Parashat Bamidbar – Erev Shabbat 22 May 2020
Week of 17-23 May 2020
Torah portion: Numbers 1:1-4:20 Haftarah: 1 Sam 20:18-42
Theme: From slaves to leaders
Fox (p. 648) presents Olsen’s scheme for Numbers as follows: i) In the Wilderness of Sinai: The Camp (ch. 1-10); ii) The Rebellious Folk: Narratives of Challenge (ch. 11-25); iii) The Plains of Moab: Preparation for the Conquest of Canaan (ch. 26-36). A further insight into Numbers is the title of Olsen’s book The Death of the Old and Birth of the New – so describing the journey from order to chaos, and back to order again. Parashat Bamidbar introduces how the Lord instructs Moses in the ordering of this motley group of liberated slaves into leaders: an army and the protectors of the Tabernacle.
Numbers begins similarly to Leviticus: the Lord calls Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai. In Leviticus the Lord calls from the Tent of Meeting whereas in Numbers the Lord speaks to Moses in the Tent of Meeting. Numbers 1b gives the time the communication took place: it is Rosh Chodesh Iyar – the beginning of the second month of the second year since escaping from Egypt.
Three themes that are introduced in this Parasha are wilderness, numbers and names. We shall look at the significance of each one briefly as an introduction to this the fourth book of the Pentateuch.
Plaut (p. 329) states that a person or nation has to be isolated and refined by trial in a desolate wild land. This group of freed slaves under the leadership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam (as the Lord’s spokespersons) meet the Lord in the wilderness and are eventually formed into a nation, Israel, who thus can claim the Promised Land in the Lord’s power. “The wilderness was the place where all the tribes were equal. It was also the most miserable of all places so that Israel could take the Torah to the deprived earth, and from lawlessness ascend to heights.“ (Plaut, 914)
The Lord commands the census – only God could do that. It was regarded that knowing one’s number, was to know the person’s essence and only God had that power. To number was also to put a limit to growth and blessings which were uncountable because of the Lord’s graciousness and mercy. The numbering of the tribes was in order to organize them. In this organizing, leaders were appointed who were accountable to Moses and Aaron. These were to be the armed-forces of Israel (1:3). Rashi’s commentary on numbering is that God’s love for the people of Israel is so great that it makes God count them every hour. He goes on to say that God counted the people as they left Egypt; God counted them after their worship of the golden calf; and now God counts them in Numbers as God’s presence is renewed among them. Luke reminds us of Jesus’ words concerning God’s care for people: “Even the hairs of your head have been counted.”(Luke 12:7)
In this Parasha there are five listings of names – Moses and Aaron are repeated a number of times, hence the need to look at the significance of names. Knowing someone’s name is similar to numbering a person as described above. To know a person’s name is to know them intimately and to have power over them. Moses asked God’s name in Exodus 3:13 and was told: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (YHWH) – a name that cannot be grasped because it is the Name of the Holy One. It is a name that must not be used. Somewhere hidden in the name is: “I am”– the Essence of Being.
For Reflection and Discussion: What are your experiences of wilderness, being counted and being called by name in your journey with the LORD?
Bibliography: Eskenasi, Weiss: The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: 2008); Fox, Everett: The Five Books of Moses (New York: 1997);Plaut W.G.: The Torah. A Modern Commentary (New York: 2006); African Bible (Nairobi: 2004); Chabad.org