A Text That Mirrors Democracy

Bemidbar By :  David Marcus Professor Emeritus of Bible and Masorah Posted On May 26, 2017 / 5777 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective

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.

All this attests to the great democracy of our Jewish tradition of learning Torah: The word vayeddaber means “he spoke” and, in context, refers to God speaking. But the recipients of this divine word are not limited to a priestly hierarchy guarding to themselves the word of God. The text from Nehemiah on this page recalls the first time that the Torah was read in public when the Israelites returned to Eretz Yisrael from exile in Babylon, which marked a turning point in Israel’s religious history. Now everyone, not only the priests, would have access to the word of God. As the Nehemiah verse (8:8) says: “[T]hey read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense: so [all the people] understood the reading.”