Numbers

Torah Commentary Based on the First Verse of the Parsha


Parshat Midbar / פרשת במדבר:Numbers 1:1 - 4:20
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying:

Although the fourth book of the Torah is called "Numbers" in English the Hebrew name, B'midar/בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר, actually means "in the wilderness". What exactly is a wilderness? Roderick Nash in his book "Wilderness and the American Mind" points out that the "concept of wilderness has a deceptive concreteness. In fact, there is no specific material object that is wilderness. The term designates a quality (as the '-ness' suggests) that produces a certain mood or feeling in a given individual and, as a consequence, may be assigned by that person to specific place. Because of this subjectivity a universally acceptable definition of wilderness is elusive. One person's wilderness may be another's roadside picnic. Wilderness, in short, is so heavily freighted with meaning of a personal, symbolic, and changing kind as to resist easy definition".

Midbar/wilderness in the Torah is also "freighted with meaning of a personal, symbolic, and changing kind". It is at once a place of divine encounters or punishment; the idea of untethered freedom and unbound potential or exile and existential struggle; raw, rugged and unforgiving nature or breath taking beauty and peacefulness. When I think of B'midar/בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר/wilderness I think of this passage from Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire "... wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread”.

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Parshat Nasso / פרשת נשא:  
Numbers 4:21 - 7:89 וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃ 
The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

Who was Aaron?  Aaron is first introduced when God becomes angry at Moses for balking at confronting Pharaoh.  (Exodus 4:14)  The Torah offers only a few biographical details.  He was three years older than Moses.  He grew up in his parents home.  He married Elisheba daughter of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah. He had four sons: Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.  That's about it.

Sometimes etymology sheds light on the meaning of a name and by extension the qualities or character of the person bearing the name.  There is only person in the entire Bible called Aaron. His name might have originated in Egypt and was then transliterated into Hebrew in such a way as to mean something in Hebrew.  We don't know for sure.

Some scholars think Aaron comes from the Hebrew word הר (har) meaning mountain or hill.  Others think it comes from the אור ('or) meaning light.  A third possibility is that Aaron is related to the Hebrew word 'aron, meaning "ark". From these root meanings of Aaron we might infer that he was a beacon or light shining from a mountain top, or towering beacon for the Israelites.  Alternatively, perhaps he was a vessel (ark) holding the sacred light of the Torah that was received on the mountain top.  

The gematria of Aaron hints to his special role.  Aaron in Hebrew numerically is 256 (2+5+6) which then reduces to 13.  In the kabbalistic tradition the number 13 binds multiplicity into oneness.  One / Echad (אחד) can be expressed as aleph/1 + chet/8 + daled/4 = 13. Thus, perhaps the one called Aaron is so named because he was the one who bound the multiplicity of the mixed multitude who fled Egypt into one nation.  It seems to me that we are in desperate need of an Aaron today here and in Israel.  Don't you agree?

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Parshat Beha'alotcha / פרשת בהעלתך:
Numbers 8:1 - 12:16
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him.

First, a correction: Last week I mistakenly identified chapter 4, verse 1 as the opening line of parshat Nasso.  It should have been verse 21. 

I mistakenly parsed God speaking to both Moses and Aaron. This week God only speaks to Moses.  This raises a new question: How come God sometimes speaks to Aaron and Moses like equals and at other times God only speaks to Moses?

One explanation is called the Documentary Hypothesis.  This is a theory that claims that the Pentateuch is a composite of four separate coherent documents known as J, E, P & D.  Each distinct document had its own political or theological agenda and/or reflects a different time period in the history of ancient Israel.  For example, when Aaron is elevated to the same level as Moses indicates the work of P, short for priest.  The D.H. maintains that someone or a group of people politically aligned with the priestly rule of ancient Israel had their own version of the Torah and in Aaron was equal to Moses.  To read a concise summary of the D.H. Click here or get yourself a copy of Who Wrote the Bible, by Richard Elliott Friedman.

Suffice it to say that there are compelling arguments against the D.H.  Nevertheless, it provides one answer to the question how come God sometimes speaks to Aaron and Moses like equals and at other times God only speaks to Moses.

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Parshat Sh'lach / פרשת שלח־לך:
Numbers 13:1-15:41
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:..

There is an interesting homograph in this verse.  The consonants aleph and lamed (el/אל) spell both a preposition meaning "to" and a generic term for God.  Throughout the Torah we find el/אל  combined with other words to form a different name for God, such as, El Shaddai or  El Elyon. Of course, there is the familiar Eloheim, the plural of El.

Out of curiosity I asked my rabbinic colleagues what, if any connection they thought there was between the preposition to/el and the noun God/El.  I also wondered how the verse would change if we read el/אל as a noun instead of preposition.  To be clear,  grammatically וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר (and he said) requires either the preposition al/אל, to or im/עם, with. 

