How does Bamidbar remain relevant today?


Although the rest of the world refers to the Five Books of Moses as the Pentateuch, traditional Jews refer to it as the Chumash, stressing that it is comprised of five very different sections, with the themes of each book differ fundamentally from each other.

Genesis (Bereshit) deals with the creation of the world and its early history and the formation of the family that became the nation of Israel. Exodus (Shemot) describes our slavery in Egypt, our redemption from that slavery, the revelation on Mount Sinai, and the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert. Leviticus (Vayikra) is concerned mainly with the sacrificial rituals and the duties of the kohanim. Deuteronomy (Devarim_ is a summary and review — in some sense a preview — of Jewish history.

But what is the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) all about? Moreover, in what way is Bamidbar relevant to us today and what eternal message does it contain?

Ramban, in his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar, wrote that “this whole book deals only with those commandments which were meant for a particular time, the period when the Israelites stayed in the desert, and with the miracles which were done for them. … There are no commandments in this book which are binding for all times except for some commandments about the offerings which He had begun in the Book of Leviticus.”

Ramban’s words attest to the temporary nature of the book which we begin to read this Shabbat.

The nineteenth century Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, views the desert narratives of  Bamidbar in a manner which only adds to our perplexity. In his introduction to our book, he insists that it is mainly concerned with a period in which we were led by direct divine guidance and protected by supernatural interventions.

So our question takes on a metaphysical aspect. Of what benefit to us is a book which describes a reality totally different from the one we inhabit today?

It should be noted that Ramban’s contention that “there are no commandments in this book which are binding for all times” was modestly challenged by the late fifteenth century commentator and statesman Don Isaac Abarbanel, then more forcefully by the late eighteenth century Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, author of Panim Yafot.

Quoting one of his distinguished predecessors, he writes, “I’m puzzled. In this book, we do indeed find many mitzvot which are applicable to all generations and are not limited to the Tabernacle rituals. They include the mitzvah to confess one’s sins, the mitzvah of the Birkat Kohanim, the requirement of challah, the mitzvah of tzitzit, the mitzvot of not being led astray by our hearts and by our eyes, the mitzvah of redeeming the firstborn, the laws of inheritance, the laws of nullification of vows, and, perhaps above all, the mitzvah of sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.»

When I confront such difficulties in my Torah study, I look for a commentary which reframes the problem in some novel and creative manner. I have compiled my own informal “short list” of such commentaries, most of which are of relatively recent composition. One of them is the collection of insights of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, entitled “HaMaor ShebaTorah.”

His first approach is based upon the title of our book, Bamidbar, “In the Desert,” or, perhaps better, “In the Wilderness.” The Rebbe understands the entire Pentateuch as a description of the preparation of a dirah batachtonim, a dwelling place for the Almighty in this human world.

The first three books of the Torah focus on the internal process that the Jewish people must undergo to create an “inner” dwelling place for the Almighty. The fourth book, our book, is a description of the beginning of an outward process aimed toward the rest of humanity. The midbar, wilderness, represents the arena in which the Jewish people confront the outside world, the olam hachitzoni. 

The Rebbe thus uses the metaphor of the wilderness to represent the challenge to the Jewish people to fashion a “dwelling place” for the Almighty among all the human race. This metaphor was employed by the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 20 verse 35, which reads, “And I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face.”

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The Rebbe maintains that the theme of Sefer Bamidbar is the mission of the Jewish people to establish a «dwelling place» for the Almighty among all the people on Earth. This approach certainly makes our book relevant today.

The Rebbe continues to offer a second approach. Although most of us call it Sefer Bamidbar, our Sages refer to our book as Sefer HaPikudim, Book of Countings, similar to the general public’s Book of Numbers. He questions the fact that our Torah attributes such significance to mere numbers. After all, does quantity have spiritual importance? Is not quality what really matters from a spiritual perspective?

To answer these questions, the Rebbe suggests that the lesson of the Book of Numbers is just this: numbers do matter. Quantity does lead to quality even in the spiritual sphere. After all, he argues, prayer requires a minyan, a quorum of ten men. Birkat HaMazon requires three for a zimun. And a special blessing is recited when 600,000 Jews are in one’s view.

I would add the words of Rashi in last week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 26:8): “A small number of people upholding the Torah cannot compare to a large number of people who do so.”

The theme of the Book of Numbers is simply this: Numbers do matter. Quantity impacts quality.

Thus, we can begin this new section of the Five Books of Moses conscious of two major themes: (1) As Jews, we have a mission to the nations to help make the world a “dwelling place” for the Almighty, and (2) just as “the more the merrier,” so too, “the more the holier.”