Weekly Reading Insights: Bamidbar 5781


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Overview of the Torah Reading

To be read on Shabbat Bamidbar, 4 Sivan 5781/May 15, 2021
Torah: Numbers 1:1-4:20; Haftorah: Hosea 2:1-22 (begins: "The numbers of the Children of Israel")

Pirkei Avot: Chapter Six

Bamidbar is the 1st Reading out of 10 in Numbers and it contains 7393 letters, in 1823 words, in 159 verses

Bamidbar begins by relating how Moshe, Aharon, and a prince from each tribe took a census of the Jews (the tribe of Levi was excluded from this census). Then, G-d explains the Levite service in taking apart and reassembling the Tabernacle during the Jews’ travels in the desert. Then is described the location of each tribe’s encampment. The next section deals with the genealogy of Aharon; the status of the Levites in assisting the priests’ service in the Tabernacle; and the Levites taking the place of the firstborn (who were originally intended to serve in the Tabernacle, but lost this privilege by sinning with the golden calf.) Then, G-d commands Moshe to take a census of the Levites, a census of the firstborns, and redeem the firstborns who were in excess of the Levites. The concluding section describes the Tabernacle duties of the Kehos family of Levites.


An Essay from
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, Director of Ascent

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This Shabbat precedes the much-anticipated holiday of Shavuot when we celebrate the receiving of the Torah and it is a preparation for the festival. We also begin a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar. The Sages called the fourth book of the Torah Sefer HaPikudim (the Book of Counting) because it begins with counting the Jewish people and demonstrates the uniqueness and importance of every single Jew. Nevertheless, in Hebrew it is called Bamidbar, "In the Desert", because the entire book recounts events that happened during the Jewish people's forty-year sojourn in the desert, before entering our holy land, Israel.

That the Torah was given in a desert is a central theme in Judaism. As it explains in Midrash Tanchuma, a desert is a humble place. No assets. Similarly, to be able to receive the Torah we must be humble. No outside agendas. Things found in a desert are ownerless and free for the taking. Similarly, the Torah doesn't belong to any individual or group. Anyone can take it and with effort make it their own.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe takes the idea of the desert from a different angle. We live in a world where many places are considered a desert from a Jewish perspective. In general, these are places where, while there might be Jewish people, there are no Jewish institutions, it is hard to find kosher food and, in general, spirituality and holiness are not the priority. Materially and physically these places could be flowering gardens, but spiritually, they are a wasteland.

If a Jewish person ends up there, it is easy to think that in such an environment, observing any kind of Jewish spiritual existence is close to impossible. At first, someone might become lenient in parts of his/her Jewish practice. (Praying in synagogue, wearing a kippa outside the home). After a while, important principles, foundations of his/her Jewishness, might also be relinquished. The person and the family's entire Jewish identity could be at risk. The feeling is, "This place is different, we can't possibly behave here like we would in a thriving Jewish center."

When a person learns this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar,and thinks about it, s/he will understand that this perspective is not valid at all. One of the subjects discussed is the division of the work of the Levites when carrying the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, the portable temple that was with us for all forty years in the desert along with its myriad vessels. The Torah describes how the journeys were organized in the desert and how the Mishkan was erected in each place where the Jewish people camped. When we think about it, it is inspiring! All of this was in a desert, literally in the heart of the wasteland.

How is it possible in a desert, where so little lives and there was hardly a hint of Judaism, that the Jewish people carried the Mishkan during all their journeys and as soon as they camped, they rebuilt it at the center of their camp and immediately transformed the wilderness into a place of holiness, fitting for Divine service.

The Torah is teaching us a universal lesson. The Holy One Blessed Be He did not limit the power of holiness to one situation or another. Any place that a Jew comes to, no matter whether it is a physical desert or even more so, a spiritual one, we have the ability to erect a Mishkan of Divine service. This will sanctify the place where we find ourselves and from there, spread the light of our Jewish traditions, of Torah and holiness.

All we have to do is to let the holy light that is already in us, our Divine soul, shine out, to carry us forward and light the path ahead. As soon as this happens, we will immediately see that all the obstacles and difficulties disappear or are pushed aside, until the place is literally transformed, so that it becomes the Land of Israel, a place of holiness.

This message about the ability to transform the most spiritually forlorn place into a holy camp, is for and within the power of every Jew. However, there is something here particularly connected to women. The Jewish women came forward first, before the men, when the Mishkan was originally built, showing its special connection to women and their own unique ability to build a Mishkan anywhere. This is the inner meaning why a Jewish home is referred to a Mikdash Me-at, a miniature Temple.

Jewish women, who create the home, who are responsible for educating the coming generations and who are the Jewish home's center, are crucial for putting down the "Jewish tent stakes" in each and every place where a Jewish family arrives. It is the women that have that special ability to withstand the influence of the local environment, who can establish the Jewish home on strong foundations and show the way for Jewish education of the young for all of us.
(Tzirel Livnoni. Shulchan Shabbat. Volume 4. Machon Lubavitch)

Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz was one of the first great Chassidic Rebbes. He was born on the day the Baal Shem Tov passed away, helping in his life to fill the vacuum left by the tzaddik's passing. He lived in Galicia (Austria/Hungary). He was very proud of his genealogy. He had illustrious forebears, great tzaddikim and eminent Torah scholars on both his father's and mother's sides. He was not arrogant but understood well the great privilege and responsibility he was given because of his ancestors.
Once he was sitting at a festive meal with his followers. They were speaking about the great advantage of having a good lineage. One of his chassidim (followers/students) responded by saying, "Our rabbi, my lineage (pedigree) is greater than yours!" This very much surprised Rabbi Naftali because it was known that this particular chassid came from a very simple family and many of his siblings had left the Jewish path completely. The chassid continued, "Rebbe, my lineage is greater than your because I am the only one in my family who puts on tefillin and observes Shabbat."
The Rebbe smiled and said, "Truly, you are right, your lineage is greater than mine. (Rabbi Naftali had holy ancestors, but this chassid will have holy descendants.)
(Sichat HaShavua.Bamidbar. 5780)


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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading, see the archive.


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Mystical Classics


Standards of Celestial Conduct

From Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman's commentary on the Torah

"Every man shall encamp by his own standard, with the sign of their fathers house."

Rashi comments that each standard was to have a colored cloth hanging in it, the color corresponding to that of the stone in the breastplate of the High Priest on which the name of that tribe was engraved. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra comments that the four signs on the four main standards were similar to the four figures that the prophet Ezekiel saw in the Divine Chariot.

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