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Order and Organisation

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Dedicated in honor of Rabbi Ronnie and Yael Ziegler by Michael Merdinger and Eliana Megerman



Order and Organization

By Rav Michael Hattin


Parashat Naso continues the account of the census of Bnei Levi. The three Levitical families of Gershon, Kehat and Merari that were last week numbered and then charged with attending to the dismantling and transport of the Mishkan's elements are now once again counted, but this time only those males between the ages of thirty and fifty are included in the tally. Whereas Parashat Bemidbar concluded with a census of these same Levitical families that had counted all males above the age of one month, that counting was for the express purpose of facilitating their exchange with the firstborn of all Israel. Those firstborn, who had demeaned their earlier exalted status by participating in the debacle of the golden calf, would henceforth be replaced in the Divine service by the Levites, who had so valiantly rallied to Moshe's side at that pivotal time and had selflessly demonstrated their loyalty and devotion to God's teachings (see Shemot 32:6; 32:26-29; Devarim 33:8-11). And just as all of Israel's firstborn males had from a tender age been earlier singled out by God for sanctification – in the aftermath of the final plague of the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn that had ushered in the people's redemption from Egypt (see Shemot 13:1; 13:11-16) – so too all Levites from above the age of one month were included in last week's count that would culminate in the substitution of the latter for the former.

Our parasha, however, opens with a discussion that pertains to the Book's larger theme of journey. As the people finally prepare to traverse the inhospitable wilderness separating Mount Sinai from the fertile land of Canaan, there will be a need for the Mishkan to be periodically disassembled, its various components borne to the next destination, there to be constructed once again. And for this physically demanding work, only Levites between the ages of thirty and fifty, their natural vigor still intact, are to be included. Therefore, the census of the Levites detailed in our parasha limits its count to those older males among the clans, for anyone below the age of thirty will not be employed in the task of transporting the Mishkan.


These lengthy and detailed passages of Sefer Bemidbar, full of facts and figures and seemingly pedantic in the extreme, are actually quite remarkable. At first glance, the task of tallying the Levite families and then assigning them to their various roles appears to be undertaken for purely functional and utilitarian objectives. If the Mishkan is to be moved from place to place, then someone is needed to move it. And that transference must be accomplished as part of a much larger process of relocating a very cumbersome and unwieldy conglomeration of Israelite tribes. Clearly, the undertaking will be made immeasurably easier by assigning specific groups to specific duties, just as any complex and multi-stepped procedure is effectively streamlined and simplified when carried out in an organized fashion.

But there is another aspect to the emphasis upon order and organization, and it relates not to practical considerations but to the realm of values. By highlighting and then reiterating a number of times the need for orderliness and structure, by stressing the centrality of the holy by locating God's house at the spatial and axiological core of the Israelite experience, the Torah emphasizes that the Israelite encampment is not to exhibit any of the unsavory features common to the conventional tent cities that were often populated by assorted groups of marauders and raiders.

The wilderness teems with nomadic tribes; when circumstances either allowed or else seemed to demand, many of these clans secured their livelihood through brigandage. Their billowing bivouacs were characterized by a blatant disregard for norms of civilized behavior, a disdain and disrespect for modest comportment, and a corresponding willingness to sanction every abomination under the sun. But Israel's encampment was to be different. Its tribes were to be arranged according to a tight hierarchy, its precious shrine was to be guarded and secured from defilement by the Levitical families assigned to its periphery, and the ethical teachings of its God were to be the focal point of its budding national existence. As it moved slowly through the wilderness, the encampment of Israel was to demonstrate not only exemplary order and organization, but uncompromising moral discipline and decorum as well.

As the Ramban so eloquently relates in his comments concerning Israel's first foray into the wilderness in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus,

…when they began to enter the great and foreboding wilderness, a land dry and without water, God enjoined routines upon them with respect to their sustenance and needs that they were to continue to practice until their arrival at a settled land…these ways of the wilderness – to bear hunger and thirst – were to impress upon them the need to cry out to God without rancor. He also gave them laws to live by – to love each other, to follow the counsel of the elders, and to show modesty in their personal living arrangements with respect to their wives and children. Additionally, they were to demonstrate peaceful conduct to those outsiders that might enter the camp in order to sell their wares. With stinging rebuke, God made it clear that they were not to behave like the camps of looters and desert bandits who perform every outrage without shame…(commentary to Sefer Shemot 15:25).


Put differently, the Divine demands for external (i.e. physical) order and organization that constitute the bulk of the opening narratives of Sefer Bemidbar are an implicit demand for internal (i.e. spiritual) order and organization as well. Here, the military-like discipline that is to characterize the Israelite and Levitical encampments both when they are at rest as well as when they are in motion is not an end unto itself but only the means to an end, for it is to be matched by the corresponding exercise of self-restraint.

