Parashat Bemidbar

By: Rabbi Shelton Donnell and Esther Edelsburg written for Congregation Kol Haneshama, Jerusalem

The book of Numbers is the book of wanderings and in order that these wanderings do not cause anarchy, there must be order.  Thus, our portion, Bemidbar, the first in this book, focuses on the organization of the camp.  This is designated according to the tribes and clans, at the center of which is the Mikdash-sanctuary.  In the second year of the exodus from Egypt, Moses is commanded, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head” (Num. 1:2).  Every male from the age of twenty was counted according to his clan, his tribe and his ancestral house.  Each one had his appointed place within the people, and, as for the total count, “These are the enrollments of the Israelites by ancestral houses.  The total enrollment in the divisions, for all troops: 603,550…” (Num. 2:32).  These were the men above the age of twenty who were suitable for military service, but, the levites were not counted among the Israelites.

The levites were not considered military personnel because they were designated for another function, namely the service in the Tabernacle, service that is described in more detail in the continuation of the first chapter and in the third chapter of Numbers.  This service consists of breaking down and building the Tabernacle, transporting it and other tasks.

Particular attention should be given to the beginning of chapter three relating to the levites, “This is the line of Aaron and Moses at the time that Adonai spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.  These are the names of Aarons sons: Nadav the first-born, and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar; those were the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests who were ordained for the priesthood.  But Nadav and Avihu died by the will of Adonai, when they offered strange fire before Adonai in the wilderness of Sinai; and they left no sons.  So it was Eleazar and Itamar who served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron” (Num. 3:1-4).

“This is the line of Aaron and Moses…” is what is written, but only the names of Aaron’s sons appear.  Why aren’t the names of Moses’ son, Gershom and Eliezer mentioned?  Often, great figures such as Moses are so caught up in important matters that they do not have time for their families or for their private lives.  Is this the reason?  Moses was like a father to the Israelites, it is quite possible that he did not have the opportunity to be a father for his own sons.  Or perhaps, there is here an allusion to the fact that the legacy of leadership is not necessarily based on heredity.  The truth is that we shall ultimately never know because the Torah and the traditional commentators remain silent on this matter.

According to Rashi, the text reads, “This is the line of Aaron and Moses…” for a very different reason, “it is called the line of Moses because he taught them Torah, which teaches that one who teaches the son of his fellow Torah is considered by scripture as if he had fathered him.”  And the commentary Menorat Hazahav (Zusya of Hanipoli, 1719-1800) adds, “There are those who interpret Rashi’s words in light of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (6:3), ‘One who learns from his fellow…a single letter, must treat him with honor,’ that is because it is as if he fathered him.  Just as in the case of a father, who gives life to his child but once, while the child is nonetheless obligated to honor him throughout his life, so too, in the case of one who teaches Torah but once, one should honor him throughout his life.”

  1. What do you think about the fact that the names of the sons of Moses are missing from the text (Num. 3:1f)?
  2. What would you say to Moses’ sons if you were there with them in the synagogue at the time when the parasha was read and they didn’t hear their names?  How would you placate them?
  3. From what is presented here, what is the position that the commentators take regarding the importance of teachers?
  4. Does society act in accordance with this perspective?
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