learning: bamidbar & shavous

This week we start the book Bamidbar and read parshat Bamidbar (Numbers) 1-4:20.

Moses is instructed by Hashem to take a census of the children of Israel. The numbers are then listed. Next we are told where each of these families will camp and what order they will travel in. The tribe of Levi is then charged with serving the Kohanim in place of the first-born of all families (thus eventually the need for pidyon ha’ben).
A better summary may be found here.

Hebrew words of the week
במדבר – bamidbar – fourth book of the torah. “wilderness”. known as numbers in hebrew
מספרים – misparim – numbers

Why is it called Bamidbar in hebrew and Numbers in English?
Bamidbar is where the Jewish people will be for the next 40 years. Most of my seforim with english translate it as “wilderness” or “in the desert”. My hebrew is not good enough to challenge those or make a solid decision as to which is better. Numbers refer to the census that HaShem speaks of to Moses. As most of us know, names are full of meaning in judaism. I’m looking for a better explanation than I am drafting as to why the books and torah portions are named what they are. Please be patient.

This is not the first census as they were numbered prior to the building of the tabernacle (Sh’mot 30:11-16; 38:25-26). Why in this parsha is every little detail recorded such as the exact date of the counting? Nehama Leibowitz explains this by looking to Rashbam and his explanation that “those twenty years and up were to go forth in the army to battle”. Furthermore Nachmanides wrote that while he hadn’t understood the reason for the commandment, “perhaps the idea was to make known his lovingkindness unto them, that when their fathers went down to Egypt (Mitzarim) they numbered only 70 … and now theyw ere as the sand of the sea. And after every pestilence and plague He numbered them … in accordance with what our Sages said ‘out of an abundance of love for them He numbers them frequetnly'”. (Leibowitz pp 11-13 and Finkel pp 9-10) [nb: that is not the full quote!]

That is a lot of food for thought, but Nachmanides did not stop there.. he spoke about “numbers of names from the age of twenty and upwards by their polls“. These polls are perhaps to impress upon us “the personal value and worth of each and every soul which is a unique specimen of divine creativity and a world of its own”. (Leibowitz p 14 and Finkel pp 9-10).


Further Thoughts
Tanach.org on Bamidbar
Rabbi Nachman Kahana (ou.org)
Rabbi Riskin
Rabbi Weis‘s Shabbat Forshpeis, “The Great Importance of Counting”

Shavous is next week.
This is when we received Aseres Hadibros. In preparation we learn all night and eat dairy! yay! ;) Er, well, here are a bunch of better links as to what Shavous is, why some of the customs exist, and other tidbits of wisdom. I have yet to actually get my act together to make cheesecake for shavous. I really hope I will this year. I like cheesecake.

ou.org‘s lengthy list of articles

specific articles which caught my eye
Shavout to go 5767 Rabbi Josh Flug
“This year’s edition focuses on copyrights, wireless networks, and intellectual property from a halachic perspective.” (if you know me, you know this would interest me!)