Counting With the Full Severity of Compassion

Counting With the Full Severity of Compassion

Jun 3, 2022 By Beverly Bailis | Commentary | Bemidbar

Bemidbar, which opens the book of Numbers with a census in the wilderness, was going to be my son’s bar mitzvah parashah. His bar mitzvah had been scheduled for May 16, 2020, a date that coincided with the beginning of the 2020 US decennial census. Initially, the rather administrative biblical verses seemed dry and perfunctory: lists of names and numbers, first of a military census, followed by a census of the Levites, and then the family of Kohath, a Levite subclan. Yet as we became increasingly aware of the importance of these biblical censuses, we came to understand our own current moment and the 2020 census in a new light. Censuses capture a moment in time, as valuable points of data help to paint a picture of what a society is like, who we are as a nation, and our identity as a People

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Our Sacred Partnerships

Our Sacred Partnerships

May 22, 2020 By Mychal Springer | Commentary | Bemidbar

The Midrash teaches us that God destroyed the world several times before creating our world (Bereishit Rabbah 3:7 and 9:2). Famously, after the flood, God establishes a covenant with Noah, Noah’s sons, and all living things. God says: “I will maintain My covenant [beriti] with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11). When we read this verse in light of the midrash, we understand that God came very close to destroying the world again, but managed to enact a symbolic destruction, providing some people and some of the living creatures with a way to survive. This covenant is the vehicle for keeping humanity and all of creation connected with the divine even when rupture looms as a possibility.

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Counting Ourselves As Israel

Counting Ourselves As Israel

Jun 7, 2019 By Leonard A. Sharzer | Commentary | Bemidbar | Shavuot

Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, which we begin reading this week, opens with the taking of a census. After the rather arcane matters we have been reading about in recent weeks—the sacrificial cult, laws of purity and impurity, skin eruptions, bodily discharges, and so on—the monotony and repetitiveness of this week’s parashah comes almost as a relief.

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Politics as a Jewish Vocation

Politics as a Jewish Vocation

May 18, 2018 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Bemidbar

The book of Bemidbar, which aims to help its readers navigate the chaotic wilderness in which the Children of Israel have always lived and wandered, deals more directly than any other book of the Torah with what the great sociologist Max Weber called “Politics as a Vocation.”

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A Text That Mirrors Democracy

A Text That Mirrors Democracy

May 26, 2017 By David Marcus | Commentary | Bemidbar

The book of Numbers does not start with the word bemidbar, which occurs a little later in the first verse, but rather with vayedabber (“and he said”). In the standard Rabbinic Bible (Mikraot Gedolot), the first word of the book is introduced with an extraordinary flourish: The word vayedabber is printed in giant letters and enclosed in a decorative woodcut border in the shape of a parallelogram. This is surrounded by another rectangle consisting of two lines of Masoretic notations (traditional notes on the Biblical text) on each side; these notations are, in turn, surrounded by two biblical verses, one from Nehemiah and one from Daniel.

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Becoming Like the Wilderness

Becoming Like the Wilderness

May 26, 2017 By Eitan Fishbane | Commentary | Bemidbar

With the start of Sefer Bemidbar, the narrative of the Torah turns to the long journey of Benei Yisrael through the wilderness—punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf and preparation for entry into the Land of Israel. Passage into the sacred terrain first requires an arduous ordeal of wandering—a physical process of movement and quest. Penitence, pilgrimage, and transformation are anchored in the space of wilderness.

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The Wilderness Speaks

The Wilderness Speaks

May 22, 2015 By Daniel Nevins | Commentary | Bemidbar

The summer after graduating college, I went backpacking with a friend in North Cascades National Park in Washington. The sun shone brightly on Lake Chelan as we were ferried deep into the woods, landing at the little outpost of Stehekin to begin our weeklong trek. It was a euphoric beginning, but soon both the weather and my mood grew darker. 

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Finding Direction to Move Forward with God

Finding Direction to Move Forward with God

May 23, 2014 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Bemidbar

This Shabbat opens the fourth book of Torah known as Sefer Bemidbar, the book of Numbers.

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How Do You Measure a Year?

How Do You Measure a Year?

May 8, 2013 By Abigail Treu | Commentary | Bemidbar | Shavuot

We are doing an awful lot of counting this week: we count the final days of the Omer, and, as our parashah begins, take the census of the Israelite community. What does all of this counting have to do with the ways in which we measure what really matters?

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A Slow Walk to Freedom

A Slow Walk to Freedom

May 8, 2013 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Bemidbar

With this coming Shabbat, we begin the fourth book of Torah known as the book of Numbers or Bemidbar.

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The Poetry of Sinai

The Poetry of Sinai

May 27, 2011 By Andrew Shugerman | Commentary | Text Study | Bemidbar

I rarely encounter texts like the midrash above that so completely challenge static notions about Torah.

