Shabbat Shalom: Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, IsraelCount the heads of the entire witness-congregation of Israel” (Numbers 1:2).

The Book of Numbers opens with a most optimistic picture of a nation poised for redemption. The Israelites have been freed from Egypt with great miracles and wonders. They have received the Revelation at Sinai which provides them with a moral and ethical constitution for a soon-to-be-established sovereign state along with a faith commitment which establishes their mission to the world. The nation is now structured into 12 uniquely endowed and individually directed tribes who are united around the Sanctuary. Physical and spiritual defenses are organized with a standing army for military might, and the tribe of Levi dedicated to teaching Torah and arranging the sacrificial service. Everything seems ready for the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land of Israel!

Instead what follows is total degeneration. The Israelites become involved in petty squabbles and tiresome complaints, the reconnaissance mission advises against entering Israel (Numbers 13:27-29), Korah, Datan and Aviram stage a rebellion against Moses, and a prince of one of the tribes publicly fornicates with a Midianite woman. The result is that the entire generation that left Egypt is condemned to die in the wilderness, and only Moses’ successor, Joshua, and the new generation which has been born in the desert may live in the Promised Land.

What happened, and why? How can a nation so committed to becoming a “kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) lose their idealistic sense of purpose and “gang up” against the very person who was their great liberator and law-giver?

This fourth Book of the Bible is called “Numbers,” or “Sefer Pikudim,” – The Book of the Censuses – referring to the two population counts which are taken between its covers.

Indeed, our Book opens with a command to count the Israelites, stipulating as follows:

“Count the heads of the entire witness–congregation of the children of Israel, in accordance with their families, with their household parents, with the number of names of each male body, from 20 years of age and above, everyone eligible for army conscription…” (Numbers 1:2, 3).

These are the details required for the census at the beginning of our weekly portion, when the Israelites are still imbued with a sense of mission and “manifest destiny,” and when we they still expect to wage a war for the liberation of the Land of Israel.

Twenty–five chapters later, however, after the scouts’ refusal to conquer Israel, after the various rebellions against Moses culminating in Prince Zimri ben Sadon’s shameful public adultery with the Midianite in the presence of Moses himself, a second census is ordered. But you will notice that the identification of each Israelite for the purpose of this census is radically different from the way it was in the previous one:

 “Count the heads of the entire witness-congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years of age and above, with their household parents, everyone eligible for army conscription…” (Numbers 26: 2).

The first count included “the families (providing everyone’s tribal affiliation harking back to Jacob, Isaac and Abraham), the household parents, and the individual personal names”. The second time, the tribal affiliation and the personal names of each were excluded, providing only the names of the household parents of each individual!

These significant omissions may help to explain the degeneration of the Israelites, and why the Midrash called it The Book of the Censuses. In the first census, taken during the heyday of the generation of the exodus, each individual Israelite felt connected to his tribal parent, to his Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. But by the time of the second census, that connection was woefully gone. Each individual related only to their immediate biological parents.

The Book of Exodus, our birth as a nation, is built upon the foundations set out in the Book of Genesis; our origins as a very special family. The patriarchs and matriarchs were originally chosen by God because of their commitment to “compassionate righteousness and moral justice,” traits and ideals which they were to “command their children and their households after them” (Genesis 18:19). This unique Hebraic culture was to be nurtured, and expressed in the Land of Israel, which is the very “body”, the physical matrix, of our eternal covenant with God. The towering personalities of the Book of Genesis develop, falter, repair, sacrifice, persevere and ultimately prevail on these twin altars of commitment to land and law, to righteousness and Israel. They set the foundations for the continuity of an eternal nation through whom the entire world will eventually be blessed at the time of ultimate redemption.

Yichus,” lineage or pedigree, has little to do with privilege and special rights, but it has everything to do with responsibility and ancestral empowerment. Grandfather Jacob-Israel blesses his grandchildren, the sons of Joseph, that “they shall be called by his name and the name of his ancestors, Abraham and Isaac” (Genesis 48:16). This does not only mean naming them Abe, Ike and Jackie, but, much more importantly it means linking them to the ideals, values, and commitments of their patriarchs and matriarchs.

It also means endowing and empowering them with the eternal promise they received from God that their seed would inherit the Land of Israel and would eventually succeed in conveying to the world the message and blessing of Divine morality and peace.

Tragically, the desert generation lost its connection to the Book of Genesis, with the mission and empowerment, with the dream and the promise, of the patriarchs and matriarchs of their family. As a consequence, the second census no longer connects them as the tribal children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This loss of connectedness to their forebears results in a disconnect from the God of the patriarchs as well, from the promise and the covenant of that God, from faith in their ability to carry out the unique message and mission of Israel. That generation lost faith in itself, declaring: became in “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we were they in their eyes” (Numbers 13: 33). In this way, they lost the courage to conquer the land.

By disconnecting from their past, they lost their future. They did not even merit individual names, names which could only be counted if they were linked with the proud names of the founders of Jewish eternity.

Shabbat Shalom


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