Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Bamidbar

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To Dwell in Spiritual Harmony

By Michael Chessen

     Whereas the book of Exodus opens with a listing of names and sets the stage for our transition from Jacob's extended Jewish family to the Jewish people, the book of Numbers opens with a census of the now mighty Jewish nation and lays the groundwork for their orderly formation into a single large camp, or society. The Torah's meticulous accounting of all army-age males according to their tribes seems to come to underscore a principle that is present throughout the Five Books of Moses which is perhaps best summed up by King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastics: "A good name is better than good oil". This principle is unfortunately overlooked in later incidents in the book of Numbers involving the spies, who feared for their physical comfort and tried to avoid "making aliya" to the Land of Israel, and Korach, who sought undue honor and prestige.

     In the context of a later "Levi family" incident in Numbers, Moses merits mention as being the "most humble man on earth"(12:3). Our opening reading of the book, Bemidbar, seems to present an apparent contradiction to Moses' humility with the call for each tribe to proudly wave its flag. However, it would seem that the Torah is simply calling for each tribe to recognize and appreciate their differences as individual vital components of the beautiful mosaic that makes for the whole of the Jewish people.

     The formation of this early desert society includes mention of the tribe of Reuvan as having descended from the "first born of Israel"(Numbers 1:20). This makes for the Torah's first mention of Reuvan's special status since he appeared to have had it taken from him and transferred to Yehuda and Joseph when their father, Jacob, blessed the twelve tribes. In Bemidbar, however, we see that the positioning of the twelve tribes into four divisions actually recognizes four "first borns". Reuvan to the north and Dan to the south are, respectively, the over-all first born and the first born of the hand-maidens; Yehuda to the east and Ephraim (who carries first born status for Joseph) to the west are the "spiritual" first borns.

     May we approach the holiday of the giving of the Torah as a diverse, but singularly united camp, inspired to serve God with the same sense of orderly devotion which our ancestors displayed in the Sinai Desert.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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