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The Nation and the Shekhina in the Wilderness

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon

Each of the five chumashim comprising the Torah is named after the first parasha in that chumash.  The name of the parasha, in turn, represents one (or two) of the first words in the parasha.  Seemingly, then, the name is arbitrary, devoid of any deeper meaning; but does the name "Bamidbar" ("in the wilderness") say anything about the content of this sefer?


Even without undertaking a detailed review of the sefer, it is clear that it does indeed deal with the Israelites' stay in the wilderness.  What does Sefer Bamidbar come to teach us about this period?


Structure of the Sefer


The structure of the sefer reflects the ideas that are expressed in it.  (See the schematic presentation attached at the end of the shiur, especially the three columns on the left). 


The sefer may be divided into two parts, on the basis of geographical location: Chapters 1-10 take place in the Sinai Wilderness, at the foot of Mount Sinai; Chapters 11-36 describe the Israelites' journey from there to the east bank of the Jordan, opposite Jericho.


This division would appear to be a technical, meaningless observation, but closer inspection reveals its significance.  The first part of the sefer deals with preparations for the journey, including a census of the nation, arranging the camp, the functions of the Levites in carrying the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the trumpet signals, and the journeying at the signal of the Pillar of Cloud.  The second part of the sefer concerns the journey itself.  This would suggest that the crux of the sefer is the description of the journey through the wilderness.  However, it also raises a question: in the middle of the first part we find 7:1-89, 8:1-4, and 9:1-14, which seem to be out of place.  These passages deal respectively with the consecration of the Altar, the lighting of the Menora, and Pesach.  If Sefer Bamidbar comes to describe the journey through the wilderness, why are these matters mentioned here?


Seemingly, either Sefer Shemot or Sefer Vayikra would be a more appropriate place for a discussion of the consecration of the Altar and the lighting of the Menora.  The consecration of the Mishkan is described at the end of Shemot (Chapter 40) and at the beginning of Vayikra (Chapters 8-9).  Why, then, does the Torah leave the story of the consecration of the Altar until Sefer Bamidbar?


This question is further reinforced when we pay attention to the dates of the events described in Bamidbar.  The sefer begins (1:1) with a description of the census held "on the first day of the second month, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt" – in other words, on the first day of Iyar, in the second year in the wilderness.  After the census, the text takes a step backward, to the month of Nisan, and describes the consecration of the Altar, the lighting of the Menora, the consecration of the Levites, and Pesach.  Chapter 10 then comes back to the month of Iyar (vv. 11-12):


And it was, in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth of the month, that the cloud lifted from over the Mishkan of Testimony, and the Israelites traveled on their journeys from Sinai Wilderness…


Chapter 10, then, is the direct continuation of Chapters 1-6 – both chronologically and in terms of content.  What is the reason for the insertion of Chapters 7-9, which – in both respects - seem unrelated to the context of Sefer Bamidbar?


Apparently, the simple understanding of Sefer Bamidbar as the chronicle of the Israelites' journeys is insufficient.  The "out-of-place" chapters may hint to a further aspect of the sefer.


Sefer Bamidbar – Continuation of Sefer Shemot?


Let us recall the description of the inauguration of the Mishkan in Sefer Shemot (40:17-18, 33-38):


And it was, in the first month, in the second year, on the first of the month, that the Mishkan was erected.  Moshe put up the Mishkan and fastened its sockets and set up its boards and put in its bars and set up its pillars…  


And he set the courtyard around the Mishkan and the Altar, and he put up the screen of the court gate, and Moshe finished the work.  Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and God's glory filled the Mishkan.  And Moshe could not come into the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of God filled the Mishkan.  And when the cloud was lifted from above the Mishkan, the Israelites would travel on all their journeys.  And if the cloud was not lifted, then they would not travel until the day it was lifted.  For God's cloud was upon the Mishkan by day, and a fire was upon it by night, in the sight of all of the House of Israel, throughout all their journeys.


