Parshat Bemidbar

A Student Publication of the Isaac and Mara Benmergui Torah Academy of Bergen County
Parshat Bemidbar              29 Iyar 5762              May 11, 2002              Vol.11 No.27


In This Issue:

Rabbi Zvi Grumet
Ilan Tokayer
Yoni Shenkman
Rabbi Howard Jachter
-Dairy Bread

This week's issue of Kol Torah has been sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Landsman in memory of Jeanette Brilliant, sister of Rise Landsman.
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This week's issue of Kol Torah has also been sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Barishansky in memory of Mrs. Barishansky's father.
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This week's issue of Kol Torah has also been sponsored by Kena and Arnon Hiller to honor their oldest grandson, Alex Itzkowitz.




The Ambiguous Levi

by Rabbi Zvi Grumet

A careful reading of the first Parsha of Sefer Bemidbar Sinai points to a bizarre, startling and disturbing conclusion -Shevet Levei is not included in Bnai Yisrael. Let us take a look. In the beginning of the Perek, Hashem tells to count Kol Adat Bnei Yisrael - "the entire congregation of Bnai Yisrael" (emphasis added), and appoints one leader from each tribe to assist Moshe in the task. Yet a careful look reveals that Levi is conspicuously absent from those twelve tribes. Lest someone think that we are jumping to conclusions, the summary at the end of the counting seems to confirm the observation. In Pasuk 45 we are given the total count, and that is introduced with the phrase Vayahi Kol Pekudei Bnei Yisrael... - "And the count of the entire Bnai Yisrael was..." (emphasis added). When describing the total of Bnai Yisrael somehow Levi doesn't count.

Again, some of you may be thinking that I am reading too much into too little. Let us continue toward the conclusion of the Perek. In Pasuk 49 Hashem explicitly instructs Moshe that Levi is not to be counted with the rest of Bnai Yisrael. And later, in Pasuk 52, the Torah describes where Bnai Yisrael, as opposed to Shevet Levi are to camp - since Shevet Levi is to camp surrounding the Mishkan lest anything happen to Bnai Yisrael. The deliberate language in the Torah distinguishes between the Levi'im and Bnai Yisrael and sends a clear message - Levi is not included in the discussion of Bnai Yisrael.
Truth be told, we probably suspected that something was different about them. After all, we now know that they were not included in the regular conscription of soldiers and were given no portion in the Land of Israel. The description offered at the opening of this Sefer as well as the language used throughout Sefer Devarim suggest that the tribe of Levi is an honored guest in our midst… (Vahalevi Asehr Bkrirbecha), but certainly not one of us.

The status of the Levi'am is a particular obsession in the first part of this Sefer, and they are given special attention in each of the first four Perakim as well as numerous other times throughout. On the one hand they seem to be apart from Bnai Yisrael, while on the other they are very much a part of them. The ambiguity surrounding the Levi'im heightens our awareness of them and the conspicuousness of their absence. Let us take a peek, both forward and backward, to shed just a bit of light on their unusual station.

Looking forward, we know that the Levi'im play central roles as religious leaders and teachers. They are scattered throughout the countryside to ensure that Jewish education could penetrate far-flung villages. As Moshe blesses them at the end of his life, Yoru
Mishpatecha Le'Yakov VeToratcha Le' Yisrael, "let them instruct the laws to Yaakov and the teachings to Yisrael." Rambam echoes in a marvelous passage at the end of Hilchot Shemita Veyovel : "And why did Levi not merit a portion in the Land of Israel? Because he was segregated to perform Hashem's service and to teach His straight paths and His just laws to the masses... they are Hashem's army..."

Looking backward, a pivotal part of the legacy of the Levi'im revolves around their involvement after Chet Ha'agel as they followed Moshe's instructions and slew somewhere in the range of 3,000 Jews steeped in idolatrous worship. While they were following explicit instructions, and while their promotion to service in the Mishkan is just seen as reward for their heroic deeds, it is not hard to imagine that there were many individuals, perhaps relatives of the deceased, who harbored resentment toward the Levi'im. It is even possible that there were many who resented the very fact that the Levi'im saw themselves as "holier than thou," refusing to partake in the celebration of the golden calf and exacting vengeance upon the nation afterward. On a purely social level, it is reasonable to suggest that Shevet Levi was shunned by the people long before the opening of this Sefer.

