B’midbar (In the wilderness)

Numbers 1:1 to 4:20

B'midbar -In the WildernessThis week we begin a Book of Torah with two common titles … a Hebrew title – B’midbar (in the wilderness) and an English title – Numbers. Each give us a different perspective to the Book.

Like many portions of Torah… and the titles of the Books… the name is based on the first words or thoughts of the text. The title “Numbers” refers to the opening lines which tell of a census ordered by the Eternal. This census will count all males over 20 years old who can bear arms. This action is in preparation for the advance to the Promised Land, a subject which is apparent throughout this section of Torah.

The Hebrew title, B’midbar reveals the primary location of the Israelites during most of B’midbar/Numbers. Currently, they are still at Mt. Sinai, the same location where we left them at the end of Exodus. However, we note a significant change. When Exodus ended, the Israelites were seen as a large unorganized population. They were headed for a destination they were unsure of… and, as we saw with the Golden Calf episode, their faith was in question. The establishment of the Tabernacle seemed to give them a renewed purpose.

Moses met with the Eternal and received the commandments, laws, and rules that were presented in Leviticus. With these, the Israelites now have a solid direction.

The text this week tells us that the Israelites were separated into groupings around the Tabernacle. The Levites form an inner circle around the Tabernacle which is located in the focus of the community … physically and spiritually. The rest of the tribes are located by each group’s matriarchal ancestor.

The eastern grouping appears to lead and is composed of tribes named after Leah’s sons – Issachar, Judah and Zebulun. This grouping is closest to the entrance to the Tabernacle.

The western group is composed of the Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin tribes, offspring of Rachel.

The southern grouping is composed of tribes descended from Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. All three committed acts that drew a harsh response from Jacob during his “blessings” over his sons before he died…. Reuben and Simeon for their actions after the “Rape of Dinah.” Gad was the first son of Leah’s handmaiden…. He was briefly mentioned in Jacob’s “blessings” as the tribe that will be attacked by raiders; then, strike the raider’s rearguard… a less than respected tactic. (Gen. 49:19)

The northern grouping is composed of the remainder of the tribes descended from Bilhah and Zilpah, the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, – Asher, Dan, and Naphtali.

These locations gave an indication of each tribe’s influence at the time of Moses … and their power at the time the Torah was arranged into a single document. This possibility of “editorial influence” is further hinted at by Richard Friedman in his book Who Wrote the Bible. In the book he states that this section of the Torah was written by the Priests (p.253) … not at time of Moses or at the time of when the majority of the Torah’s narrative was formulated… and the fate of the tribes already apparent.

Back to the concept behind the B’midbar (wilderness) theme. As I stated, most of the text of this book occurs in the wilderness where there are no population centers … and virtually no people to influence the Israelites. This offers an ideal setting to shape this people and their ideas. The fact that all their food and water will be provided through the graces of the Eternal will become a major factor.

Looking at another subject… This weekend, Saturday evening, May 23 and Sunday, May 24 marks the Shavuot holiday. The Torah states that it is one of the three major festival holidays along with Passover and Sukkot. It marks the end of the 49 days of Counting the Omer after the second day of Passover (the Feast of Weeks). In Biblical times it marked the first harvest and a time to bring offerings to the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, the holiday was given another reason for existence – the giving of the Ten Commandments. Passover marks the redemption from the slavery in Egypt. The 49 days between the Passover and Shavuot represent the days between the redemption and the giving of the Commandments. Today these 49 days are days which we should improve ourselves … just as the Israelites did between the time of their redemption from Egypt to the time they received the commandments.

I want to wish you all a happy and peaceful Shavuot.

Earl Sabes

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