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Our Sacred Partnerships

Our Sacred Partnerships

May 27, 2011 By Mychal Springer | Commentary | Bemidbar

In this week’s Torah and haftarah portions, the specter of rupture looms repeatedly. First, we are reminded of the deaths of Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu. Similarly, our parashah recounts the undoing of the sacred place held by the firstborn sons, chosen to be dedicated to God when they were saved from the 10th plague, the plague of the slaying of the firstborns. Finally, in the haftarah, Hosea tells the story of Israel the Unfaithful, through the vehicle of Gomer, his harlot-wife.

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Teach Us to Number, O God!

Teach Us to Number, O God!

May 15, 2010 By Robert Harris | Commentary | Bemidbar

Our Torah portion this week begins the fourth book of the Torah (see? I’m numbering already!), B’midbar. This Hebrew name of the book comes from one of the first significant words in the book, and means “in the wilderness of . . . ” (see below). But in rabbinic antiquity, another name of the book circulated, and that was humash (orseferHa-piqqudim, which essentially means “Book of Counting” (see, e.g., Mishnah Yoma 7:1). This name corresponds to the ancient Jewish Greek version, Arithmoi, which was rendered by the Latin Vulgate Numeri, from which comes our current English title, “Numbers.

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Counting Ourselves As Israel

Counting Ourselves As Israel

May 23, 2009 By Leonard A. Sharzer | Commentary | Bemidbar

Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, which we begin reading this week, opens with the taking of a census. After the rather arcane matters we have been reading about in recent weeks—the sacrificial cult, laws of purity and impurity, skin eruptions, bodily discharges, and so on—the monotony and repetitiveness of this week’s parashah comes almost as a relief. The chieftains of each tribe are named, and an identical formula is recited, concluding with the number of men over the age of twenty—fighting men—in each tribe. For this is not a census of the entire people, rather it is an accounting of those who will make up an army to cross the desert. The Israelites have just celebrated the first anniversary of their liberation, and they are about to embark on a journey that will last thirty-eight years, although they do not know that at the time of the census. They are forming an army to take the population on what should be a short sojourn to the Promised Land. That they should form an army to cross the desert is not surprising; but, we may ask, why the apparent preoccupation with numbers?

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The Torah’s Lessons for Building Communities

The Torah’s Lessons for Building Communities

May 31, 2008 By Charles Savenor | Commentary | Bemidbar

Bemidbar, the fourth book of the Torah, opens with a demographic and geographic description of the Children of Israel.

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Normalcy and Covenant

Normalcy and Covenant

May 19, 2007 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Bemidbar

Numbers always stands in pointed contrast to Leviticus. The overarching order of the book of the Torah that we have just completed — the routines of sacrifice, the hierarchies of priesthood, the distinctions between purity and pollution, permitted and forbidden — all this soon gives way to B’midbar, “in the wilderness,” to challenges of a different sort. The book starts by counting the people and arranging the camp for travel. But soon, we know, all those counted will be held responsible for the spies’ rebellion. Moses’ cousin Korah will attempt insurrection. The camp will wander without hope of reaching the Promised Land. We turn from Leviticus to Numbers, aware that the real world awaits us there: the one in desperate need of sacred order. We, like the Israelites, clearly have a lot to learn,

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Diversity through Order

Diversity through Order

May 27, 2006 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Bemidbar

Order is the essence of Torah. In Genesis, God creates the world by imposing order on chaos; and in Exodus, God imposes order on a people shattered by 400 years of servitude. The transition is especially dramatic for the Israelites — their change in orientation must be two-fold, physical and spiritual. Nothing less than a revolution is required to transform these ex-slaves of Pharaoh into the loyal servants of God. And so, having proposed a legal (Revelation, specifically the laws of Torah) and ritualistic (sacrificial system as outlined in Leviticus) order for the newly freed Israelites, the Book of Numbers opens by establishing spatial order.

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Life, the Universe, and Everything?

Life, the Universe, and Everything?

May 27, 2006 By JTS Alumni | Commentary | Bemidbar

By Rabbi Murray Ezring

Science fiction aficionados know the answer. The answer is forty-two, or so wrote Douglas Adams in his classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Numbers have always been important in Jewish tradition. So Adams might be correct. The number forty-two may contain tremendous religious significance. Four plus two equals six, the number of books in the Mishnah. Four times two equals eight, the number representing the covenant we have shared with our creator since the days of our patriarch Abraham. Six times seven, the result of multiplying the six days of the mundane workweek by the sanctity of Shabbat.

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Counting People

Counting People

Jun 5, 2005 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Bemidbar

The book of Numbers opens on a triumphant note.

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The Directed Life

The Directed Life

Jun 4, 2005 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Bemidbar

Order is critical to the establishment of a just and productive society. It is no wonder then that the book of B’midbar details the meticulous arrangement of the Israelite encampment. Numbers 2:2 instructs, “the Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting.” The parashah then continues to list the exact placement of each tribe in relation to each other. Given this attention to organization in the Israelite camp, one might expect the journey through the desert to move along flawlessly. Yet, more than any other book of Torah, B’midbar attests to the waywardness of the Israelites. How could a people blessed with Torah, the details of the sacred service of God, and now the precise map of their camp – all designed to create an orderly and meaningful society – devolve into such chaotic ways?

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