To be sure, both of the doors we opened need to be explored further. Whether God was creating reality by separating the Levi'im or reflecting an existing reality by adopting them for special service, their status within Bnai Yisrael is by no means clear. The implications of this in the study of Tanach should be clear. The implications for us today are less so, and may extend to many individuals or groups whose motivations and ideals have led them to operate on the fringes of our self declared societal boundaries.


Name that Sefer
by Ilan Tokayer


This week we open a new Sefer, Sefer Bemidbar Sinai, the most ambiguous book of the Torah. What is the purpose of this Sefer? What are we to learn from it? At first glance, it would be very hard to pinpoint the answer to these questions. It was precisely these issues that triggered a substantial debate between the Ramban and the Netziv. Each offers an explanation of his own, according to which the entire Sefer will unravel. In order to back support their respective conclusions, each has his own reading of each and every Parsha throughout the Sefer.

First we must take a look at the first series of topics and sequence of events in the Sefer. Sefer Bemidbar Sinai begins with the counting of Bnai Yisrael. The Torah then proceeds to recount Bnai Yisrael, but this time it adds their camping arrangements. Only after these two countings does the Torah deal with Shevet Levi, who has been left out of the events to this point. This is where Parshat Bemidbar ends. Sefer Bemidbar Sinai, however, goes on with a series of five Halachot, namely, Shiluach Temeim Min Hamachaneh (sending those who are Tamei from the camp), Gezel Hager (stealing from a convert), Sotah, Nazir, and Birkat Kohanim. The Ramban states that Sefer Bemidbar Sinai is really a continuation of Sefer Vayikra. It is a book focused on the Mishkan and the generation of the Mishkan. The book contains only a few commandments and unless they are otherwise specified, they pertain and are based only on the generation of the Midbar. The Netziv, however, disagrees with the Ramban. He says that Sefer Bemidbar Sinai is the "book of the people." It focuses around Bnai Yisrael and their development from the generation that came out of Mitzrayim (which Hashem dealt with in a way that was Lemaalah Mehalichot Hateva about natural laws) into the generation that entered Eretz Yisrael (that Hashem dealt with Biderech Halichot Hateva).

The Sefer starts off with a detailed counting of Bnai Yisrael. According to the Ramban, this was simply referring to the people in the Midbar. It was a one-time affair that affected only that generation. The Netziv, however, sees the counting as being about the people. By the counting, we see the partition between the Shevatim. We see who was larger and smaller, the names of the Nesiim of all of the Shevatim, and all we need to know about the people of Bnai Yisrael.

The Torah proceeds to recount the people; only this time it mentions camping arrangements. According to the Ramban, this is again a one-time event. It applied only to the generation of the Midbar and revolved around the Mishkan. After all, both when Bnai Yisrael camped and traveled the Mishkan was physically in the middle. The Netziv feels that the camping tells us more about the people. It shows us more about the Shevatim, where their loyalties lay, who each Shevet could camp with and the division of Bnai Yisrael at that point in history.

The Torah finally deals with the Leviim, who have been omitted this entire time. All of the counting and redeeming of Shevet Levi, for the sake of this Machloket, can be condensed into one topic. According to the Ramban, the subject of Levi in the Torah was a continuation of Sefer Vayikra. We talk about Levi's jobs in the Mishkan, about assembling and dismantling it, and the camping of Levi. These are all events that pertain only to Shevet Levi in the Midbar. The Netziv, however, believes that this demonstrates the separation of Shevet Levi from Am Yisrael and how they are a nation within a nation, elevated in Kedusha. This is exemplified in the parallel structure of the second counting, and the counting of Levi.

The Torah then introduces a series of five Halachot: Shiluach Temeim Min Hamachaneh, Gezel Hager, Sotah, Nazir, and Birkat Kohanim. The Ramban applies this group of Mitzvot to his theory not as five single Mitzvot but rather as a series. He says that we just listed the camping of the nation in the previous few Perakim. Now that we have a Machaneh revolved around the Mishkan, we need laws in order for the Shechina to be able to dwell amongst the people via Birchat Kohanim. The Netziv also takes these Halachot as a group. His reasoning for them however differs completely. The Netziv believes that now that we have a nation, we need laws in order to make the new society work. Shiluach Temeim Min Hamachaneh is designed to prevent the causes of Tumah. Then the Torah presents the law of Gezel Hager. The purpose of this Mitzva is to ensure the security of a Ger. Since they have no place in the Machaneh, they might seem to be of subordinate rank to the rest of the nation, but here the Torah specifically reminds us that they are not. The Torah moves on to the topic of an Isha Sotah. In order to have a peaceful society and improve the outside, we must first take care of Shalom Bayit issues like simple trust between husband and wife. The Torah proceeds to discuss the topic of Nazir. It will happen in a society that someone will want to do Teshuva, and like the Rambam writes in Hilchot Deyot, sometimes the best way to do so is by what Rabbi Zvi Grumet coined the "rubber-band effect," i.e. if someone is at one extreme, you "stretch" him out to the other and he ends up somewhere in the middle. The Torah here gives the people a way to do Teshuva. We conclude with the subject of Birkat Kohanim. Now that we have a functioning civilization, we need a way for Hashem to be involved, and that is the purpose of Birkat Kohanim.