Sefer Shemot concludes with the above description of Moshe's setting up the Mishkan.  Following its construction, the cloud rests upon the Mishkan as an expression of God's Presence (Shekhina) there.  Verses 36-38 describe the connection between Israel's journeys and the situation of the cloud: while the cloud rests upon the Mishkan they remain encamped; when the cloud lifts from over the Mishkan, they journey on.


Thus ends Sefer Shemot, but what comes next?  The final verses of Shemot describe journeying in accordance with the cloud; this description is elaborated upon in Chapter 9 of Sefer Bamidbar (vv. 15-18):


And on the day of the setting up of the Mishkan, the cloud covered the Mishkan – the Tent of Testimony – and in the evening there was, upon the Mishkan, an appearance like fire until the morning.  So it was always: the cloud covered it, and the appearance of fire at night.  And when the cloud was lifted from over the Tent, after that the Israelites journeyed; and wherever the cloud rested, there the Israelites encamped.  At God's command the Israelites journeyed, and at God's command they encamped; for as long as the cloud rested upon the Mishkan, they encamped.


Sefer Bamidbar in its entirety, as we have seen, describes the journeys of the Israelites in the wilderness, all of which were signaled by the cloud.  Hence, Sefer Bamidbar is a continuation of Sefer Shemot.


In light of this conclusion, our question as to the order of Sefer Bamidbar is even more puzzling.  Seemingly, the sefer should have begun at chapter 9, following on from Sefer Shemot.  We might accept that chapters 1-4, describing the census and the ordering of the camp, represent part of the preparations for the journey, but why does the Torah then go on to speak about the inaugural offerings of the princes of the tribes – which actually took place earlier?  Why is that not recorded in its proper chronological place, at the end of Sefer Shemot?


This in turn gives rise to another question: if Bamidbar is the continuation of Shemot, then why does Vayikra come between them?


Sefer Vayikra – Another Continuation of Sefer Shemot


Admittedly, the final three verses of Sefer Shemot speak about journeying at the cloud's signal, but the preceding verses (vv. 34-35) discuss a different aspect pertaining to the cloud:


The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and God's glory filled the Mishkan.  And Moshe could not come to the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud rested upon it, and God's glory filled the Mishkan.


According to these verses, God's glory fills the Mishkan and even Moshe is unable to enter.  How can this situation be resolved?  The answer to this question is not given in Sefer Shemot, but rather at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra (1:1-2):


And He called to Moshe, and God spoke with him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: "Speak to the Israelites and say to them, 'If any person among you offers a sacrifice to God…'"


The Rashbam explains:


"He called to Moshe" – since it was written previously, at the end of the [previous] sefer, "Moshe could not come to the Tent of Meeting," therefore the Holy One called to him from within the Tent of Meeting.


According to the Rashbam, Moshe cannot enter the Mishkan initially because of the Shekhina resting upon it, as described at the end of Sefer Shemot.  Therefore, he stands outside while God speaks with him from inside the Mishkan.  In the Ramban's view, on the other hand, at first Moshe could not enter the Mishkan because of the Shekhina resting there, but after God called to him, he was able to enter.


Either way, it is clear that Sefer Vayikra, too, is a continuation of Sefer Shemot.  Shemot ends with the setting up of the Mishkan and the Shekhina resting in it.  This is significant in two respects: firstly, it indicates the intensity of the sanctity that pervades the Mishkan, making it impossible to enter and requiring special service to be performed by a select group (the kohanim, Aharon's descendants).  Secondly, the Shekhina that rests upon the Mishkan, appearing in the form of a cloud, is not cut off from the people; rather, it is connected to them and influences them.  It is this cloud that leads the nation on its journeys.  Each of these two aspects of God's Presence in the Mishkan finds expression in a different sefer.


Sefer Vayikra focuses on the sanctity of the Mishkan itself, which is so intense that at first no one can enter.  Sefer Vayikra describes the service performed in the Mishkan, the kohanim who engage in it, their functions, and the special commandments pertaining to them, as well as other matters related to sanctity.  In Sefer Vayikra, it is the kohanim who perform the Mishkan service, while the rest of the people have no possibility of approaching.  The Sages refer to Sefer Vayikra as "Torat Kohanim", and this accurately conveys its essence.


