Shalom Brothers and Sisters,
Many people, when they attempt to read through the Bible, if they hadn’t given up in Leviticus, do so when they hit the census in Numbers. This is unfortunate because there is valuable information in this book that is found nowhere else. Stories about the wanderings of Israel from the spy debacle until the new generation was ready to enter the Land. This is an essential part of Torah.
Bamidbar opens with a census. In fact, the first four chapters are lists of people in the camp and their families and their various duties. Why was it necessary to include this information in the Torah. Certainly, from a human point of view, you would think that if G-d is going to put all His important thoughts in a book, the space taken up by these lists could have been better used. But even the lists have a purpose and in this commentary I will give you two of many.
First, the lists are a testimony to the miraculous power of G-d and His ability to fulfill His promises. Remember our timeline to this point. Ya’akov had gone down to Egypt with a clan of seventy. After a time they were reduced to slavery and Pharaoh tries to limit their numbers by killing their babies. They came out of Egypt and have been wandering around in the wilderness of Sinai, slowly making their way to the promised land. These are circumstances under which most groups would disappear. But the census is testimony to the fact that when G-d told Avraham that his descendants would be too numerous to count, He had the power to fulfill that promise no matter what the circumstances. When we look at this, we can have confidence that G-d can cause us to flourish even in the most extreme circumstances. This is one of the lessons in our history from which we can draw strength.
Second, the census shows that every individual counts. In truth, if you were the head of one of the clans and your name was going to be recorded in the Torah, you would make sure it was read every year! Our names, by virtue of our covenant relationship with G-d, are written in the most important book of all, the Book of Life. G-d knows the number of the hairs on our head, he cares about all the individuals in His community and is not willing that any one should perish. We can take confidence in that fact that although community is essential to the plan of G-d, it does not eliminate the value of the individual like communism seeks to. Each individual is created by G-d a certain way and He uses our individuality to accomplish His purposes.
So we can rest in the promises of G-d knowing that even in the most difficult circumstances He can work His will. And even though when we come to Him we become part of a select community, we are still important in His sight as individuals, individuals He cares about. And those are just two of the lessons of the lists.
Sefer Bamidbar begins with what most would describe as rather ‘dry’ reading. Most of the first couple of chapters describe necessary organizational structures put in place to ensure that all the people of Israel can live and work together without devolving into chaos. At best, organizations are looked at by some as a necessary evil, at worst as a structure that elevates some over others and solidifies a caste system.
The potential for such a disaster certainly existed in this arrangement. The Midrash tells us that when G-d suggested this arrangement, Moshe questioned it. Moshe thought there would be disputes between the tribes over the arrangements, who would be first and who would be last, who would camp to the north which represented wealth and who to the south, representing wisdom. It would just provide an additional opportunity to a people already prone to grumbling.
Moshe certainly had a valid concern. Centuries later in the time of our Messiah, his followers fell prey to the same kind of grumbling. They wanted the thrones next to his, they tried to use parental influence, the argued about who was the greatest, who was closest to the Master. And Yahushua told them that the one that wanted to be the greatest must be the servant of all. That those who seem to be first would be last. It was a Kingdom turned on it’s head.
G-d explained to Moshe that there was little need for concern. The reason for the arrangement in the camp was that it followed the arrangement of Ya’akov’s sons around the coffin when they carried their father up from Egypt. The tribes would accept the arrangement based on this reason and because everyone knew his place. Lo and behold, it worked. We are told throughout our parasha that they did everything just as G-d commanded Moshe.
The problem and the solution to this universal situation is ego. There is conflict when egos collide. That was what Moshe was concerned with, that what the talmidim were concerned with. Ego says ‘look at me’....‘see what I can do’.....‘listen to my brilliance’....‘follow me’....and many other such statements. Often in ministry we have the same type of mentality, we are the only ones capable of feeding our flock, we don’t want ‘our people’ to pay too much attention to another teacher. We want to say with Ya’akov and Yochannon, ‘they are not from our group, the curse of G-d on them’. The results are obvious and the whole community suffers.
One of the goals of spiritual growth is the negation of ego, to achieve true humility which is to know one’s place in the world and to what end G-d is using you. The lack of pride and personal ambition. Moshe, Yahushua, Elijah, Daniel and many others are great examples of this. They were powerful men who did great things but they did them because they were led by G-d, not their personal ambition. They did not have pride in their achievements, the kind of pride that says ‘look at how I serve G-d’,or ‘look how faithful(torah obedient) I am’. We should never have to speak for ourselves in such a manner, our actions and our love should speak for itself. Knowing our place in G-d’s organization and being a faithful servant where we are; being a conduit for G-d’s spirit in the world. No ego, no grumbling. That is where we need to be.
A lot of changes take place between the conclusion of Vayikra and the beginning of Bamidbar. The people of Israel have spent almost a year at Sinai, receiving the Torah, learning it’s application and constructing the Mishkan. Most of the book of Vayikra dealt with the Mishkan, as did the end of Shemot and because of that, it concentrated on the priesthood. Bamidbar shifts the focus to the rest of the nation, beginning with a census.
There are several practical reasons for this. First is organization. If the camp is to be moved efficiently, organization is key. In addition to just the camp, they needed to move the Mishkan in an orderly and respectful fashion. They also needed to raise an army to take the land they are going to inherit. An army needs to be organized into divisions and platoons and companies with clear lines of command and communication. To attempt any of these tasks in a chaotic or haphazard way would be to invite disaster. The things of God must be done decently and in good order.
