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Parashat Bamidbar 5778 — 05/19/2018

Parashat Bamidbar 5778 — 05/19/2018

Bamidbar 1:1 – 4:20
Chag Shavuot Same’ach!

“We Don’t Rely on Miracles”

Bamidbar is called the “Book of Numbers” in English, and in the Rabbinic literature as well it is sometimes referred to as Sefer haPekudim / the Book of Censuses. Abarbanel points out several unusual features of this census: First, why did they need a census at all. They had just had a census a year earlier (in parashat Ki Tisa) shortly after leaving Egypt. And somehow, miraculously (?), the number came out exactly the same in both counts.

Abarbanel takes a naturalistic approach to both questions. Let me consider the second one first. Abarbanel notes that both censuses counted every male from 20 and up, but the first census (which was accomplished by collecting ½ shekel from each eligible male, then counting the shekels, then multiplying by 2) included the Levites (since everyone was required to give the ½ shekel) while in the second census the Levites are specifically excluded from the main census and were counted separately. Of course, in the year between the two counts, there must have been a number of 19-year-olds who were excluded the first time, but turned 20 in the interim. Abarbanel claims that this number exactly matched the number of Levites who were excluded in the second census. (The reason the Levites were excluded in the second count, but not the first is that at this point in the narrative the Levites have been selected to do the service of the Tabernacle, and were exempt from military service.)

This leaves two questions unanswered. First, did nobody die during that first year? Taking a naturalistic approach, it would seem that in a nation of slaves who had been beaten and abused, and were now being subjected to the hardships of a desert trek, there would have been some weak stragglers who might have perished. There are a couple of possibilities here: Either Abarbanel does discuss this, but R. Kasnett left the discussion out of his compendium, or there is a Rabbinic tradition that in fact nobody died during the first year. If the latter were the case I would think that Abarbanel would have mentioned it to answer this first question, but again, R. Kasnett may have left it out.

The second question is, how did it happen that the number of 19-year-olds coming of age was exactly the same as the number of Levites (or the number of Levites + number of deaths)? This in itself must be miraculous! I’m not sure that a purely naturalistic approach works even for this somewhat simpler question.

When we get to Abarbanel’s first question, we have a bit of a deeper philosophical problem.

Abarbanel explains that the nation was about to enter the Land of Israel, which would have to be conquered militarily. Just as a king would take a careful census of his available troops before embarking on a military campaign, the Torah specifically states that Moshe counted all males “from twenty years of age and up, everyone who is fit to go out to the army in Israel.”

They [the tribal leaders] would have to assume that they could not rely on miracles in the battles to conquer Eretz Yisrael, and they needed to conduct themselves as any commander of a battalion would.

There is a general Talmudic principle that “we do not rely on miracles.” We don’t gratuitously put ourselves in dangerous situations and assume that Gd will bail us out. If we find ourselves in danger, we take any natural way out of that situation, recognizing that Gd is the one who has provided the exit. One is reminded of the story of the man who is waiting on the roof of his house for salvation from the rising floodwaters. A rowboat comes by, a motorboat comes by, a helicopter flies overhead, and to each one he says, “No, I have faith that Gd will save me!” Eventually he drowns and appears before Gd. He indignantly asks why Gd didn’t save him. Gd replies, “Who do you think sent the boats and the helicopter?!?”

The principle here, and it is enunciated very forcefully by Ramban, is that Gd tries to minimize the miraculous. At the splitting of the sea, which in some ways is considered the greatest miracle of the entire Exodus story, Gd has Moshe raise his staff (i.e. there had to be some action from the human side) and then He caused a “strong east wind” to blow all night to dry out the seabed. The flip side of this is, there has to be input from humans to actuate the miracle. The sea didn’t actually split, despite the “strong east wind” and Moshe’s staff, until Nachshon ben Aminadav plunged into the water

In the case of Moshe and the tribal leaders, even though they had been explicitly promised Divine intervention in routing the Canaanites, they go through all the natural procedures to fight the Canaanites. Indeed, when the people come to Moshe and propose that they send scouts to reconnoiter the Land, Moshe agrees. Despite the disastrous outcome, the Rabbis mainly criticize the people for making their proposal in a disorderly way, not for making the proposal in the first place, for it was a natural thing to do prior to a military campaign.

