A Look at Parashat Bemidbar

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פרשת במדבר

במדבר Numbers 1:2 to 4:20

This parashah is usually read on the Shabbat preceding Shavuoth.

This week we start the fourth book of the Torah and rejoin the narrative as it left off at the end of the book of Exodus. The Israelites are thirteen months into their long schlep through Sinai. This book “Bemidbar (מדבר in Hebrew) translates as “In the Desert or in the wilderness”, or “Numbers” in English. Numbers, of course, refers to the census.  Bemidbar perhaps refers to the fact that we receive the Torah and construct the Tabernacle, not in Egypt which we left behind, nor in Canaan, our destination which we have not yet reached, but in the wilderness between the two. This section begins with the long process of taking a ragtag group of former slaves, “generation of the desert,” (dor hamidbar – דור המדבר) and forging them with the order and discipline necessary to conquer and settle Canaan.

Chapter 1 – Census of military age males (Verses 1 through 19)

Call for a census of all the males able to bear arms, from the age of 20 up, including the appointment of tribal heads (military unit commanders?). Could this be the world’s first rudimentary selective service system? Note that the members of the tribe of Levi are not counted. They are exempt from military service as they have other duties (see section 3:1 et al below). There is no census of women. Implications as to status of women in the Torah? Later, (Numbers, Chapter 13) after the incident of the scouts, we will learn that all of those counted (save Joshua and Caleb) will not get to enter the promised land but will die in the wilderness.

Note that unlike the previous census (Exodus 30, verses 11 through 16) here the individuals are counted both by tribal affiliation and by name. They are not numbers; they are recognized as individuals.

Why are males only “subject to the draft” from the age of 20? Possibly, the reason is that this gives them a reasonable time to be married and start a family before bearing the obligation to go to war. Should he fall in combat, he will hopefully have left at least one (male) heir to carry on the family name.

Note that a census had been taken only one month previously (Exodus 30:11). Why is there a need for a second census now? Possibly due to the massive loss of life after the incident of the Golden Calf. Also, the previous census apparently was not on a tribe-by-tribe basis, nor did it record the individual names or their clans.

Count of able-bodied men (Verses 20 through 46)

Note an unrealistic number of able-bodied men: 603,550. Possibly this number is artificially Inflated by misinterpreting the Hebrew word “Aleph – אלף” for thousand when the intent may have been family or another small grouping. This would give us a more manageable (and plausible for the time) total of 5,500 men.

Role of the Levites (Verses 47 through 54)

The Levites were excluded from this census, as they had a special function. They are to oversee safeguarding, transporting, and maintaining the tabernacle. Thus, a hierarchical structure is set up, a person’s status being determined not by virtue or ability, but by birth and by tribal affiliation. Everybody knew their place in the order of things.  Of course, this grates on our 21st -century sensibilities. Note that the society that was in the process of being set up was not a meritocracy. Quite the contrary: everyone knew their assigned place in this male-dominated society.

Chapter 2 – Formations of the tribes (Verses 1 through 34)

Here we have the formations into four groups of three tribes each around the Tabernacle (משכן).  Each tribe has a standard or flag (דגל) that is not further described. At the time of writing, the shape and design may possibly have been common knowledge (descriptions are given in the Talmud).  The order of marching for each group is given, with the tabernacle always in the center and the tribe of Judah taking the lead. That way, order (and perhaps military discipline) is created, and tribal integrity is preserved.

Chapter 3 – Role of the Levites (Verses 1 through 10)

Descendants of Aaron are appointed as priests (Cohanim – כהנים). Other Levites (לויים) had duties to assist the priest in maintaining the Tent of Meeting (אוהל מועד ) and the Tabernacle (המשכן).

Reform Judaism has done away with the recognition of the special status of both Cohanim and Levites. In traditional synagogues, the honor of the first Aliyah to the Torah is reserved for Cohanim, and the second Aliyah is reserved for Levites. Cohanim give the priestly blessings on Yorn Kippur. Prior to that, Levites serve the Cohanim by washing their hands.

Levite clans and their duties (Verses 11 through 39)

The Levites assume the place of the firstborn among the Israelites by symbolically being consecrated to G-d. The Levites are divided into ancestral clans that are assigned specific duties to maintain the Tent of Meeting and the Tabernacle.

The census of the Cohanim is different than the census of the Israelites as their duties were different. Every Cohan from the age of one month and up Is counted. The reason is that, especially in a society with a high infant mortality rate, a newborn is not considered viable (בן קימא) until when and if it reaches the age of one month). Jewish mourning practices are not held for babies that die before reaching the age of one month.

In line 39, note the irregular dots above the name of Aaron. Similar marks are not unusual and appear throughout the Torah. As the Torah is inviolate, and scribes are not to add, nor are they to delete, these would be propagated onwards. Commentators throughout the ages went to great lengths (and contortions) to explain the reasons behind these strange markings. My theory (admittedly, not generally accepted) is that a simple explanation is usually the correct one (Occam’s razor) and possibly at some point in time, the quill of a long-forgotten scribe leaked.

Redemption of the first-born (Verses 40 through 51)

This section is a bit complicated. To the best of my understanding, here is what is going on:

We read in verse 13 that when G-d had all the first born (man and beast) in Egypt killed, except the Israelites, the first-born Israelites, 22,273 in number were consecrated to G-d. Here, the Levites are substituted for the first-born Israelites as being in service to G-d. Hence the first born needs to be redeemed. In addition, the cattle of the Levites are taken in place of the first-born cattle of the Israelites We are not told how much cattle needed to be redeemed.

In this special counting of the Levites (לוים) the census is restricted to the firstborn males and their cattle. As this census revealed that there were 273 more first born males over the number of the Levites, the Israelites had to redeem 273 first born males at five shekels of weight a head. Why five shekels? The medieval commentator Rashi theorized that five shekels equal twenty dinars, which was the price that Joseph’s brothers received for selling him into bondage. The money (1,365 shekels) was to be given to Aaron and his sons. Note that the text does not stipulate what the money shall be used for.

 This practice later evolved into the Pidyon HaBen ceremony – פדיון הבן (redeeming of the firstborn male).

Chapter 4 – Roll of the Kohathites (Verses 1 through 20)

A separate count of the Kohathites (בני קהת) among the Levites is taken, all those between the ages of 30 and 50. Presumably, those younger than 30 are apprentices, and those older than 50 would not be up to the demanding tasks.

The divisions of labor between the different clans that compose the Cohanim is described. The duties of the first group, the Kohaths, is described here. The duties for the remaining groups will be described in next week’s parashah.

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