There is another important reason for the count. The book begins with the familiar words “YHVH spoke to Moshe...in the tent of meeting....”. Moshe had an extraordinary intimacy with God and this constant communication with the divine is a testimony to that uniqueness. But that very uniqueness can be a drawback as well. There have been hints of it up to this point. Jethro had to council Moshe to delegate his authority to judge. We have all seen this group dynamic at work. A leader thinks he is the only one that can get things done and done properly so he does it all himself. This destroys the motivation anyone else in the group may have to contribute and creates lazy followers who do not work or question. Most of the time this is the result of the leader exercising control because of his own insecurity. Moshe, however, wished that all of the people had what he did and readily delegated his authority. Such closeness with God also created resentment, as was the case with Aaron and Miriam who complained that Moshe was not the only one God spoke to. Although we are all created with and have the capability for such communion with the divine, few achieve it and that creates friction between that individual and those that are around him or her. But that is because the lessons of Bamidbar have not been understood.
Moshe, Aaron and the other priests and Levites and their service to YHVH in the Mishkan were the focus of Vayikra and this may have resulted in other Israelites saying “What about me?”. We may as the same question. We may not be in positions of power or leadership, we may not have extraordinary gifts and we may be tempted to be lazy or give up. Bamidbar says you count because you are counted. God knew each Israelite and by having them counted he made sure that Moshe and the other leaders knew each one as well. Did it matter? It sure did because each individual was crucial. Moshe may have been tempted to look out over those two million people and figure if a few hundred or even one was lost or died it didn’t matter. But it did, and it does. Y’shua taught that even the hairs of our head are numbered, that as individuals we have great worth. In fact, we have infinite worth because the ruach of YHVH resides in each person.
This is not just glorification of the individual, however. We all have worth as a part of the whole. Israel is Echad, a unity of individuals who possess the infinite spirit of God. The leader who reveals more of that spirit is not greater than another who does not. How can I say I have more of the infinite that you do? The person whom the leader may look down on is the same as themselves, they have the same spirit. There can be no place for pride which is what made Moshe truly unique. Y’shua said when we have achieved great things of the spirit we have only done our duty and I would say that there are few of us achieving even that. Bamidbar teaches us that each person counts in the echad of the people of God. There is no boasting, there is no greater or lessor. Y’shua said that the greatest is the servant of all.
In parasha Bamidbar, we have the census of the people of Israel, hence the English name-’Numbers’. The census is important on several levels but we are going to look at the most obvious, using the assumption that those who are most important are counted first. Some would say that the Levites and Priests should be counted first, their job is crucial. They are counted last. Perhaps one should count all the people so we know how many there really are. No, all the people were not counted first. The people counted first were the ones who were going to make all this possible-the warriors.
We live in a world governed by the aggressive use of force. It has been this way since Cain killed Abel. Israel was subjected to slavery because the Egyptians were more powerful. Israel conquered Canaan because the city states then in existence were not united and, hence, less powerful. The exception was the Philistines who, because of their technological superiority, specifically their use of iron, gave them a military edge. The Romans conquered the western world because of tactics and organization. Some military powers gain superiority through sheer numbers, some with exceptional training, some with technology. The point is that those with the power make the rules.
We are currently at the conclusion of the war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein maintained power in that country through the use of force. If someone didn’t toe the party line, they were killed. In this case, hundreds of thousands of them were. As with most dictatorships, law was the creation of the dictator. He made it, he enforced it and it was based solely on his authority. Western democracies and republics are different, aren’t they? They are based on the rule of law which is greater than any one man or group or people. The question is, how was this established and how is it maintained? It was established through the use of force, a revolution. It is maintained through the threat of punishment which is the physical use of force. The law is just words on a piece of paper, it must be enforced. A piece of paper will not protect you from a mugger, a treaty did not protect the Soviet Union from Hitler’s Blitzkrieg.
We live under the illusion that the law protects us. It only protects us from those who have the same respect for it we do. Perhaps that is what we call ‘civilization’. Nomads, like Avraham, were under no such illusions. He went to Gerar with the assumption that ‘there was no fear of God in this place’, no respect for basic human rights and dignity. He did what he thought was necessary to ensure his survival, in this case, deception. When Lot was taken, he employed a very aggressive use of force to get him back. He was responsible for himself and the safety of the clan. In many countries in the world, the third world in particular, this is still the case. In western democracies it is also the case although we don’t take our responsibility seriously and the almighty state frowns upon those who do. It sees them as taking a responsibility that is the state’s alone. In Europe where a soccer game or a protest can turn into a riot or in the US where a court decision or natural disaster can have the same effect, or a terrorist can take over a plane with a box cutter, civilization is only a veneer. Would a terrorist try to take a plane filled with navy SEALs? No, of course not. But western people are wimps and the enemies of western culture know this. Criminals know this. We have been trained by a culture that encourages our submission to force. This was not the way of the Bible, not the way of Avraham or Moshe or David or Elijah or even Y’shua who made sure his talmidim were armed. The ability and confidence to handle any situation tactically, technologically or physically, when necessary, abolishes the great enemy of all those who seek God-FEAR.