The responses were fascinating.  Strict rabbinic grammarians said it was an absurd question because to read the preposition as a noun wouldn't make sense.  Etymologically curious rabbis wondered about the origins of the two meanings.  My kabbalistic friends wondered if there some sort of mysterious connection between the meanings of the two words (30/lamed + 1/aleph=31=3+1=4 = 4 worlds).   My anthropology minded colleagues wanted to know more about how the two meanings evolved culturally and historically.  Finally, my friends who love to weave midrash out of whole cloth set to work creating imaginative connections.

Wow!  So many ways to approach a text.  Find the path that resonates with you and go with it.

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Parshat Korach / פרשת קֹ֔רַח:
Numbers 13:1-15:41
וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח בֶּן־יִצְהָ֥ר בֶּן־קְהָ֖ת בֶּן־לֵוִ֑י וְדָתָ֨ן וַאֲבִירָ֜ם בְּנֵ֧י אֱלִיאָ֛ב וְא֥וֹן בֶּן־פֶּ֖לֶת בְּנֵ֥י רְאוּבֵֽן׃
Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben

When out of no where a man whose name means  "baldness, ice, hail, or frost" bursts on the scene it does not portend good things.  Indeed, if you read a few lines further into this week's parshah the trouble ushered in with Korach is laid out in great detail.  However, adhering to my objective to stay focused on the opening verse only you'll have to read ahead on your own to learn what headaches Korach caused Moses.

The Torah uses names as a vehicle for numerous literary devices.  Korach, for example, foreshadows something cold and calculating.  This is exactly what you will discover when you read ahead.  Sometimes names are onomastics, such as Yitzhak, which is derived from the Hebrew to laugh / li'tzok (לִצְחוֹק).  See Gen. 18:15 & 21:7.

In the Torah the meaning of names matter and reveal much about their namesakes. When it comes to names in the Torah the popular Shakespearean phrase "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" definitely doesn't apply.

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Parshat Chukat / פרשת חקת: 
Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

Often we tend to think of extraordinary events (some might say miracles) as rare.  In reality, our lives are filled with truly remarkable, mind-boggling phenomena.  We just need to be open to experiencing them.  This sentiment is expressed in a simple story told about Reb Zusya in reaction to this most common of biblical phrases: The LORD spoke... וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה:

Once Rabbi Zusya was in a class taught by the Maggid of Mezeritch. The Maggid began the class with a commonplace verse from the Torah: "And God spoke..." Just these few words were enough to excite and astonish Rabbi Zusya. He exclaimed "God spoke... GOD spoke... God SPOKE!" over and over until he had to be removed from the classroom due to the disruption he was causing.

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Parshat Balak / פרש בלק:
Numbers; 22:2 - 25:9
וַיַּ֥רְא בָּלָ֖ק בֶּן־צִפּ֑וֹר אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לָֽאֱמֹרִֽי׃ 
Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.

A couple of weeks ago I examined the deep meaning of Korach's name.  I suggested that even without knowing what was coming up his name suggested it might be something "chilling".  This week we are introduced to a new character, Balak son of Zippor, whose name also foreshadows trouble.

As the parsha begins all we know about Balak is his name and that he "saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites".  What the Israelites did was to conquer and take possession of all the Amorite cities.  (Numbers 21:21-25)  From this we might infer that Balak was a bit concerned that his fate upon meeting the Israelites would be the same as that of the Amorites.  As a matter of fact, his name suggests that what follows has the potential to be bad news.  Balak comes from the uncommon Hebrew verb בלק (balak), meaning to waste or devastate.  Once again the Bible foreshadows something ominous lurking behind the next corner by means of a name. 

Using names to foreshadow future events is one of the many literary devices employed, perhaps even invented, by the redactors/writers of the Torah. 

As one who does not believe in pre-determinism I don't believe our names foreshadow our futures. However, our names are often shadows of our families past.

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Parshat Pinchas / פרשת פינחס:
Numbers: 25:10 - 30:1
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

We routinely refer to YHVH (God) as the LORD, all capital letters.  The all capital letters spelling signals that the word in question is not actually the Hebrew word for “lord” at all, but God’s four-letter name. 

The origin of the word lord has its own interesting history.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the word harkens back to the Old English word hlāford which originated from hlāfweard meaning "loaf-ward" or "bread keeper".  "Bread keepers" were essentially tribal chieftains who provided food for their followers.  Can you imagine if instead of LORD our translations say " Bread Keeper" spoke to Moses?  Now this is truly what I call "wonder bread".

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Parshat Matot / פרשת מטות:
Numbers 30:2 - 32:42
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃
Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the LORD has commanded:

This week's Torah reading opens with an implicit  description of the first rule of a well functioning organization:  Communication.  The ability to effectively and efficiently communicate  is essential to all organizations, associations and even ordinary relationships.

