It is always exciting to start another book in the Torah. Yet, out of the 5 books found in the Torah, I think the title of this one has to sound the most boring. This week we find ourselves starting out in the portion “Bamidbar”, which begins the book of Numbers. Now, I don’t know about you, but growing up, whenever I thought about a book of numbers, I thought about math, and when I thought about math, I would feel sick. Finally, I believe I have been able to forget many of those bad memories, but along with that…I think I have forgotten much of what I was supposed to have learned as well. Anyway, this book of Numbers actually doesn’t make me feel sick. Rather, I’m very excited to jump into God’s book of Numbers and explore what He is trying to convey to us through the text.
However, before we get into the actual portion for this week, I want to first talk about the Hebrew name of this book. In Hebrew this book is not called the book of “Numbers,” though there are a lot of numbers in this book! In Hebrew this book is called, “Bamidbar” which is translated as, “In the Wilderness.”
We see a lot of Biblical Characters who go into the wilderness before receiving their mission and calling from God. Moses, Elijah, David, and the nation of Israel before they received the Torah; even Yeshua Himself, before He began His ministry on earth, spent 40 days in the wilderness. I just read a quote by Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States, and I thought it was fitting to the idea of our calling and mission being revealed to us in the wilderness. He said, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.” I believe he stated it well. The wilderness is a glimpse of the world as it was from the very beginning, when God said, “Abracadabra.”
Now, just as a side note, some of you may be surprised that I used some hocus-pocus word like abracadabra to describe God’s creating of the universe, but let me explain. The word “abracadabra” is an ancient word which some have said actually may predate the confusing of the languages which happened at the tower of Babel. (Genesis 11) Whatever the case may be and though the etymology of this word is unknown, you can connect this word back to Hebrew and Aramaic, which very likely could be the true understanding of this seemingly meaningless word. In garbled Hebrew, the phrase “abracadabra” could be the two Hebrew words “Ebrah K’Dabri,” in Aramaic the two words would be “Avra K’Dabra.” Both of these phrases share the same meaning, which is “I will create like I speak.” As it says in Psalm 33, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” When God created the world, His words brought forth creation. So when we say “abracadabra” it means our words can bring things into existence. It means our words have power, even as God said (in an imaginative sense) “abracadabra” and the world came into existence.
The wilderness is a reminder of the time when God first brought this world into being. It is a reminder of how things once were before Mankind’s departure from the garden of God. So when we read of Biblical Characters making treks into the wilderness to fast and pray, they didn’t necessarily go to get away from the noise and distractions. Instead, I propose, the wilderness is a place where people can go to remember how it once was at the very beginning, when man communed with God. And once we remember what we had in the garden, it should impassion us with a fervent desire to do everything in our power to bring that reality (man communing with God) back to earth. This is what the “Call of the Wild[erness]” is all about. 
 
