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Torah Commentary
Be-Midbar (May 14, 2018)
Bettijane Eisenpreis
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying:

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. (Numbers 1: 1-2)

The Hebrew and English names of the fourth book of the Pentateuch (Torah) express the dual themes of the book.The Hebrew name, Be-Midbar or “In the Wilderness” can be found in the first verse, while the meaning of the English title, Numbers, can be found in the second verse, where God tells Moses to “take a census of the whole Israelite Community,” or in other words, to number the males who were setting out in the desert. Women didn’t count – but that’s a whole different discussion.

Both the numbers and the wilderness story are important. While the first chapter, with its lists of names and numbers, is not terribly stimulating to read, it is important to see that every man setting out to march from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land was counted. No one was so unimportant as not to be included, and no one counted more than anyone else. God Himself made this clear to Moses in his instructions.

Taking a census was and is crucial. Taxes, armies, infrastructure, social welfare programs – all are determined based on the number of inhabitants. However, while it was important to be counted, it was also scary. Not only man, but God was taking account of each and every adult man in the children of Israel. To this day, being counted, while essential, poses risks. There is an intense debate going on at present as to whether a person’s citizenship status should be included in the upcoming U.S. census. In states like New York and California, even legally naturalized citizens may be afraid to be counted, because it may endanger relatives who are not citizens. The expression “stand up and be counted” is as important now as it was in the Bible.

The other name “Be-Midbar” can also be translated as “In the Desert.” At the beginning of Numbers, the Israelites are at the foot of Mount Sinai, preparing to set off through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They know they must walk through the wilderness, more often called the Sinai Desert, but they don’t know how long. (I don’t think I am spoiling the story to say that it will turn out to be 40 years.) In this chapter, God, through Moses, is literally giving them their marching orders – telling them which tribes will march in front, in back, and on the sides. According to the diagram in The Torah, A Modern Commentary, (Gunther W. Plaut, editor, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, NY 1981, p. 1027), the tribe of Judah had the position of honor, the first tribe in the East.

The priestly clan, the Levites, were not included in the general census; they had a special position, surrounding the Ark of the Covenant on all sides, with Moses, Aaron and his sons – the Kohanim or High Priests, on the Eastern side of the Ark.

Parashat Be-Midbar ends with God instructing Moses as to the duties of the Levites and telling him to take a special census of the priestly clans – a return to numbers! When the parashah ends, they haven’t even started to march yet, although there has been a lot of counting. This will be a long and momentous trek through the desert and when it ends, the people of Israel will be a changed nation. Stay tuned – the saga has just begun.

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