B'midbar (Num 1:1 - 4:20)  5765 (2005)


Shalom, Our Torah portion for this week is the beginning chapters of the 4th of the 5 books of Moses entitled, B'midbar, in the wilderness. Throughout this book, with the help of God, the Israelites attempt to organize themselves as a people, in a kind of social vacuum, that is, devoid of the influence of other cultures and their competing beliefs and practices, and free of the mundane economic demands of human existence. It is an opportunity to orient themselves to God's requirements before encountering the other peoples in the land which they are destined to conquer.

The book and first Parsha are referred to in English as "Numbers" from the title in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation, because of its focus on the taking of a military conscriptive census.

But I would like to address the topic of love and death in B'midbar. This may sound odd because no one dies in these 3 ½ chapters and the seemingly endless repetition of census taking, physical positioning of the tribes, and job assignments, hardly contains the usual elements of a love story. Yet, I find in this story God's love of the people Israel and how that love is manifested in the face of the imminent death of some of God's children. No one dies yet, but death seems to be hovering in the air.

Returning to the census for a minute, the concept of counting has a complexity of meanings in many languages. To count is rarely simply to number. From B'midbar verse 1:2 we have "S'oo et rosh kol adat b'nei yisrael l'mishpachotam l'beit avotam, b'mispar shemot kol zachar l'goolg'lotam. Count or, literally, raise the head of all the assembled of the children of Israel by their families, by the house of their fathers, by the number of their names, every male, by their skulls." Here to count is also to organize. God tells Moses how to count; according to what groupings. First, only males, so they will be designated for battle, and then concentric rings of tribes, families, and names because of the roles for which they will be designated.

To count them literally by their "skulls" provides a suggestion of their imminent death. The lifting of their heads has also been interpreted as lifting "off" the head just as the word is used in the case of Joseph's interpretation of the dream of Pharoah's baker in Genesis. There is a sense of doom associated with this counting since God knows the end to which kol adam, each person, will come. Counting them may be in effect assigning them their deaths.

Counting also implies being accorded importance. Even in English, to count is to matter. And the verb used to refer to counting throughout most of the Parsha is lifdok, which has many shades of meaning, among them attributing a sense of importance to, and also remembering.

Rashi suggests that because of God's love for the Jewish people, God counted them frequently. When we count something repeatedly it is often because we worry over its potentially being lost to us. It might be our money that we repeatedly count, or for a teacher her students on a field trip. God frets over the deaths of God's children and thus repeatedly counts them while they live. 

Since God is effectively preparing to send these men to their deaths in battle perhaps we might imagine that rather than simply counting them, God is also remembering them and etching them in God's memory. As a family might keep close at hand memorabilia or a photo of a soldier gone to war, perhaps in anticipation of their deaths God is creating a recording of their lives.

In terms of recording memories, Chapter 2 provides a "snapshot," a panoramic one, a visual moment in time, God's picture of God's people in their proper places and roles, as the various tribes are carefully placed, with meticulous detail on each side of the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, and they will march forward in this perfect formation. "As they encamp, so shall they journey, everyone at his place according to their banners." I envision God gazing lovingly and approvingly on this vision of God's children and the sense of order and rightness it reflects.

If this is a snapshot, a moment in time, one could also envision Moses conveying God's instructions as if he were a photographer positioning the tribes like individuals. Based on what we already know about Jacob's children, and from Rambam's characterizations, and the clear layout provided for us in this chapter, Moses might say, "Ok, Judah, you stand on the Eastern side, near the light because it reflects well off of you." And Zebulon, you hold up the book so that Isaachar can read from it. Simeon, Reuben, and Gad you are to the right of him and Simeon quit poking your brother, follow Reuben's example and Gad, Please help him stay in line. Asher, your hair looks kind of oily today and Dan, your face is too dark, can you move a little into the light." So God's people are posed to be visually recorded by God as God wants to remember them.

There is an orderliness and a stillness in these chapters which suggests a lack of life and motion or perhaps a waiting for something to happen, since nothing really happens.

