Bamidbar Eleven: Meat and Prophecy

“The people were looking to complain, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, and a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the extremes of the camp (Numbers 11:1).” From this opening line, it seems that the people didn’t have a specific reason to complain, but rather that they were searching for things to nitpick about, and as a result, God was angry at them for their behavior. Moses intervenes on behalf of the people, and God puts out the fire, but the people are quick to return to their complaints. “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at (Numbers 11:5-6).” This falls in line with the saying ‘the grass is always greener’, but goes to new extremes. The people are actually missing the circumstances of Egypt, when they were slaves, and are wishing for it over the challenges of freedom.

“Moses heard the people weeping with their families, each one at the entrance to his tent. The Lord became very angry, and Moses considered it evil. Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me (Numbers 11:10-11)?” The burden of leadership is a heavy one, and Moses has a largely thankless job. The people complain, God orders, and Moses is left as an intermediary, trying to moderate between the two. God responds to this complaint, and has Moses create a council of elders so that he doesn’t have to lead alone anymore. He also gives the people meat. Except in this case, the answer of their prayers is a punishment. “But even for a full month until it comes out your nose and nauseates you. Because you have despised the Lord Who is among you, and you cried before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt (Numbers 11:20)?'” The people are getting what they asked for and then some, and God once again shows His powers and capabilities.

So, the elders have the spirit of God in them along with Moses. “Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp. The lad ran and told Moses, saying, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!’ Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said, Moses, my master, imprison them!’ Moses said to him, ‘Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them (Numbers 11:26-29)!'” This is such a powerful anecdote. Moses is confident and secure enough in himself and his leadership that he doesn’t feel the need to hoard his relationship with God. Rather, he wants everyone to have a piece of this relationship, and would consider it a blessing if they did. So many leaders today could stand to learn from this, instead of focusing only on maintaining their own supremacy. In this, Moses is a prime example of a forward thinking leader, and of a selfless person.

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Bamidbar Ten: Trumpets

This chapter opens with the blowing of trumpets. “Make yourself two silver trumpets; you shall make them beaten; they shall be used by you to summon the congregation and to announce the departure of the camps. When they blow on them, the entire congregation shall assemble to you, at the entrance to the tent of meeting (Numbers 10:2-3).” We are told many of the uses for the trumpets, and how they differed in different situations. One blast called princes, and different series of blasts called specific camps. The kohanim were responsible for the sounding of the trumpets in the different situations.

“If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your God, and thus be saved from your enemies (Numbers 10:9).” This usage of the trumpets strikes me as very powerful. It shows that they were used to not only assemble the people, but to inspire them, serving as reminders and rallying cries in times of war. Somehow, the blasts of the trumpets were reminders of the power of God, and were meant to motivate the people in times of war, and to connect them with God in times of peace and rejoicing.

The people began to travel again, leaving the Sinai desert and going to Paran, following the cloud of God’s presence. We are given the list of each tribe and its leaders, as they move forward in their wanderings. “Then Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’s father-in-law, We are traveling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel (Numbers 10:29).” Although Moses issues the invitation, it is refused, because Hobab wants to go home to his own land. However, Moses persists, asking him to come because he wanted Hobab to serve as a guide in the wanderings in the desert, due to his familiarity with the wilderness. I’m honestly surprised that this isn’t a bigger story. Most of the time when any doubt is even implied about God’s ability to chart the course on His own, punishment is imminent. However, in this case, Moses thinks they need a guide beyond the cloud of God’s presence, and nothing happens. Does this mean that they did need a guide? Or that God was sympathetic to the instinct of a leader to want an experienced guide on the ground?

Bamidbar Nine: Passover Sacrifice

In the second year that the Israelites were in the desert, God reminded them about the Passover sacrifice that they must make every year. “On the afternoon of the fourteenth of this month, you shall make it in its appointed time; in accordance with all its statutes and all its ordinances you shall make it (Numbers 9:3).” As with most things in Torah, there are numerous rules that must be followed and standards that have to be met in order to properly make the sacrifice. For example, men who are ritually unclean from interacting with dead bodies are forbidden from participating in the sacrifice. However, because of the importance of the Passover offering, men in this category still wanted to be able to participate. “Those men said to him, ‘We are ritually unclean with a dead person; why should we be excluded so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time with all the children of Israel (Numbers 9:7)?'” Moses understands and asks God what to do under these circumstances. God also understands, and an exception is made for this situation, allowing those who are unclean from interacting with the dead to participate in Passover. “In the second month, on the fourteenth day, in the afternoon, they shall make it; they shall eat it with unleavened cakes and bitter herbs. They shall not leave over anything from it until the next morning, and they shall not break any of its bones. They shall make it in accordance with all the statutes connected with the Passover sacrifice. But the man who was ritually clean and was not on a journey, yet refrained from making the Passover sacrifice, his soul shall be cut off from his people, for he did not bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time; that person shall bear his sin (Numbers 9:11-13).”