Sefer Bamidbar addresses the other aspect: the Shekhina of God amongst the nation, and the nation's journeys at God's command.  Moving on in accordance with the cloud's position is not merely an external signal; rather, it expresses something far more meaningful: the connection between the nation and the Shekhina that rests in the Mishkan.  Sefer Bamidbar describes the place of the Mishkan amongst the Israelite camp.  It describes the operations of a camp that has the Shekhina dwelling in the Mishkan at its center.[1]


Connection between the Nation and the Shekhina


Let us now look at some of the subjects that appear in Sefer Bamidbar and see how the sefer describes the connection between the nation and the Shekhina.  Sefer Bamidbar (1:2-3) opens with the census:


Take a count of all of the congregation of the Israelites by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names; every male by their tally.  From twenty years old and upward, all who go out to war in Israel — you and Aharon shall count them by their hosts.


What is the purpose of this census?  This is not a mere recording of the total number of people eligible for combat; rather, it is a count of the people "by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names; every male by their tally."  This verse is repeated no less than fourteen times in Chapter 1.  The repetition serves to emphasize that the purpose of the census is not just to know what the total population is.  Every person is counted by name, then by his father's house, then the family to which the father's house belongs, and finally – which tribe they are part of.


In other words, the census is not counting the total population, nor even the number comprising each tribe.  The purpose of the census is to record the lineage of each person, in order to organize them by tribe.  Sefer Bamidbar, describing the nation that journeys with the Shekhina in its midst, starts off with a census detailing all of the people.  The emphasis is on a nation that is made up of its constituent individuals.


Following this census, which groups the people by their tribes, comes the next stage, described in chapter 2 (v. 2):


Each person among the Israelites shall encamp by his flag, with the signs of the house of their fathers; they shall encamp at a distance around the Tent of Meeting.


Once every person has been traced to his family and his tribe, the nation can be ordered by tribes, and the camp as a whole can take shape.  The purpose of the census in Chapter 1, aside from military and administrative needs, is to register the tribes, and Chapter 2 describes the location of each tribe once the entire camp is arranged around the Mishkan.  The arrangement of the Camp of Israel is not an arbitrary matter, but rather a reflection of sanctity: the Mishkan is located at the center of the camp, at the center of the life of the tribes, with each tribe situated at an equal distance from the Mishkan.


Each camp (i.e., each group of three tribes, located on one of the sides of the Mishkan) has a flag with a drawing symbolizing its tribes.  According to the Midrash,[2] these were the four images of the "Merkava" (Chariot) in Yechezkel's vision (1:10): a lion, a man, an ox and an eagle.  The camp of Israel is arranged into four forces, corresponding to the four creatures comprising the Chariot of the Shekhina.


What is the significance of this symbolism?  The Camp of Israel represents a chariot for the Shekhina.  When God's Presence is in the heavens, the cherubim and other spiritual bodies serve as His chariot.  When His Shekhina is on earth, God's throne, as it were, is the cherubim of the Mishkan, and the entire camp of Israel is His chariot.[3]


If the entire Camp of Israel is a chariot for the Shekhina, then the conduct of this camp is of acute importance.  There is significance to the actions of the people and to their spiritual level.  Sefer Bamidbar describes first the arrangement of the camp and then its conduct.


Chronologically speaking, chapters 7-9 come before the census.  Why, then, does the sefer open with the census and the ordering of the camp?  Perhaps because of the principle we have explained here: the census describes the nation, which stands at the center of Sefer Bamidbar, while the arrangement of the camp testifies to the manner of the journey through the wilderness.  The Mishkan is the heart of the camp, and the camp as a whole is the chariot of the Shekhina.