As we celebrate Chag Hashavuot in this difficult year, we must look for the flaws in our society so that we can resolve them. Only through this process of a self-improvement as a nation can we achieve our ultimate goal of an ideal Am Yisrael with the Shechina residing within us. May we ultimately, with Hashem within us, achieve the supreme Beracha of Birkat Kohanim "Viyasem Lecha Shalom."

-I would like to thank Rabbi Grumet for teaching me the content of this article.


Counting - Not As Simple as 1-2-3
by Yoni Shenkman

Parshat Bemidbar Sinai contains many technical details concerning the census of Bnai Yisrael. This apparently simple act of counting, however, includes many important lessons.

The Ramban notes that the Chumash says Tifkidu Otam, "Take note of them," and not Tifritu Otam , "Count them." What is the reason for this? It implies that Moshe should count Bnai Yisrael indirectly. Thus, when Hashem told Moshe to count Bnai Yisrael (1:2-3), Moshe counted them indirectly by making each person give one half-Shekel to the Mishkan. We learn from this that one should not treat people like objects; one should treat them like people. People should not be counted directly, like cattle; rather, as Moshe demonstrated, people should be counted indirectly, in a manner of respect, to preserve their dignity. The worst example in history of how a human being can be degraded through counting is the Nazis' numbering of concentration camp inmates, and, among countless other atrocities, counting them repeatedly to further degrade them. They forced freezing and starving inmates to stand for endless hours to be pointlessly counted.

The Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya explain another reason for the indirect counting of Bnai Yisrael. If you count an individual directly instead of through the half-Shekel, you emphasize the individual. This draws attention to the person; it singles him out. This might encourage Hashem to look very closely at each individual's deeds. If, instead, the counting is indirect, there is less focus on the individual. This is one reason that we Daven with a Minyan; all the prayers are taken in together and we are evaluated as a group, instead of individually. The hope is that as a group we will be judged more favorably.

This concept of a Jew as an individual and also an integral part of Bnai Yisrael is further emphasized in the counting in Bemidbar Sinai. When the Jewish People were counted, their family names were given with the names of their respective tribes. This shows how each individual fit into the Jewish Nation as a whole. Each individual is an integral part of Am Yisrael.

There are two aspects to man: he is an individual, and he is part of a greater whole. Each individual Jew is like a complete world unto himself, which is why the Talmud equates saving the life of one person with saving an entire world. Yet, as the census in Bemidbar Sinai shows, each Jew is part of a family, a tribe, and Am Yisrael. Similarly, every bone in the body has an individual name, yet all of the individual bones form the whole body.

Another question can be asked concerning the counting of Am Yisrael. Hashem counted Bnai Yisrael when they left Egypt, when the Mishkan was built, and again in this week's Parsha. Why did Hashem want to count Bnai Yisrael so many times? Someone always counts that which is precious to him. When a Jewish mother has a child, she adds another candle to those she lights for Shabbat and Yom Tov for the new child. She does this because a candle is symbolic of the light and joy that every child brings into a home. Thus, on every Erev Shabbat and Yom Tov, a mother indirectly counts her children as she lights candles. Similarly, Hashem counts Bnai Yisrael to demonstrate how He loves and values each person, just like a mother loves her children.

When Hashem told Moshe to count Bnai Yisrael, Moshe did it "on the first of the second month" (1:18), the same day that Hashem commanded Moshe to count (1:1). This teaches us that when we have an opportunity to do a Mitzva, we should do it immediately, without hesitation. Similar to Moshe, we should all try to perform any Mitzva as soon as the opportunity arises, and thus continuously to merit to be counted preciously by Hashem, just as Bnai Yisrael were counted in the desert.


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