Our portion this week begins starting in Numbers 1, where it says, “Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of meeting…saying:  ‘Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and above—all who are able to go to war in Israel. You and Aaron shall number them by their armies.’” The book of Numbers starts off with numbers!
God tells Moses to “Take a census…” This portion works out perfectly, because this 2020-year is the year for the National U.S. Census. So we understand the point of a census and what the idea entails. However, the census in the Torah would have been done using the half-shekel method used for counting of the men of Israel, as God instructed Moses to do in Exodus 30. The U.S. census on the other hand, happens every 10 years and is a questionnaire, not only to be counted as living in America, but to also give the government the ability to create statistics about the general population. And here is part of the difference between a Torah census and a U.S. census. Any world government census is usually done to have control and a general feel for it’s populace, which is in no means a bad thing, but it differentiates itself from the purpose of a “Torah census.”
While a secular government’s census is used to control its population, in this Torah portion we find a different idea on why a census is to be done. In this portion, when God tells Moses, “Take a census…” This may be how we translate this verse into English from Hebrew, however in the Hebrew it says, “Su Et Rosh” which means “Lift up the heads…” You see, when God takes a census of His people, it is not about population control; it’s about an elevation goal. When God told Moses “Count the people” what He meant was, “Lift up/Elevate the people to the place I have called them to.”
The next thing to notice about these first verses from Numbers 1, is that even though this is only a census to count out the men who were of age for war, God says, “Take a census …by their families…” Why doesn’t God just say, count out all the army-guys and figure out how many you have? Why does He say “count them by their families” wouldn’t that just take more time? If I see a bowl of fruit on the table and someone asks me to count all the grapes in the bowl, I wouldn’t count all the fruit and then divide the grapes out of the amount I counted, yet this is basically what God is saying to do. Why?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes in one of his commentaries, “God had the families counted, in order to stress the centrality of the family in Judaism…the Torah commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The primary setting in which this commandment is fulfilled is that of our families…” Behind every good man is an excellent woman, and behind every excellent woman is a house built upon the concept of “Shalom Bayit—A Peaceful Home.” As it says in the book of Proverbs, “The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish pulls it down with her hands.” I would add to this idea. The reason every family was counted was to show the value of each individual. Even though many wouldn’t be selected for the task of military service, every family would be counted as a way of God showing that He still valued each person within a family, even if He didn’t select them for the specific task of warfare.
There is a Jewish story that speaks about God’s love for His people. In the account, God is compared to a wealthy king who sits counting his money all throughout the day. He polishes one coin, kisses another, and he finds his joy in all his coins. He has a special name for each coin and can remember each coins story; how he got it and from where. This wealthy king loves to collect more coins, but it never diminishes his great love for the coins he already has. In this the same way, God thinks about His people. He counts each person individually, He knows each person’s story, every nick and scratch is what makes each person special to Him. To the wealthy king, it doesn’t matter how beat up a coin is, for he knows its story. What matters most to the king is the fact that the coin is back in his treasury were it belongs. This is exactly the same way God sees us. He is excited every time a person turns back to Him. When a person remembers where they came from and where they belong. Like Yeshua said in Luke 15, “I say to you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” The Rabbis say that God rejoices over the sincere repentance of a sinner even if he eventually returns to his sin. God is like a king who wishes to see all his subjects. When a criminal goes to visit the king, the king doesn’t despise this individual; rather he rejoices over the few monuments spent with one of his citizen’s, though he knows this person may never come to his courts again. There is another story of a prince who left the palace and his father, the king. Over a series of events, finally the prince realizes he wants to return home. When he arrives at the palace in his father’s presence, he begins to weep. When his father, the king, comforts him and asks him why he is weeping, the prince says, “I never realized how much you love me and how merciful you are. If I had known then what I know now, I would have returned much sooner.” God counts His people and considers them His most valuable of treasures. His desire of us is that we would return to Him, so He can count us as one of “His people and the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalm 100)
The Sheep of his Pasture circa 1828 Edward Calvert 1799-1883
The last thing I want us to notice in the first verses of Numbers 1 comes from verse 3, when God says to Moses, “You and Aaron shall number them by their armies.” The word used here for “Armies” is the word “Tzivotam.” This word is the same word used when the Bible speaks of God as the “Lord of Hosts—Hashem Tzevaot.” It is interesting to note that the first time God calls the children of Israel an army is in Exodus 12, right as they are leaving Egypt. It says, “And it came to pass, on that very same day, that the LORD brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt according to their armies. So God has called His people an army. Not slaves, or former-slaves, or anything else for that matter. He calls them an army. But the very next chapter, Exodus 13, we read these verses, “Then it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, ‘Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people around by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. And the children of Israel went up in orderly ranks out of the land of Egypt.” Wait, what? In one chapter God calls His people an army and in the next He says, “I’m not going to bring my people past the Philistines because if they see war they might turn around and return to Egypt…” What kind of army is that?
Here is what we can learn from these verses. God saw His people for who they truly were and for who they were going to become. As soon as they came out of Egypt, He viewed them as an army. It was the nation of Israel that didn’t see themselves as an army. And so therefore, God had to prepare, train and teach them, what He viewed them as. It is the same in our time. God sees us for who we are, but oftentimes, we don’t see ourselves how God sees us. We see ourselves through the lens of our grimy past, He see us through the lens of the glorious future we all have if we trust in Him. Believe the promises of His word and speak them over yourself. It will change the way you live. God has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. Notice, in the Exodus story, God never sends His people back to Egypt. Instead, He takes them through the wilderness, because the wilderness is where we are reminded of the beginning of time, when God walked with man in the cool of the day.

Grace and peace from God’s bondservant,
Shabbat Shalom,
Samuel

37 thoughts on “Parsha Bamidbar Numbers 1:1-4:20

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