Sefer Bamidbar uniquely combines the description of the nation's humanity with the great ideal of the Mishkan and Shekhina.  The Israelite camp in the wilderness is a human camp with God dwelling in its midst, and the sefer opens with a description of this special nexus.[4]


Inauguration of the Altar – Offerings of the Princes


Chapter 7 records the inauguration of the Altar by the tribal princes.  We started our discussion with the question of where this chapter belongs, in view of its seeming misplacement in terms of both chronology and context.  Chronologically speaking, the events of Chapter 7 take place in the month of Nisan, prior to the census with which Sefer Bamidbar opens, and in terms of content there is no apparent connection between this chapter and the description of the journeying in the desert. In view of the above discussion, it becomes easier to understand why the chapter appears here. 


The inauguration of the Mishkan is described in three different places: Sefer Shemot (chapter 40) describes Moshe's setting up of the Mishkan; Sefer Vayikra (chapters 8-9) describes the days of consecration, with the kohanim being prepared for their service; and Sefer Bamidbar describes the inauguration of the Altar by means of the offerings brought by the princes.  Why is this description broken up over three chumashim, rather than being written as one comprehensive account?


Once again, on the basis of the discussion above, we may offer an answer to this question.  Sefer Vayikra, which is "Torat Kohanim," is the appropriate framework for a description of the days of consecration from the point of view of the kohanim.  Sefer Bamidbar, which describes the relationship between the nation and the Mishkan, is the proper place for the nation's part in the inauguration of the Mishkan: the princes, representing their tribes, volunteer of their own initiative to bring offerings in order to participate in the joy of the inauguration.


The Dream is Shattered


Sefer Bamidbar, then, deals with the period of the wilderness, with the Israelites' journeys in the wilderness, with an emphasis on the nature of their camp.  The sefer describes the relationship between the nation and the Mishkan, the arrangement of the camp around the Mishkan, and the conduct of the camp in accordance with the Shekhina in its midst.  Sefer Bamidbar, in fact, describes the nation's adaptation to the reality of proceeding through the wilderness at God's command.


This adaptation is no simple matter.  Thus far we have discussed chapters 1-10, which describe the arrangement of the camp around the Mishkan in anticipation of the journey.  In Chapter 10, the first journey gets underway.  It begins with a feeling of great exaltation, of proceeding at God's command, and Moshe tells Yitro (v. 29), "We are journeying to the place concerning which God said, 'I will give it to you.'"  Finally, the Israelites are setting off towards their long-awaited destination – the land of Kena'an.  They are ready to journey to the land and to enter it, and that should be the end of Sefer Bamidbar.




However, immediately upon embarking on the journey, the first crisis arises: "The people were like complainers, displeasing to God…" (11:1). From Chapter 11 onwards, the Torah describes a bleak series of sins and complaints by the Israelites, each bringing another delay on the way to the land.  These sins and their results are described in chapters 11-17: the complainers, the lust for meat, the sin of Miryam, the spies, the group that decides to proceed despite God's disapproval (Mapilim), the man found gathering sticks on Shabbat, and Korach and his company.


What is the reason for this fall?  The Israelites embark on their journey with high hopes, with a sense of exaltation and on a very high level of spirituality.  Why do they fail?


We noted that Sefer Bamidbar describes the life of a nation.  It does not describe a heavenly ideal, but rather the way in which an earthly nation addresses and implements the great ideal of a camp that journeys by God's command, a camp with the Shekhina in its midst.  In the test of everyday reality, this journey is not a simple undertaking.  The wilderness is not a convenient place to live.  There is no water, no vegetation; the climatic conditions are harsh.  Moreover, a nomadic existence is difficult: there is no permanent dwelling place; the nation is constantly on the move.  Even journeying at God's command, which seems idyllic, is actually quite a challenge, as the Seforno notes in his commentary on Chapter 9:


"And wherever the cloud rested, there the Israelites encamped" (v. 17) – this tells the Israelites' merit of going after God in the wilderness.  First of all, they are credited for encamping wherever the cloud rested, even "the chaos of a howling wasteland" (Devarim 32:10).


"And the Israelites kept God's charge" (v. 19) – secondly, they would wait for as long as [the cloud] waited, for a long time, even if the place was very bad; "and they would not journey on" to seek out a better place to encamp.