I think the upshot of this consideration is this. Gd created a world with laws of nature, regularities, but He also created human beings, with free will. Left to itself, the nature of life is to grow and expand, to become more integrated and better able to reflect the Gdliness that is at the basis of all creation. Our free will is perhaps the greatest reflection of Gdliness that there can possibly be, because perhaps Gd’s most important quality is His absolute freedom from any boundaries or constraints. If we use our free will in accord with Gd’s Will, then our every action will be in accord with the natural tendency of life to grow. Gd will not need to intervene in an overtly miraculous fashion. It is only when human error piles up and threatens to overwhelm life, as was the case in Egypt, that Gd needs to intervene to get us back on track. We look forward to the Messianic Age where all human action will be aligned with Gd’s Will and our lives will be supported in every detail by the workings of nature.


Parashat Bamidbar “In the Desert”

Commentary by Steve Sufian

We have a saying “Gd is in the details” meaning: “Don’t just pray to Gd for help; pay attention to the details and act from our own side to fulfill our desires through the specific actions we take. Once we act, then Gd is more and more revealed as the Source of our desires and our actions and not only is our immediate desire fulfilled but the purpose of all life is fulfilled: return to experience of the Oneness which expresses Itself within Itself as Infinite Detail, Infinitely Harmonized.”

In this parshah, Gd commands a census – revealing the details of the population of the Children of Israel – at least, of the males of military age.

To me, and to many, when Gd gives details or asks for details, He is showing us something of the Details of Himself—He is not just an abstract mass of Fullness, He has a Structure, just as do our bodies, our planet, the Universe. In this case, I could not think of any way the number “603,550”—the number of males of military age, excluding the Levites—connects to the Nature of Gd and I found only one source on the Internet that addresses the issue.

The source looks at the census from the point-of-view of Gematria, a traditional way of interpreting Torah from the standpoint of the symbolism intuited from comparing one word to another through the use of the numerical value that each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has.

The author looks at the earlier census Gd commanded and to this one, finds the number 1820 is significant in terms of one aspect of the difference between the censuses, and finds that this number is significant in terms of some of the Names of Gd and also the nature of Creation, of Amen, of the Messiah.

I mention this source, because from the standpoint that Gd is in the details, the author is attempting to attend to the detail of the census, to find meaning in it, and since it seems to me and to many that every aspect of Torah is useful in our life, paying attention to its detail is an action that helps reveal to us the Nature of Gd as All-in-All, One that is All-in-All. And this is so, whether we are correct – from Gd’s Point of View – or not.

The parshah also describes the separate roles of the three Levite clans and also the spatial orientation of the different tribes in the encampment: Levites, including Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons, in the inner circle, the twelve tribes around that in the groups of three tribes for each direction.

Here we have a possible symbolism of Gd not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of space: not that Gd is limited to space that we can perceive with our senses but that Gd is Wholeness with a structure that we can perceive more and more as through our actions we attend to the details of Torah and of our lives as members of families, communities, planet, universe.
We have in Torah: “Gd created Man (Humanity) in His own Image” Genesis 1:27.

To me and to many others, Torah is the Liveliness of Gd, One with Gd, and so to look at its structure and meaning helps us to find the way, the ways, in which we are Images of Gd, and to gradually find that we are not merely Images of Gd, but expressions of Gd, Gd fully acts through us.

Exploring the nature of the census in its detail, the nature of spatial distribution of the tribes in its detail, and seeing how these relate to the Nature of Gd in Gd’s Detail are, to me, good actions which I have only begun but hope to continue. Please join me and share with me what you know, feel, think, guess so we can grow together and remember fully our Oneness.

Baruch HaShem