A Few Thoughts on Bamidbar

This Shabbat we begin the fourth book of the Torah of Moses, Bamidbar, which is also the name of the weekly reading, Numbers 1:1-4:20. There is quite a difference in the book’s name in Hebrew and in English. Bamidbar, the fifth word in the first verse, literally means in the wilderness, which is Israel’s condition for the next 37 plus years. The rabbis called the fourth book Chumash HaPekudim (חומש הפקודים), the Book of Counting (Yoma 3a; Sota 36b). It has been suggested, with good reason, that the English title Numbers and the rabbis’ Chumash HaPekudim is based on the two censuses recorded in the book; the first one is in this week’s parasha and the second in parashat Pinchas, Numbers 26.

As a book, Bamidbar spans approximately thirty-seven years, beginning “the first of the second month of the second year” (Numbers 1:1) and ending as Bnei Israel prepares to enter into the land promised to the patriarchs. Bamidbar is framed by the two censuses; the first occurs after the construction and dedication of the Mishkan, as B’nei Israel start out on their journey to the Promised Land, (Numbers 1:1—4) and the second in the final year of their travels in the Wilderness as they begin preparations to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 26:1-4). It is noteworthy that both censuses counted males “20 years and upward available to serve in the army of Israel” (Numbers 1:3 & 26:2). While it is true that Bnei Israel was learning to trust HaShem to care and protect them, it was and also remains true that HaShem expected Israel, and us, to do their/our part as well. The journey through the Wilderness as well as the conquest of Canaan would require determination and occasional battles to secure the victory. There would be times when HaShem would intervene miraculously and other times when he would allow Israel to fight their own battles, thereby learning to stand on their own.

In addition to the similarities, one major difference exists between the two censuses. In the first census, the Levites were not counted—“Definitely you are not to number the tribe of Levi, nor take the sum of them among Bnei-Yisrael” (Numbers 1:49). However, in the second census, chapter 26, the tribe of Levite were counted.

In his commentary on the Chumash, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz ז״ל  explains that the Levites were not included in the first census because they were not to “serve in the army and … not [to] conquer nor inherit any portion of the land.” (Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. The Steinsaltz Humash. Jerusalem, Koren Publishers, 2018, p 734). Their duties lay elsewhere. 

Instead, you are to appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its implements and all pertaining to it. They are to carry the Tabernacle and all its utensils, tend to it and camp around it. … The Levites are to camp around the Tabernacle of the Testimony, so that there will be no wrath unleashed on the community of Bnei-Yisrael. So, the Levites are to maintain care of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

Numbers 1:50 & 53

Two specific duties are mentioned in these verses: first, the Levites’ primary concern was the care, maintenance and service of the Mishkan (vs 50); second, they were to serve as a protective shield, keeping the other 11 tribes from encroaching upon the sanctity of Mishkan, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Such protection prevented the wrath of HaShem from being “unleashed on the community.” The utmost importance of this second duty is exemplified in Parashat Shemini, which we read a few weeks ago. Parashat Shemini records the account of the exploits and death of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, who offered strange or unauthorized fire on the altar and were immediately struck dead for the infraction (Leviticus 10:1). Whether their zeal was intentional or unintentional, the result of the action was the same—death. In the Haftarah for Shemini, we read the account of the death of Uzzah, a non-Levite, who reached out to steady the Ark when the oxen drawing the cart that held the Ark stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6-7).

These two examples stress the importance of the Levites being properly versed and trained in their duties concerning the care, ritual activities, and transport of the Mishkan. They served as a buffer or a shield to protect the rest of the Israel from approaching the presence of HaShem in an unworthy or defiled manner. When the Levites did not perform their duties in the proper manner, such as seen with Nadab and Abihu and Uzzah, horrific results were often swift and decisive. 

What application might we draw today from the Levites role as a buffer or shield? Consider Yeshua’s words to his talmidim, which I quoted last week,

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper so He may be with you forever. … But the Helper, the Ruach ha-Kodesh whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything that I said to you.”

John 14:16, 26

As the Levites served as a buffer to protect the rest Israel from improperly approaching the Mishkan and by extension the presence of HaShem, so the Ruach ha-Kodesh works in the same manner, teaching and reminding each of us of Yeshua’s teaching when he walked among us and the whole counsel of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Equally, as the Israelites had no excuse if they skirted the Levitical protection, we, as followers of Yeshua who are filled with the promised Ruach, have no excuse when we suffer the consequences brought about by our actions that are contrary to the revealed word of God. Each of the two censuses in Bamidbar carried the idea of making preparations, both numbering men for future battles and identifying the Levites as a buffer. In Luke 14:31, Yeshua echoes the same sentiment in parable concerning the king who would go to war but first needed to count the cost. This reminds us to think about our actions and to count the costs before rushing in like fools “where angels fear to tread” (Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism,” 1711).

* All Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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