By Rav Reuven Tradburks
1st aliya (Bamidbar 4:21-37) Instructions for and a census of the family of Gershon (son of Levi) are done. The family of Gershon is responsible for the textiles of the Mishkan: the curtains and the covers of the Mishkan. They are to function under the supervision of Aharon and his sons, in their case, under Itamar. The family of Merari is instructed and a census taken. Their responsibility is the structure of the Mishkan: boards, sockets, wall braces. Their tasks are assigned by name, supervised by Itamar. The census, aged 30 – 50, of the family of Kehat is 2,750.
These first 2 aliyot conclude the description of the jobs of the Leviim in managing and transporting the Mishkan. And of their census. The Leviim encamp around the Mishkan. The other 12 tribes encamp around them.
2nd aliya (4:38-49) The census of Gershon, 2,630, and Merari, 3,200. The total of those who will serve and carry the Mishkan is 8,580.
With the conclusion of the assigning of roles and of the census of the Leviim, the detailed description of the Jewish camp is complete. In the description of the jobs, the names, and the numbers, we begin to see the Jewish nation as a nation. It is real people, with real names and real populations. And this nation is to march with G-d in our midst, encamp with Him in our midst. With the destination: the land of Israel. But, we who know how the rest of the book will unfold, recognize this detailed order as foreshadowing. Oh that our national life would be so neat and tidy. You here, you here. You doing your task, you doing yours. All of us recognizing G-d in our midst. This is a lovely description of how we ought to live and how we ought to travel on in to the land of Israel. But the book of Bamidbar is the meeting of the ideal with the real. Instructions and descriptions of what ought to be are great; how they actually are lived in this less than neat and tidy world gets messy.
3rd aliya (5:1-10) Command the people to send those, male or female with Tzarat, or Zav, or Tamei out of the camp. The people did so. A man or woman who steals, swears denying the theft and then admits, shall repay the principal plus one fifth to the owner. If the owner has died leaving no heirs, the payment is paid to the Cohen. The Cohen’s portions fully belong to him.
These 2 aliyot are also foreshadowing. Now that the march to the land of Israel is about to become a reality, don’t ignore the foibles of people in society. Keep the camp tahor – both in the details of the laws and in a metaphoric sense. Know that people will steal. And not only steal, but lie to cover it up. Stealing and lying are paradigmatic failures of people trying to live together in society. In the book of Bamidbar, when we make the shift from theory to practice, from instructions to marching, coalescing as a nation, human failures are inevitable. Stealing and lying. The Torah never portrays the Jewish people as perfect, pristine. We are a real life people with all of our shortcomings. A holy people; but a holy people that is real, not fairy tales.
4th aliya (5:11-6:27) The Sotah: If a married woman spends time alone with a man other than her husband, and her husband suspects her of having had relations with that man, then she is brought to the Cohen. She brings a simple offering. The Cohen places water and dust in a container. She swears that she is innocent. The Cohen writes in a scroll that should she be guilty, the water she will drink will cause fatal internal damage. These words are put in the water. Her offering is brought; the water is drunk by her. If she is guilty, this will be fatal. If innocent, this will prove it. The Nazir: When a person vows to be a Nazir, they may not drink wine or any product from a grape, may not cut their hair and may not come in contact with the dead, including closest relatives. If the Nazir does come in contact with the dead before the conclusion of his Nazir status, then he must bring an offering of 2 birds, one for a chatat and one for an olah. At the final end of his Nazir status he brings animals for a chatat, an olah and a shlamim. He cuts his hair and burns it. Birkat Cohanim: Tell Aharon that he shall bless the Jewish people with Birkat Cohanim: in so doing they place My name on the people and I bless them.
The 2 quite dramatic mitzvoth in this aliya express the theme of Bamidbar: the tricky business of living the ideal in this complicated world of the imperfect. The ideal has been the topic of Shemot and Vayikra: living a life with G-d in our midst, a holy life, a noble and sanctified life walking with our G-d in our midst. But stuff happens in life. That ideal has to be lived by real live people, who, well, get in the way.
The 2 elaborate mitzvoth mentioned here, Sotah and Nazir, are breaches in communal life in particular. Sefer Bamidbar, as the book of the march to the land of Israel, is both the transition from the ideal life of camping at Mt. Sinai, to the rough and tumble of real people living real lives. And it is the maturing of the Jewish people in our communal, national expression. Sotah and Nazir are breaches in communal life. The Sotah, the wife suspected of adultery, is a breakdown in the holiness of family life. The Nazir is a breach in the reach for super holiness; as if to say the Torah isn’t enough, isn’t holy enough for me. Insufficient holiness is a breach, but no less a breach is super holiness.
In the mitzvah of the Nazir, left unsaid is what prompts this person to swear off wine, contact with the dead and cutting their hair. Something is going on in their life so that they need to restrict themselves. Vows of restriction of this sort could be a desire to live an even more rarified and holy life than the rest of us. That may be a noble desire; or it may be distorted. When the Nazir has failed himself and wants to rectify his weaknesses by swearing off wine, that would appear positive. But if the Nazir ascribes to himself a holier than thou position, that the Torah is fine for you, but not for me, then this is a breach not of erosion but of hubris, of condescension.
5th aliya (7:1-41) On the day Moshe completed, anointed and sanctified the Mishkan and all it contains, the leaders of the tribes brought a contribution. They brought 6 wagons and 12 oxen for the transport of the Mishkan: 2 wagons and 4 oxen were given to Gershon, 4 wagons and 8 oxen to Merari. Kehat did not receive any for they carried the vessels of the Mishkan on their shoulders. The leaders of each of the 12 tribes brought offerings as an inauguration of the Mishkan. Each day the leader of the tribe is named and his offering brought. Each leader’s offering is identical.
Our parsha is the longest parsha in the Torah due to these last 3 aliyot. In fact, these 3 aliyot are only one chapter but a chapter of 89 verses, longer than many full parshiot.
6th aliya (7:42-71) The description of the leader’s offerings continues, outlining days 6 to 10.
Each day a different Nasi, head of the tribe brought an offering, though the offering was identical each day. This repetition engages the commentators. Perhaps this relates to the nature of leadership itself. Jonathan Sacks, z”l, occupied himself extensively with the notion of leadership. One of his dominant themes was the theme of service versus power. A Jewish leader serves his people. And serves his G-d. Not himself. This is hammered home by the offerings of the Nasi. In offering to G-d, the Nasi is expressing that he is a servant of G-d and a servant of His people. The march to the land will be demanding of these leaders. They need to affirm from the outset that they serve not themselves but their G-d and their people.
7th aliya (7:72-89) The description of the leader’s offerings continues, with days 11 and 12. The Torah enumerates the totals of each of the offerings brought by the leaders. These served as inauguration of the anointed altar. When Moshe entered the Ohel Moed to speak with G-d, he heard the Voice emanate from upon the kaporet, the covering of the Aron, from between the angels and He spoke with him.
The Parsha concludes with a repetition that G-d spoke to Moshe from above the Aron. Whereas the emphasis previously was on the magic of the meeting of G-d and man, here the emphasis is on the content: Moshe acts on Divine instruction, not his own personal power and pride.