Rashi points out that in Exodus presumably 7 months earlier, the head count was 603,550, identical to the head count here in verse 1:46. No life was lost over that interval and no one aged in or out of the census group? It is as though time temporarily stands still as God takes this moment in time to count God's children and preserve their memory.

What about the Levites? Why are they treated differently? After the 12 tribes have been counted, with Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh counted separately, and the Levites not counted, God explicitly tells Moses verse 1:48 "You shall not count the Levites and you shall not take a census of them among the children of Israel." They are not to be in this group and will therefore not be subject to the same fate of the rest of B'nei Yisrael, which presumably includes their deaths before entering the promised land.

The Levites have been redeemed by God. God had explicitly redeemed the first born sons when God slew the first born Egyptians, saying "ki li kol b'chor" "every first born is mine." God then went on to substitute the Levites for the first born in their roles as performers of God's service "y'hiyu li ha leviim. The Levites will be mine." What does it mean for the Levites to be God's own? They will be called upon to perform service to God, but there is more.

First the Kohathite families among the Levites are counted twice. One count includes all the Kohathite men from ages 30-50 in connection with their work assignments for the Mishkan. This is an age range that would be appropriate for assigning that work. The Levite houses of Gershon and Merari are similarly counted a little later on. But all the Levites are also counted from the age of viability of one month and up until their deaths. For what reason are they being grouped this way? Certainly they cannot perform service for God as infants. They are being differentiated for special treatment throughout their entire lives including this counting. It seems that their lives are more carefully guarded and protected by God. God makes a point of protecting them from contact with the holiest of objects lest they die. Is this because they are more important?

Commentators are careful to explain away any hint of favoritism between the Levite families. The Kohathites have the greatest honor among the Levites of carrying the ark. Looking a head to the first two verses of next week's Parsha 4:21-22 God says to Moses "Naso et rosh b'nei Gershon gam hem, count the heads ALSO of the house of Gershom," which has been interpreted as a command not to neglect to honor the role of all 3 of the families of the Levites, not to single out the Kohathites alone for honor because of their more privileged role.

For some modern Jews the idea of the Jews as the "chosen people" is problematic, and the Kohathites would appear to be the chosen among the chosen. Are they superior to other tribes because of the role God has chosen for them? Does God love them more?

Does a parent love one child more than another? When my two children ask whom I love more, I resort to mathematics. I tell them that I love them both infinitely and you know that you cannot compare infinity to infinity. Still if I had to choose one of my 2 children to bake a cake, I would, without hesitation, choose my daughter who is the better baker.

We cannot escape the counting, grouping and differentiating that is an essential part of our existence and our Parsha makes that clear. Nor can we deny that some people are prettier, smarter, more musical, or better soccer players than others. If we want to see the best of a sport we have to choose people to be on teams based on ability. If we want the best medical treatment we select the most talented doctors. If God has a plan for each of us God has to make choices about who fills which roles. Any kind of a plan involves making choices.

Though we are all made b'tzelem Elohim,in the image of God, we still all have different talents, appearances, motivations, and circumstances. There is nothing inconsistent in the belief that we are all b'tzelem elohim and the fact that God has a different design for each of us as individuals and as peoples. In our Parasha God chooses roles for each of the tribes consistent with their talents and dispositions, not because God loves any of God's creatures more or less than others.

The Levites were chosen to serve God and to teach God's Torah and way of life to others because they demonstrated their merit in the incident of the golden calf, according to Rambam, and others can follow the example of the Levites and become holy and share in the merit of the Levites.

In Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah we learn that God has offered the Torah to other peoples of the world including the Romans and the Persians, all of whom refused it. For God, the bottom line is merit. We also choose our leaders in the hope that they have the wisdom to guide us on the right path. (We don't always choose well!) What God desires most in the world is that Torah governs the behavior of all of God's creatures. To the extent that we have something distinct to contribute toward that goal we have the awesome responsibility of being chosen.

 

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