Bamidbar Eight: Levites and the Menorah

This chapter opens with a note about the menorah. Aaron is told to light the lamps of the various branches of the menorah in a certain order, so that their light will shine towards its face. We are also given a description of it. “This was the form of the menorah: hammered work of gold, from its base to its flower it was hammered work; according to the form that the Lord had shown Moses, so did he construct the menorah (Numbers 8:4).” The menorah is one of the iconic symbols of the Jewish people. It appears on seals and currency, and its loss is one of the great mysteries and tragedies of our history.

After the quick menorah anecdote, we come back to the Levites. The Levites need to be cleansed before they perform their duties. “You shall bring the Levites before the Lord, and the children of Israel shall lay their hands upon the Levites. Then Aaron shall lift up the Levites as a waving before the Lord on behalf of the children of Israel, that they may serve in the Lord’s service (Numbers 8:10-11).” Even though the Levites are separate from the people, and have responsibilities that go beyond those of the people, they need the people in order to be cleansed. Once again, we are shown an example of how everyone was necessary in order for ritual and worship to happen. The Levites were simply the catalyst for the rest of the people, the designated class meant to assist Aaron and the kohanim in their jobs, while also exempting the firstborn sons from their obligations to God.

Bamidbar Seven: Nahshon

I’d like to start out by noting that this chapter is extremely long. Most chapters that I’ve read are a maximum of fifty-something verses, but this one lasts for eighty-nine. So, lots of info, and hopefully lots to say.

Finally, Moses has finished building the Mishkan, and it is anointed and sanctified, along with all of the vessels that go inside of it. Each of the leaders of the tribes brings an offering to God to honor the occasion. “They brought their offering before the Lord: six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for each two chieftains, and an ox for each one; they presented them in front of the Mishkan (Numbers 7:3).” These offerings were meant to be used in the service of the Mishkan, and were given to the Levites in order to do their work in transporting and maintaining it. Each chief of each respective tribe also brought individual offerings for the dedication, one each day.

The first to bring an offering was Nahshon, from the tribe of Judah. We are given a list of his offerings, including silver, flour and oil, gold, and animals. However, what interests me more is what isn’t said about Nahshon in the text, but what we credit him with in the Jewish tradition. In a midrash about the parting of the Red Sea, we are told that the sea didn’t automatically part. Rather, it took Nahshon entering the water while the Israelites waited. He stepped into the water, and was submerged up to his nose before the waters parted. This is meant to teach us that we shouldn’t wait for miracles – we must act, even if it means sometimes acting alone, and at great risk. Nahshon is referred to as a king. In another midrash, this one about this very chapter, we are told that Moses didn’t know what order to tell the tribal leaders to bring their offerings in. However, the Israelite community chose Nahshon, saying that because he went first in to the Red Sea, he was the only one worthy to bring the first offering.

The chapter goes on, with detailed descriptions of the offerings of each tribal prince. All of them give fabulous gifts, honoring God and the occasion. “When Moses would come into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice speaking to him from the two cherubim above the covering which was over the Ark of Testimony, and He spoke to him (Numbers 7:89).” Now, with the dedication of the Mishkan, Moses has a place to talk to God (and vice versa). God is among the people, communicating directly through Moses, and all of the tribes had a hand in making that a reality.

Bamidbar Six: The Nazirite

This chapter provides a series of rules and standards of behavior for a nazirite. A nazirite is a person (male or female) who has taken a vow to consecrate himself or herself to God. This vow comes with a number of requirements, including abstention from wine and grapes, from cutting his or her hair, and from interacting with the dead. Regarding the separation from the dead, the standards for a nazir are even greater than those for the kohanim. While the kohanim can still interact with the dead if they come from their immediate families, the nazir cannot. “All the days that he abstains for The Lord, he shall not come into contact with the dead. To his father, to his mother, to his brother, or to his sister, he shall not defile himself if they die, for the crown of his God is upon his head (Numbers 6:6-7).” I wonder why the standards are even stricter for the nazirite than they would be for the priests. The two things that come to mind are that, first of all, the term of the nazirite is finite, rather than lifelong, and second, the nazirite chooses his or her life, rather than being born into it. Therefore, more can be expected of them than of someone who has come to their station by circumstance. “This is the law of a nazirite who makes a vow: his offering to the Lord for his naziriteship is in addition to what is within his means. According to the vow that he vows, so shall he do, in addition to the law of his naziriteship (Numbers 6:21).”

The end of this chapter is the blessing that God tells the kohanim to give to the Israelites. It’s one that is repeated today on Shabbat and holidays, and happens to be one that I really love. In Israel, thousands of people come to the Kotel (Western Wall) to receive the priestly blessing on Passover. Enjoy the video of it below!

May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace (Numbers 6:24-26).

Bamidbar Five: Sotah

“The Lord then spoke to Moses saying: Tell the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any of the sins against man to act treacherously against God, and that person is guilty, they shall confess the sin they committed, and make restitution for the principal amount of his guilt, add its fifth to it, and give it to the one against whom he was guilty (Numbers 5:5-7).” The thing that I like about this particular commandment is that it indicates that a crime against man is also a crime against God. When one human being wrongs another, they are also guilty of acting against God. in light of that, we can infer that our actions have greater significance than it might appear on a surface level. Therefore, we need to be mindful of all of our interpersonal interactions.

