A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: BAMIDBAR (NUMBERS 1:1-4:20)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant


Last week, we concluded the reading of the Book of Leviticus with the reading of parsha Bechukotai. This week, we begin the Book of Numbers with plans to dismantle the Tabernacle and to rebuild it further into the wilderness. In the second year of the Exodus, God spoke to Moses: “Take a census of all the congregation of the Children of Israel, according to family tribes. Lift their heads as you count them”(1). According to our sages, a census expresses two paradoxical truths. While it implies that everyone is significant, a headcount is the ultimate equalizer. Each member of the community counts for no more and no less, than another(2).

The tallying of Israelites (via a census) is a frequent order from God to Moses. It must always be done in a way to ensure that it does not just signal a ‘count’ of the people. During the census, each individual’s head is lifted: “To lift someone’s head means to show him favor, to recognize him, it is a gesture of love”(3).

It is logical to question both the objective of the census, as well as the move of the Tabernacle further into the desert, as opposed to merely transporting both the people and the Sanctuary directly to the ‘Promised Land.’ The answers to these questions are not only justifiable but also suggest a much broader strategy.

First, it was expected that the Israelites were highly likely to be faced with war, both from neighboring nations, as well as from the people currently occupying the land of Canaan. One objective of this particular census was to: “look into the souls and hearts of each individual; to evaluate each one’s commitment to God and the nation of Israel and their readiness to fight for it”(4).

After only one year of living in the wilderness, the Israelites certainly did not demonstrate even the slightest knowledge of the governance of a mature society. As slaves in Egypt, they were not even exposed to any rules of commerce, secular laws or any form of social order. None of them were trained to be warriors, nor were they expected to serve in any role to protect Egypt from its enemies. 

There are other unique aspects of the desert experience, specifically isolation. Normally, societies are influenced by the ideas, mores and behavior of other societies – either consciously, or subconsciously. The newly freed slaves, at the dawn of their national history, did not have the willpower or experience to withstand negative influences from the pagan societies which they would encounter in the land of Canaan. Rabbi Solovetchik explained this isolation “as a paradigm of spiritual growth”(5).

Upon reflection of the psychological framework of the Israelites, it clarifies why God chose the ‘isolation’ of the desert for the period of incubation. They needed time alone in the desert to achieve a full understanding of God, His commandments and the covenant which they made with Him.

The covenant made with our ancestors is what preserves our own relationship with God, and it is what compels Him to forgive our lapses in judgment, which has sustained Judaism throughout history.



(1) NUMBERS (1:2)

(2) Nachmanides (1194-1270)

(3) Maimonides “Guide for the Perplexed”

(4) Rashi “On Bamidbar”

(5) Rabbi Solovetchik (1903-1992) Pruzhany, Belaros, “The Lonely Man of Faith”