Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            The five books of Moses each have two names.  The generally used names of the books are based upon the first significant word in the volume, Breishit, Shmot, Vayikra, Bamidbar, and Devarim.  The other less well known names in Hebrew basically give us the well known English names, Sefer Yetzira-Genesis, Sefer Geula-Exodus, Torat Cohanim-Leviticus, Sefer Pekidim-Numbers, and Mishneh Torah-Deuteronomy.  What's fascinating to me is the fact that the convenient name for the book we begin this week better describes the material than the so-called descriptive name.  The Hebrew word Bamidbar means 'in the wilderness,' and that pretty much tells it all.  The Jews spent forty years in the wilderness.  The name Numbers does refer to the two censuses of the Jews at the beginning and end of the book, but doesn't cover nearly as much ground as the name Wilderness. 

            Allow me one word about translation.  The term Bamidbar is often rendered 'In the Desert,' and in this instance is correct.  They were in a desert.  However, I prefer wilderness, because that's how the Sages generally used it.  The ancient Rabbis described our world as having three parts:  yam or sea, yishuv or habitable areas, and midbar or land areas, which are difficult to settle.  This could include deserts, but also describes mountains, dense jungles and the frozen poles. 

            Our book pretty neatly falls into three sections, as well.  From chapter one until ten verses into chapter ten, the Jews are in the Sinai Desert and most of the material is about the census and the arrangement of the camp.  This is not exactly edge of your seat material.  From the middle of chapter ten until chapter twenty-two we have the aborted movement towards Israel.  This material is mostly narrative, and contains the mostly negative stories about complaints and rebellion, the quail, the spies and Korach.  This section leaves the Jews in the oasis of Kadesh Barnea on the modern Egyptian-Israel border.  Then the Torah is silent about the 38 years spent there.  From chapter twenty-two until the end of the book, we have the description of the Jews moving again towards the frontier of Israel, and we conclude with the Jews on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the Holy Land. 

            So, finally, here's my question:  What's the major theme of this book?  I mean, in a few words what is the major lesson that we can garner from this seemingly eclectic collection of tales, laws and statistics. 

            There are a few candidates.  First of all one could posit that censuses and camp structure are the major point.  According to Don Yitzchak Abrabanel (1427-1508), we are supposed learn about counting Jews and arranging Jewish communities for all times based upon the arrangement of the camp.  Okay, but not compelling.  I've heard scholars explain that the major issue in this volume is leadership.  We have the example of Moshe as the selfless leader, there are cases of grave threats to his leadership, we even have the need for him to share the leadership, and, finally, Bamidbar ends with the transition of leadership to a new generation.  Rabbi Pinchas Heyman of Bar Ilan University wrote that from the various stories related here we can learn that 'Leading the chosen people towards their destiny requires several talents:  patience, the ability to be self-abnegating, and the ability to accept another's views.'  So, a strong claim could be made that leadership and its concerns are the central, unifying topic of the fourth book of our Torah.  But I don't like that one either.

            My nominee for the overarching goal of this book is based on two verses later in the text:  So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You. And when it came to rest he would say, Repose O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of Israel (Numbers 10:35-36).  These verses are so significant that there's an opinion in the Talmud that they represent an entire volume of our Torah (Shabbat 115b).  But what do they teach us?  Theses verses inform us that there are only two productive modes for the human condition.  We can either be on the move or we can be building a society.  The nature of moving is dangerous, as Rashi informed us back in Genesis (12:1) concerning Avraham.  But it can be necessary and eventually very beneficial, like Avraham's journey to Israel, or history's famous voyages of discovery.  Pilgrimage or migration can enhance the participant and the world.

            On the other hand, most of our culture, science and legal systems are a result of the settled construction of societies.  It's hard to be creative on the move; usually that requires a settled situation.  Repose results in civilizations.

            Our two famous verses are recorded at a critical juncture in our story.  The Jews have been moving from Mount Sinai towards the settlement of the Promised Land.  All that promise begins to unravel in chapters eleven through fourteen, with the whining and self doubt of the nation which culminates in the refusal to believe that we should or could enter Israel.  Instead we have thirty eight years of nothing, because the Jews are neither moving towards a goal nor building a society.  Hence we have the silent thirty eight year hole between chapter twenty-two verse one and verse two. 

            This is a huge dilemma for either the nation or an individual, is there movement towards a desired goal with the ultimate development of a just society or is there stagnation in a limbo between the cracks of History?  The book of Bamidbar teaches us how empty life can be without either movement or construction, hiding in the shadow lands of the wilderness, as our ancestors did for thirty-eight years.  I believe that much of Jewish history has been spent in this twilight zone, and I thank God that we are living in an age when we can again fulfill the ancient promises.  But only if we emerge from the wilderness.                          

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