On the other hand, the prevailing understanding that all of this organizational effort is for the sake of later overwhelming the complacent Canaanites is also sharply qualified, for it now emerges that it is not solely or even primarily for the purposes of preparing for the conquest of Canaan that Israel is to adopt these strictures. This can be demonstrated by the simple fact that absent from the texts are any otherwise expected references to a parallel program of military training and preparedness. We hear nothing of militias, of strategies and tactics, of weapons forging or development. Even the recurring refrain that the male Israelites above the age of twenty are the ones "who go out to wage war in Israel" ("kol yotzei tzava be-Yisrael") is oblique, for the term could just as easily be translated as "those that are counted among the assembly of Israel" (see the commentary of the Ramban, 13th century Spain, on 1:3). In glaring contrast to other Biblical contexts that do not hesitate to describe more martial pursuits (for an early example, see Shemot 17:8-13. For a later example, see Bemidbar 31:1-12), our context mentions none. In fact, the term "warfare" ("milchama") or its cognates is utterly absent from Sefer Bemidbar until Chapter 10, and there it is but a passing and proleptic reference!

Therefore, the outer order that is to be imposed upon the Israelite and Levitical encampments must have another objective at its core, and that pertains to their inner world in which they are to cultivate and to nurture spiritual and moral ideals. The association of the one with the other is neither arbitrary nor contrived. When we consider the matter profoundly, most of us would probably acknowledge that no serious ethical or spiritual development is possible in the absence of the exercise of self-control and self-limitation. This is because if I do not acknowledge the supremacy of God then I am not likely to feel bound by His ethical demands; if I refuse to accept self-imposed limits on my behavior, then I cannot be depended upon to recognize the needs, wants or rights of my neighbor or else the inviolability of his body or things. The arrangement of Israel's encampment imposes sharp and definite boundaries upon its members that are not to be crossed. So too are they to develop the corresponding spiritual restrictions that are the key to their ennoblement.


Not surprisingly then, the account of these Levitical countings is soon followed in the text by two separate but thematically intertwined passages, namely the lengthy accounts of the Sota (literally "she who strays," 5:11-31) and the Nazir (literally "he who is consecrated," 6:1-21). The Sota is of course the paradigm of perfidy, forsaking her lawful husband for the secret seductions of a paramour. While there is certainly an immediate and narrow connection between her ordeal and the Mishkan, for it is within its confines and by its priests that she is tried by the "bitter and cursed waters" (5:15-27), there is a broader linkage as well. The wayward Sota, consumed by capricious passion, represents the antithesis to a life structured in accordance with moral and ethical constraints.

If the Israelite encampment and the Mishkan in its midst broadcast respect for both concrete as well as conceptual boundaries, the attention to external limits implying reverence for internal ones, then the Sota by her underhanded deeds proclaims that hallowed trust – the fundamental glue that holds families together and imposes order upon unruly societies – is worthless. How telling that in the course of the ordeal, the Sota's hair is "loosed" by the Kohen (5:18), a vivid and illustrative attempt to capture something of the reckless abandon that characterizes her crime!

And in glaring contrast to the Sota is the Nazir. This individual, male or female, freely adopts several temporary constraints such as a prohibition to consume wine or related beverages, an interdiction concerning the cutting of his or her hair, as well as a ban on coming into contact with any deceased human beings, including relatives of the first degree. The overall thrust of the Nazirite vows is to separate the practitioner from the temptations and desires of temporal physicality so that he or she may nurture a more refined and developed relationship with God. Abjuring the consuming care of the body (by refraining from cutting the hair), renouncing the numbing pleasures of strong drink (by avoiding grape products), and instead basking in the glory of the Source of all life (by eschewing all contact with the corpse), the Nazir strives for spiritual progress. But significantly, that progress is predicated upon the adoption (temporary though it may be) of strict limitations concerning otherwise permitted activities.

Once again, it is possible to draw a narrow connection between the Nazir and the Mishkan, for the concluding rites celebrated at the completion of the vows are performed within its sacred enclosures, under the watchful guise of the Kohen (6:13-20). But here, too, it is impossible not to take note of broader links. It is as if the Nazir, in contradistinction to the Sota, represents the natural and organic extension of the values that constitute the foundation of the Israelite encampment and the very ordering principles of the Mishkan itself. While the Nazir champions heightened restraint and discipline, adopting strictures that are calculated to bring about edification and self-control, the Sota regards those very objectives with disdain.

It is therefore a stark choice that confronts the Israelites as they finally prepare to take their leave of Sinai and to journey towards the Promised Land. The Torah has armed them well with its expectations of order and self-discipline, but ultimately they alone will decide which course they will follow. Will it be the way of the Sota, who lives life as unbridled and overpowering experience, casting restraint to the wind and leaving in her wake the broken and shattered remnants of "suffocating" obligation? Or will it be the path of the Nazir who embraces heightened but unglamorous self-discipline in at attempt to strive for more, who recognizes that the true value of life's experience is not to be found in the pursuit of self-serving pleasure and reckless hedonism but rather in the patient cultivation of Godly self-restraint? That choice, as always, is not only the one that is described in an ancient and timeworn account but also the one that confronts us, as individuals and as a people, every single day.

Shabbat Shalom