"Sometimes the cloud would be a number of days" (v. 20) — thirdly, sometimes they would camp in a place that was pleasant for them and their flocks, and the cloud would rest there for a number of days; nevertheless, "at God's command they encamped," not because they liked that place; "at God's command they journeyed," even though they were journeying from that good place.  


"And sometimes the cloud would remain from the evening until the morning" (v. 21) – fourthly, the cloud would sometimes remain in place for an insignificant amount of time, such as just one night, which is not a long enough time to allow for encampment and the requirements of the journey…


"Or two days or a month or a year" (v. 22) – fifthly, in some of these places they did not have leisure to arrange their affairs and those of their cattle; [on the other hand,] in some of them they did prepare and arrange, but in an instant they would suddenly leave and demolish all of their arrangements.


The Seforno explains that the detailed elaboration in Chapter 9, describing the journeys signaled by the cloud, is meant to provide a picture of the many difficulties involved.  The people could not decide themselves when it would be convenient for them to stop and encamp; they never knew when they would have to pack up and for how long they would be journeying; and when they encamped, they had no idea how long they would be remaining there.  Should they unpack, or leave everything ready for the next leg of the journey?  Such uncertainty demands a very high level of trust in God, which is not easy to maintain.


The manna, too – which the Torah (11:7-9) describes as wondrous, miraculous food – is a challenge: each day the supply of food is exhausted.  Nothing can be kept for the next day; the Israelites have to trust in God that the next day there will be a new supply.


Hence, Sefer Bamidbar, which describes the nation's acceptance of journeying through the wilderness at God's command, also records the nation's difficulties, as well as the complaints and sins arising from these difficulties.


The demand that the nation be a holy camp, worthy of having the Shekhina in its midst, amplifies the failures.  With God going in the midst of the camp, every slip in conduct assumes much greater significance, and the punishment is far more severe.  In the wake of these failures, the Israelites do not enter the land immediately, but journey in the wilderness for forty years.


The Fortieth Year


Chapter 20 of Sefer Bamidbar introduces a new period, as the Israelites start to approach the promised land (v. 1): "The entire congregation of the Israelites came to the Tzin Wilderness, in the first month; the nation dwelled at Kadesh, and Miriam died there."  The date indicated in the verse notes only the month – Nisan – but not the year.  The Ibn Ezra explains: "'In the first month' – in the fortieth year; the Torah records no action or prophecy except in the first year and the fortieth year."


According to the Ibn Ezra, Chapter 20 introduces a new period: the fortieth year.  He does not suffice with this assertion, but reveals a further piece of information, which is most significant for our understanding of Sefer Bamidbar: the Torah tells us nothing about what happened over more than thirty-seven years.  All of the narratives of sin that appear in Chapters 11-17 take place during the first months of the second year, while Chapters 20-36 describe the events of the final year in the wilderness.  Of all the over thirty-eight years in between, the long years of wandering, no record remains.


On the basis of this understanding, we may propose a different structure for Sefer Bamidbar:[5]


Chapters 1-19 – second year

Chapters 20-36 – fortieth year


Sefer Bamidbar records the journey towards the land of Kena'an.  The events of the second year include preparations for the journey, as well as the beginning of the journey itself, which should have been a brief mission.  However, the nation's sins cause much delay.  The wandering for forty years in the wilderness is not the essence of what the sefer is about; for this reason, the journey is mostly left out.  The text records only the beginning - the preparations for the journey, and the end - the preparation for entering the land, in the fortieth year: the journeys of conquest on the eastern side of the Jordan, preparation for the division of the land by inheritances, and the appointment of Yehoshua (see table).


Basically, then, the structure of Sefer Bamidbar should really have consisted only of Chapters 1-10 and then 20-36.