Next, we hear about what happens if a woman has an affair, but there were no witnesses so it can’t be proven. This is the ritual of the sotah, the suspected adulteress. It’s known as the ordeal of the bitter water, because the man who is jealous of his wife must bring her to the kohen. “The kohen shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and some earth from the Mishkan floor, the kohen shall take and put it into water. Then the kohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the head of the woman; he shall place into her hands the remembrance meal offering, which is a meal offering of jealousies, while the bitter curse bearing waters are in the kohen’s hand (Numbers 5:17-18).” Basically, if the woman is innocent, nothing will happen, but if she’s guilty, her belly will swell from the water, proving her guilt. There are so many issues with this ritual. It’s humiliating for the woman, there are no comparable rituals for a man who is suspected of being unfaithful, and there doesn’t need to be any justification for a man to submit his wife to the ritual. The husband has ultimate power in this case, and the wife is at his mercy. While it does relate back to my earlier point about sins between people also being sins before God, with adultery in this case being both, the woman is now subject to the mercy of both man and God as well. Definitely not an example of equality or feminism in Tanakh!

Bamidbar Four: Kohanim

Just as the responsibilities of the Levites were previously outlined, now we are told about the roles of the various clans of the kohanim. Men the ages of 30 until 50 do the work of the priests, serving God within the tabernacle. While they share many responsibilities, there are certain things that also need to be done by certain people. Every aspect of life and work in the tabernacle is regulated, in the most minute details. We are given the list of tasks that must be done every time the Israelites travel to a new campsite.

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: Do not cause the tribe of the families of Kohath to be cut off from among the Levites. Do this for them, so they should live and not die, when they approach the Holy of Holies. Aaron and his sons shall first come and appoint each man individually to his task and his load (Numbers 4:17-19).” I think it’s very interesting that even though the kohanim have a different status than the Levites, and totally separate responsibilities, they are not supposed to be fully cut off from their Levite brethren. The two are meant to work together, and to remain connected, rather than fully dividing as a result of their differences.

Bamidbar Three: Levites

Having numbered the other tribes, we now turn to the Levites. First, we are reminded that the sons of Aaron are Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. All of them were consecrated to serve as kohanim along with their father. However, only Eleazar and Ithamar actually served because of the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Bring forth the tribe of Levi and present them before Aaron the kohen, that they may serve him (Numbers 3:5-6).” In this moment, another clear level of hierarchy is established within the camp. Aaron and his sons serve God, and the Levites serve them. I can’t imagine how this wouldn’t foster resentment eventually. It’s one thing to be serving God and thereby being separate from the people in some way, exempt from work, but to have your tribal obligation to be serving the priests seems unsustainable to me. The Levites will be in charge of the vessels of the Tent of Meeting, and the charge of the Israelites, and Aaron will be in charge of them.

“As for Me I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel in place of all the firstborns among the children of Israel who have opened the womb, and the Levites will be Mine. For all the firstborns are Mine; since the day I smote all the firstborns in the land of Egypt, I sanctified for Myself all the firstborns of Israel, both man and beast they shall become Mine, I am the Lord (Numbers 3:12-13).” Throughout Bereshit, firstborn sons were shown to be receiving a special birthright. Now, they are explicitly designated for God as a result of the tenth plague in Egypt. As Levi wasn’t the first born, I’m not clear on what the exact connection is between his tribe and the firstborns, but the text seems to make a clear link.

Now, in a parallel to the counting of the people and their tent designations, the Levites are counted and we are told where each clan camped. We are also told what each family was responsible for within the tabernacle.

Towards the end of the chapter, we get the explanation for my earlier confusion about the link between the Levites and the firstborns. If it hadn’t been for the Levite responsibilities, these roles would have been designated to the first sons of all of the tribes. Now, however, we redeem the first sons, exempting them from this obligation, which has gone to the priests. This is a custom that extends until today, although now it is symbolic, rather than the actual buying back of a child or animal.

Bamidbar Two: Setting up Camp

Having counted the people of the various tribes, Moses now instructs the Israelites in how they will set up their camp. Being that this is all taking place after at least a year of wandering in the desert, I’m not sure how they were doing it prior to this point, but this is the official arrangement as of now. In the front, facing east, was Judah. Then came Issachar and Zebulun. Reuben camped to the south, with Shimon and Gad next to him.

“Then the Tent of Meeting shall set out, the Levite camp, in the center of the other camps. Just as they camp, so shall they travel, each man in his place, by their divisions (Numbers 2:17).”

Ephraim was camped to the west, with Menashe and Benjamin next to him. Then came Dan in the north, with Asher and Naphtali next to him. There is no indication of why the tribes were ordered as they were. The only part of this that makes sense to me is the obvious: the tabernacle being in the center, guarded from all sides during times of marching and times of camping. The way an army (or a people) is arranged tells a lot about their priorities. In the Israeli army, for example, the officers go first, before the soldiers, demonstrating their leadership and willingness to sacrifice themselves for their men rather than the other way around. In the case of the Israelites, all were willing guards of the tabernacle, surrounding it day and night.