Implicit in this verse is another important principle for a well running organization: Empowerment.  God speaks to Moses who then empowers the next level of authority in the Israelite leadership by communicating to them God's message.  Now they too are empowered to communicate God's message to the people.

By God instructing Moses what to tell the the tribal elders reinforces the idea that there is a role for them in the organization/society.  It also role models for the younger generation an effective way of transmitting wisdom and good consul from one generation to the next.

The lesson I derive from this verse is simple.  Communication leads to empowerment which in turn results in a efficient, effective organization.

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Parshat Masei / פרשת מסעי: Numbers 33:1 - 36:13
אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃
These were the journeys of the Israelites who went out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.

This is the start of the last section of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah.  We know from previous passages that the Israelites stayed at numerous places for extended periods of time  during their 40 years in the desert.

It is not hard to see a parallel between the experience of the ancient Israelites and the millions of refugees today.  By force or by choice, then as now, people have risked everything to seek a better, safer life. 

Then as now, people who thought their lives were secure, were and are, deeply fearful of these wandering people. On the one hand, I think their fear comes from realizing "that but for the grace of God", they could be among these wandering people seeking a safe home.  On the other hand, I also think their fear comes from concern that if they welcome these wanderers it will disrupt their false sense of security.

The Torah offers us figurative looks at what it is like to be a "refugee", as well as a person fearful of these wandering strangers (xenophobe). 

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Numbers  Commentaries Based on the Triennial Readings and important Themes.
BaMidbar: 1:1 - 4:20

This week we start reading from the fourth book of the Torah.  Known in English as Numbers, in Hebrew the name is BaMidbar, which means in the "wilderness".   Numbers is all about the many adventures the Israelites had while wandering for 40 years in the midbar.  The name Numbers comes from the fact that the opening chapters are filled with an exhausting census of the Israelites tribe by tribe.  But don't let this inauspicious start turn you off from reading more.  BaMidbar is probably the most entertaining of the five books.  It is chock full of drama, talking animals, sex and violence (but of course it is the Bible after all).  It also contains one of the great mysteries in the Bible.  I won't say much about this now (you have to wait until that parsha) except that a talmudic reference to this mystery suggests that it we should be calling the Torah the Seven Books of Moses.  Believe it or not, the Book of Numbers makes great summer reading.  Enjoy!!

Naso: 4:21-7:89

The lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and this sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

May the Eternal bless you and protect you!
May the Eternal's face give light to you, and show you favor!
May the Eternal's face be lifted toward you, and bestow upon you peace! (6:22-26)

Interestingly enough, the priestly blessing bestowed upon all of Israel is written in the singular (in the Hebrew). Why? According to Rabbi Simhah Leib this is because the one of the most important blessing that we might hope for is unity. Divisiveness destroys any sense of peace (shalom) whether within a community, family or even an individual. The importance of unity is further hinted to because shalom also means complete/whole (shalem).

Beha'alotcha: 8:1 - 12:16

Now the man Moses was very humble, above all the people who were upon the face of the earth.  12:3

The Ba'al Shem Tov would say: "True humility is not what one displays on the outside but what one feels in his heart." Thus the story is told of a king who decided to be humble and modest. When his horses and carriage were prepared for him to go for a ride, he ordered that the empty carriage be sent ahead of, while he would walk behind it. A wise person present told him: "That is not true humility, because the truly humble person does not publicize his humility. Instead, he is humble while riding in his carriage."

Korah: 16:1 - 18:32

This week’s Torah portion is called Korah.  It describes a failed rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron led by Korah.  Korah challenges the authority of Moses and Aaron by saying, “you have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is their midst”.  Numbers 16: 3.  On the surface Korah’s challenge seems reasonable.  Shouldn’t everyone’s voice carry the same weight?  Are we not all equal in the eyes of God?

The answer to this question, and to Korah’s challenge to Moses and Aaron is an unequivocal yes and no.  Yes, all people are equal in the eyes of God.  Yes, all within the community of humanity are holy.  In this sense Korah is right in his challenge to Moses to Aaron.  But no, not everyone’s voice carries the same weight.  The voices of people who are experts or who are knowledgable in a certain field surely ought to carry more weight when it comes to decision making than the voices of those who are ill informed.  We all have opinions on most matters.  But that doesn’t make every opinion equally worthwhile.

People in positions of authority can’t be expected to be experts in every field. That’s why it is critical for leaders to have access to people who are at least knowledgable, if not expert, in the areas where decisions need to be rendered.  It is also important to recognize that leadership is a quality, not a position or title.  Simply being voted into a position does not make a leader.  Granted, it gives a person a modicum of authority.  However, authority is not a synonym for leadership.


© Copyright Rabbi Howard A Cohen