However, as mentioned, the sefer describes not only the ideal of journeying at God's command towards the land; it also describes the way in which the nation deals with this reality, including failures and delays.  Hence, we may propose yet another structure for the sefer:[6]


Chapters 1-10: Preparations for the journey

Chapters 11-19: Sins and delays

Chapters 20-36: Preparations for entry, in the 40th year


According to this structure, Sefer Bamidbar starts off by describing the preparations for the ideal journey: it describes the Israelites as a camp with the Shekhina in its midst.  As the journey begins, it becomes clear that wandering in the wilderness at God's command is a difficult challenge, and the nation that has to deal with it sometimes falls short of what is expected of them, and their failures bring delays.  Ultimately, the nation succeeds in repairing itself and returning to the original situation – one of journeying with the exalted aim of entering the land.


One final note: in the haftara of this week's parasha, we read the words of the prophet Yirmiyahu (2:2):


Go and call out, for the inhabitants of Yerushalayim to hear, saying: "So says the Lord, 'I remember for you the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride, as you followed Me in the wilderness, in an unsown land.'"


The period of the wilderness, according to Yirmiyahu, may be summed up in positive terms.  Admittedly, the Israelites fail on some occasions and end up spending a long time in the wilderness, because the implementation of exalted ideals in human reality is not a simple matter.  All in all, though, the greatness of the generation of the wilderness lies in their success in integrating holiness within the camp.  Despite the difficulties, they continued to follow God in the wilderness, thereby becoming a nation accompanied by the Shekhina, a nation with the Shekhina resting in its midst and guiding its way.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


(See table below)



Structure of Sefer Bamidbar




Structure A

Structure B

Structure C


Census of the Israelites, arrangement of the camp

1st Iyar (2nd year)





In Sinai Wilderness – preparation for the journey














Second year





Preparation for journey – ideal state


Census of Levites, exchange with firstborn, tasks of Levites



Series of commandments



Inauguration of the Altar –

Offerings of the princes

1st -12th  Nisan


Lighting Menora, purification of Levites



Performing the Pesach, law of Pesach Sheni,

Description of journey at the signal of the cloud

14th Nisan


Trumpets, first journey

20th Iyar


Complainers (Tavera) and

Lust for meat (Kivrot Ha-ta’ava)


















Journeys in the wilderness





The fall –

Complaints and delays


Miryam's sin



Spies, Mapilim



Series of commandments, man gathering sticks on Shabbat



Korach and company



Series of commandments



Death of Miryam, Mei Meriva, Request to pass through Edom, Death of Aharon

Nisan (40th year)











40th year











Return to original situation – preparation for entry into the land


War against  Arad, copper serpent, journeys, song of the well, wars against Sichon and Og






Ba'al Pe'or and Pinchas






Daughters of Tzelafchad, appointment of Yehoshua



Commandments: Musaf offerings, vows



War against Midyan



Request of the two tribes



Summary of journeys



Preparation for inheritance: borders of the land, princes who will divide it, Levite cities, cities of refuge, claim of the tribe of Menasheh




[1]  Based on the words of Rami Yannai; Da'at Mikra, end of Sefer Shemot

[2]  Bamidbar Rabba 2; Pesikta Zutreta Bamidbar 81b; Ibn Ezra on Bamidbar 2:2.

[3]  For a detailed discussion of this, see the VBM article by Prof Y. Grossman, "'How Good Are Your Tents, Yaakov' – On the Arrangement of the Shekhina's Chariot,"

[4]  For the sake of brevity we have not discussed Chapters 3-4, concerning the Levites, nor Chapters 5-6, which present a series of commandments.  These chapters, too, give expression to the connection between the nation and the Mishkan, with the Shekhina in its midst.  The Levites are the Israelites' representatives in the Mishkan service, and the commandments set forth in chapters 5-6 are laws that clearly reflect the mutual interaction of the camp and the Mishkan, with the kohanim, at its center.

[5]  Suggested by the Abravanel.  See also the handbook, "Bamidbar – Dapim La-mayen Ve-lamoreh," Herzog Teachers' College, Alon Shevut.

[6] For this structure, see "Revadim Bamidbar", by Y. Rosenson.  A summary of the three proposed structures is found in the table at the end of this article.