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B’midbar / In the Wilderness
B’midbar begins the fourth book of the Torah. B’midbar translates ‘In the Wilderness’, the English word for this book is Numbers. It is always read before Shavout which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Saini and the giving of the Holy Spirit. B’midbar begins with instructions to take a counting. ‘Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying: “Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and above—all who are able to go to war in Israel. You and Aaron shall number them by their armies. And with you there shall be a man from every tribe, each one the head of his father’s house.’ Numbers 1:1-4.
A prior census was taken when God commanded Moses to take a census of the Israelites just before the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus 30:11-16, and we are told that it has been accomplished in Exodus 38. That occurrence was only one month before this census is commanded and was to allow the people to make the half-shekel contribution to the Sanctuary. This counting was accomplished by counting with a half-shekel and the census in B’midbar was done through names and tribes.
Notice that these countings were done by counting not as mere numbers but tangible as in a half-shekel, and more importantly a name or names/tribes. These commands were also instructions from God, not an individual mandate or need. This is the opposite of what happened in 2 Samuel 24:1-17 even though it states: ‘Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” It is not certain what caused the Lord's anger and the difficulty of understanding why God inciting David to sin is made clear in 1 Chronicles 21:1 where it states: ‘Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and to the leaders of the people, “Go, number Israel from Beersheba to Dan, and bring the number of them to me that I may know it.” This is the evil inclination, thoughts of the flesh.
In 2 Samuel 24 King David orders Joab: ‘Now go throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and count the people, that I may know the number of the people.” And Joab said to the king, “Now may the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times more than there are, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king desire this thing?”
The outcome is disastrous as David realizes his sin and God strikes the people with a plague and 70,000 men die. ‘And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.”
The prophet Hosea reiterates this in Hosea 1:10 (Hosea 2:1) ‘Yet the number of the children of Israel
shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered.’
B’midbar begins with take a census, which the literal translation is lift up the head, also to count them worthy who stands up for Israel. We are reminded that this is a holy war, going in on faith, fighting the battles with Him, not our overconfidence in numbers. This parasha is so symbolic of Shavout not only when the Torah was given, but also when the Holy Spirit was given, for we are ‘lifted up’ as in the head not in the tail. As we leave the wilderness and accept the totality of the Word of God we are truly the children of God and we are the head.
Baruch HaShem~ Rabbi Jay