Tag Archives: B’midbar

Commentary for Bamidbar

2 Jun

In this week’s parshah God instructs Moses to appoint the members of the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron to assist Aaron and his sons and their descendants in their priestly duties.   God notes that this role of special services was originally assigned to all male firstborn (of their mother) Israelites, regardless of tribe (Ex. 13:2, 15). Moses is then instructed to take a census of the total number of male firstborn Israelites, subtract it from number of Levite males (minus Aaron’s family), and have the remaining Israelite families on the list whose son had no Levite counterpart (determined via lottery) to serve in his place pay a small fee to the priests to make up for the service in the Temple that their sons should have theoretically been doing that will have to get done by a Levite working overtime.

While it seems natural that these instructions should all come in one section of our parshah, they actually come in two different sections, surrounded on both sides by a census of the tribe of Levi. It begins with Aaron’s family, then we get the announcement that the rest of the Levites will serve in the place of the firstborn, then a census of some of the remaining Levites, then the instructions to take a census of the firstborn, compare it to the Levites, and then have those who have no Levite counterpart pay the fee, and then, finally, the rest of the census of the Levites.

The second section of instructions offers us a hint into why the Levites were chosen to replace the firstborn. The first two times it appears in that section, the Hebrew word for firstborn- “bechor” is written without the letter vav, which is usually found in the word, but does not change its meaning or pronunciation with its absence. Peirush HaRokeach teaches that the word not being written out in the usual full manner indicates that the firstborn no longer have what should be their “full” status due to their participation in the sin of the golden calf. The Levites, on the other hand, had not participated in the sin of the golden calf, and immediately rallied around Moses when he returned and helped punish those had turned away from God (Ex. 32:26), and thus they were awarded the status that the firstborn forfeited with their sin. This explanation raises an interesting question: If all of those who turned away from God were put to the sword then any firstborn alive at this point would have been innocent of the crime, so why are they being punished?

The answer is that, Halachically, they’re not being punished. While God does instruct Moses to have the Levites serve in place of the firstborn, nowhere does the Torah say that the firstborn lose their mitzvah to serve. This distinction is important because of the concept of a shaliach, one who is sent by another to do a specific mitzvah on his or her behalf. The classical example of this is a father who hires a mohel to perform his son’s bris instead of doing so himself, as he is technically commanded to. Not only does the person still get credit for doing the mitzvah, but he or she enables the shaliach to also get credit for doing the mitzvah as well. Thus, by being either matched up with a Levite or by paying a fee to the Temple to ensure that the required work will be done by someone, the firstborn (though his parents, as his designated legal representatives until he reaches bar mitzvah) still gets credit for the mitzvah, and allows a Levite to get credit for it as well.

However, someone can only be a shaliach for a mitzvah that he or she is already obligated to perform (to continue the example, the mohel must himself be a father). Thus, God needed to declare that the Levites were eligible to perform the same service granted to the firstborn so that they could then perform the mitzvah on their behalf.

That being said, while the Torah specifically goes out of its way to ensure that the firstborn still have the de jure ability to serve, there is still a direct order from God that they have a Levite serve for them, so they are de facto prohibited from serving because doing so would be violating a commandment. What, then, is the reason that God saw fit to transfer these duties from the firstborn to the Levites?

The answer lies in with the only firstborn who still served in the Temple: the firstborn Levites. Obviously not all of the firstborn of the other tribes abandoned God for the golden calf or else there couldn’t have been more firstborn than the total number of Levites by this point, but we do know that the Levites were the only tribe from whom no firstborn participated in the sin. What made the Levite firstborn different? They were Levites.

Order of birth is an issue of happenstance, and rarely has any sort of effect on one’s values. Family, on the other hand, has a major effect. It was not just the firstborn Levites who remained loyal to God, but all of the Levites, because of the values they were raised with. To raise our children to have good values, we must teach them these values ourselves and do our best to surround them with people who share these values, just as the Torah teaches us by surrounding the sections containing the Levites’ reward for adhering to their values with names of the very families that raised them with those values.


Commentary for B’midbar

22 May

God gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, and now, at the beginning of this week’s parshah, almost eleven months later, they are finally ready to head out towards the Promised Land. A major part of this journey is the transformation of the Israelites from merely a handful of tribes with common ancestors and a common belief into a nation with its own full-fledged religion. The image in this week’s parshah of the Israelites preparing to march out to return to the Promised Land, with each tribe in its assigned place surrounding the Tabernacle, which houses (among other things) the newly-given Torah, almost begs the question: “Why did God give the Torah in the middle of the desert instead of just waiting until they entered the Promised Land?” The Israelites have not yet been punished with forty years of wandering, so why not just skip the eleven-month hold-up at Sinai just go straight to the Land of Israel?


The Torah is the holy book that is the foundation of the Jewish religion, and the Land of Israel is the holy ancestral homeland of the Jewish People, so it would seem to make perfect sense to give the holy Torah in the Holy Land. Furthermore, the Torah contains many laws that apply only in the Land of Israel, so what is the point of giving all of these laws to the Israelites before they will have the opportunity to uphold them?


The reason that God gives the Israelites the Torah in the middle of the desert and makes them carry it with them on the long journey through the desert is exactly that: so that they will carry it with them. The Torah did not become irrelevant once the Israelites left Sinai, and it was not irrelevant up until they entered into the Promised Land. Throughout all of our expulsions and exiles from the Land of Israel, it has never ceased to be relevant, and will always remain so through the end of time. We do not start being Jewish the moment we walk in the synagogue door, and we don’t stop being Jewish when we walk out of it. Just as God had the Israelites carry the Torah with them on their journey through the desert, so too must we carry the Torah with us wherever our journeys take us, and let its morals and principles guide us on our path.

Commentary for B’midbar

23 May

In this week’s parshah, the tribe of Levi is assigned its special duties in the Tabernacle. God commands Moses to “bring close the tribe of Levi and stand them before Aaron the priest to serve him (Num. 3:6).” The Hebrew word for “bring close,” “hakrev,” appears in this form only three times in the Torah. The other two places the word hakrev appears are Numbers 18:2, where the duties of the Levites are more clearly spelled out, and in Exodus 28:1, when Aaron and his sons are appointed to be priests. There are many other words that would fit in some or even all of the three locations (for example, “command” or “appoint”), but the word hakrev is used in these three places, and only in these three places.

Each and every word in the Torah has been carefully selected from all of the words in the Hebrew language, and because of this, one of the major principles of Torah study is the concept that if the same word is used in more than one location, we can infer a connection between the those passages. In all three instances of hakrev, the people being “brought close” are being given important yet difficult responsibilities to fulfill. Judaism is a religion with many, many rules and prohibitions that affect our lives. While people often see responsibilities as a burden, Judaism teaches us to embrace them. We should not view them as a roadblock making our lives difficult, but rather each mitzvah should be treated as an opportunity to learn and explore and become closer to God.