Shabbat Parashat Bemidbar - 5777 – Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

By: Rabbi Gail Labovitz,
Associate Professor of Rabbinics

Sinai and Wilderness

  Torah Reading:  Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

  Haftarah Reading:  Hosea 2:1 – 22

In Jewish tradition, the books of the Torah are named for opening words of each, while in English they typically have thematic names (which are in turn taken from Greek). In some cases, these correspond: "Bereshit" (In the Beginning) and "Genesis." "Exodus" fits with one of the primary events of that book, and "Leviticus" captures the centrality of the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system, overseen by the Cohanim who are of the tribe of Levi. But in the book we begin reading this week, it seems the opposite is the case. The name "Numbers" ("Arithmoi" in the Greek) focuses more narrowly on the concept of census taking (and more particularly a census of men of age to serve militarily), the topic of primarily the first chapter alone. Although the Hebrew name is taken from the opening verse, its meaning – "In the Wilderness" – very much sums up the content and themes that run through the book.

It also so happens that later this week, we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, understood in Jewish tradition as the day on which the Torah was given to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. According to midrashic tradition, every Jewish soul of all time – the souls of those born Jewish and of those who voluntarily join the Jewish people – were present at the Revelation. In many of our communities, we recreate that moment of receiving Torah by spending the night of Shavuot in study.

About three out of every four years, we read Parashat Bamidbar on the Shabbat before Shavuot (otherwise we read Naso, the second parashah of the book of Bamidbar). We are all in the Wilderness. We are all standing at Sinai. Which is it? Or what is the connection?

One common explanation (you'll find it in Etz Hayim, 769-70) is to emphasize that the giving of the Torah took place in the wilderness, and rightfully so. Why? Because the wilderness is a place that does not belong to a particular people or culture or civilization. The wilderness, and hence also the Torah given in the wilderness, belongs to no one in particular and is available to anyone.

But it is also important to note that the theme of "wilderness" as it runs through this book of the Torah is not limited to a literal, physical space or type of space. As in the midrash just above, the "wilderness" of Bamidbar has a strong metaphorical and figurative aspect to it. As the commentary in Etz Hayim notes (769), the book "describes a people wandering through a spiritual as well as a geographic wilderness." This book is filled with complaint and punishment (as when the people become tired of the manna and demand meat), rebellion (Korach, the spies), sin (worship of Baal Peor and other misbehavior with the Midianites), and death (the decree that the Exodus generation must die out during 40 years of wandering and a new generation enter the Land instead). Even the leaders of the people are not immune – Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, and the death of each is narrated in this book; Moses strikes the rock for water rather than speak to it and is himself told by God that he will die in the Wilderness and not enter the Land. In this view, the spiritual high moment of Sinai, the moment that truly made us a nation and God's people, seems utterly removed from the Wilderness.

I would like to turn, then, to the medieval scholar – biblical and Talmudic commentator, mystic, and legal authority – Nachmanides (11th century Spain), who offers another model to bring Sinai and the Wilderness together.

His opening comment to the book in many ways begins with the second and third chapters rather than the first. After describing the census of men of fighting age (as already mentioned above) in chapter 1, the second chapter of the parashah and the book Bamidbar turns to detailing how the Israelite camp is to be arranged. At the center of the camp is the Ohel Mo'ed, the Tent of Meeting (just outside the Holy of Holies), inside the larger complex of the Tabernacle. The tribes then surround the Tabernacle on all sides, three tribes each on the western, southern, and eastern sides, and two to the north. In chapter 3, we then learn that the final tribe, the Levites, form another, inner ring between the Israelites and the Tabernacle, three clans (the descendants of Levi's sons Gershon, Kohat, and Merari) to the north, west, and south, and the Cohanim (Aaron and his sons) plus Moses to the east (the side on which the entrance to the Tabernacle was placed).

This arrangement is often understood to be military in nature, as we find, for example, in Etz Hayim (769): "The march of the Israelites through the wilderness…will take them through hostile environments, both natural and human. To meet those dangers, the people must be organized into a military camp…"

Nachmanides emphasizes, however, the significance of the Tabernacle being situated in the center. Of course, one could describe this as a defensive measure, so that the Tabernacle is the most protected part of the camp no matter what direction an attack might come from. But this is not Nachmanides' key insight. Rather, he observes that in this parashah and elsewhere throughout Bamidbar, "God hedged the Tabernacle around with restrictions just as He did with respect to Mount Sinai when His glory rested thereon." Nachmanides notes these examples:

"When the Tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Tabernacle is pitched, the Levites shall set it up; any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death." (Num. 1:51) / "You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.'" (Ex. 19:12)

"But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die." (Num. 4:20) / "The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish ."

"…but no outsider shall intrude upon you [Aaron, the Cohanim] as you discharge the duties connected with the Shrine and the altar, that wrath may not again strike the Israelites." (Num. 18:4-5) / "The priests also, who come near the Lord, must stay pure, lest the Lord break out against them." (Ex. 19:21)

That is, Nachamides all but states explicitly, the Tabernacle is a model of Mount Sinai, placed in the midst of the people every time they make camp.

Similarly, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi, poet and author of the philosophical work The Kuzari and a slightly older contemporary of Nachmanides (also from Spain), suggested this metaphor (Kuzari II, 26): "The camp and its divisions are to be compared to the body and its constituent limbs, the Tabernacle being to the camp what the heart is to the body."

Tabernacle = Sinai = heart.

The Wilderness is a hard place, physically and spiritually. It is full of challenges. It is also where we live our day to day lives. How do we meet the challenges of the Wilderness? How do we imbue the Wilderness with meaning and sanctity and goodness? We cannot and do not stand at Sinai every day. But we all did once, and so we must find a way to carry that moment with us wherever we go. May we come away from this Shavuot ready to make the Revelation we have experienced into the center of our personal "camps," into the beating heart that keeps us alive, and carry it with us into the Wilderness.

Shabbat shalom.


Rabbi Gail Labovitz, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University. She is the author of Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature, published by Lexington Books. Prior to joining the faculty of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, she also served as a senior research analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University and as the coordinator of the Jewish Feminist Research Group, a project of the Jewish Women's Studies Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University