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.