts with the world:


The Tanaim (Mishna Yoma 7:1 and Sota 37b) referred to the book of Bamidbar as "Chumash Hapekudim," the Book of the Countings. Why did they base the title on the taking of the census? The counting of the people seems to be two apparently minor episodes of a very exciting and dramatic book [the Netziv lists several of the books more dramatic and apparently meaningful episodes.  Instead they highlight the Sefer Bamidar's main theme, the shift in the type of Divine Providence Israel experienced during its forty year journey]. The book of Bamidbar chronicles the transition from the direct Divine Providence [the Netziv uses the kabbalistic term 'tiferet'] of the early years to the less blatant Divine Providence that followed as they approached Eretz Yisrael.  This is the meaning of the Medrash that states that the verse (Bereishit 1:3) "And G-d divided between the light and the darkness" refers to the generation that left Egypt and the generation that entered Eretz Yisrael respectively … [this is also reflected in the slight difference between the count in Parashat Bamidbar and that of Pinchas.]  In Bamidbar, Efraim precedes Menashe, whereas in Pinchas, Menashe comes first.  Efraim, though younger, was spiritually more developed than Menashe.  The Parashat Bamidbar count is the first step of arranging the camp of Israel as the Divine Chariot upon which the Divine Presence rests. They will experience miraculous and intense Divine Providence. Therefore, the more spiritual Efraim precedes Menashe. The Pinchas count is part of, a more temporal, practical arrangement, preparing for this-worldly life in the Land of Israel. Therefore, Menashe, physically the first born, is listed first...


Ultimately, Bnei Yisrael were responsible for the transition to less direct Divine Providence . In Parashat Behaalotekha they lust for meat and complain about the Manna-- saying, in effect, that they do not want to live with the high spiritual level that accompanies it. Constant Divine Revelation established high standards of behavior that the people were not necessarily willing to live up to.  The sending of the spies was an indicator of the people's move towards less direct Providence. This Israel-initiated shift in the intensity and openness of the Divine Providence, the central story of the Book of Bamidbar, is illustrated by the slight differences between the two countings. Clearly, our Sages understood the book's deepest messages when they saw fit to call Sefer Bamidbar the Book of Countings.