Originally posted Friday, May 27th, 2015

(Dvar Torah for Shabbat Bemidbar)

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

[a revised version of a dvar torah I gave at Temple Israel on Friday, May 22, 2015]


This week we begin Sefer Bemidbar/ The Book of Numbers – the fourth of the five books of the Torah.  The Hebrew names of all the books of the Torah (and indeed of all the weekly Torah portions) comes from the first unique word in the section.  Bemidbar is shorthand for “Bemidbar Sinai”/ “The Wilderness of Sinai” --- The first few words of the first verse being:

 ---  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד 

(“Vayedaber Adonai el Moshe bemidbar Sinai, be’ohel mo’ed…/ “Adonai spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting...”)

The English title, “Numbers,” of course refers to the several censuses of the Israelites that are carried out, especially in the opening chapters of the book. That theme is also reflected in the alternative name for the book that become popular in the rabbinic period: “Chumash Hapekudim.”  “Pekudim” means “countings” and refers to taking a census.  

This week’s Torah portion – and the Book of Numbers as a whole – opens with a general census which explicitly excludes the Levites.  As we read in Numbers 1: 49-50 –

מט אַךְ אֶת-מַטֵּה לֵוִי לֹא תִפְקֹד, וְאֶת-רֹאשָׁם לֹא תִשָּׂא, בְּתוֹךְ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  נ וְאַתָּה הַפְקֵד אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם עַל-מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת וְעַל כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְעַל כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ--הֵמָּה יִשְׂאוּ אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת-כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְהֵם יְשָׁרְתֻהוּ; וְסָבִיב לַמִּשְׁכָּן, יַחֲנוּ. 

49 But you shall not count the tribe of Levi and you shall not take a census of them among the Israelites. 50 And you shall appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the Testimony, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it: they shall carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall tend it; and they shall camp around the Tabernacle.

Towards the end of the parasha, in chapter 4 of the Book of Numbers, a second census is taken, this time of just the Levites.  The tribe of Levi consists of three clans --- the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merrarites – each of whom are to be counted separately because each clan will have different duties in the oversight of the Tabernacle. 

Moses and Aaron are themselves Kohathites, but Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons are treated separately from the rest of the Kohathites because of their special role as kohanim or priests.

The census of the Kohathite clan has a prominent place, since it forms the conclusion of our Torah portion.  We don’t get to the countings of the other two Levite clans --- the Gershonites and the Merrarites – until next week’s Torah reading of Parashat Naso.

The particular job of the Kohathites is to carry on their shoulders all of the most holy objects in the Israelite camp whenever the camp would journey onwards.  This includes the ark, and the tablets within the ark, and furniture and utensils used in the rituals of the Tabernacle.

Earlier, the text had specified that the Kohathites don’t start transporting those holy objects until after Aaron and his son have dismantled them and wrapped them up.

And now, in the very last verses of the parasha, Numbers 4: 17-19 --- we get a couple of portentous warnings:

17 Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 18 Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from among [the rest of] the Levites. 19 Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. 20 But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.

We should first note here that the Hebrew phrase in Numbers 4:20 --- כְּבַלַּע אֶת-הַקֹּדֶשׁ (“kevala et hakodesh”) – translated in Plaut/JPS as “the dismantling of the sanctuary” could more literally be translated as “the swallowing up of the Holy.”  Others translate the verb in this context as “cover up” or “wrap up.”

What’s going on here?  Why can’t the Kohathites look at the holy objects while they are being dismantled or covered or wrapped or swallowed up?  Why is it critical that Moses and Aaron take special care to make sure that the Kohathites don’t get “cut off” from the rest of their fellow Levites?

Traditional and contemporary commentators offer various explanations.  However, for me, the view of the 19th century German commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch resonates most strongly.

Rabbi Hirsch, writing in his Torah commentary offers this explanation:

“If we are not in error, the intent of this prohibition is that the sacred things should remain to their bearers ideational concepts, not objects of physical perception, so that these individuals should be inspired all the more by the ideals the objects represent.  The spiritual contemplation of the sacred objects entrusted to the care of the Kehathites would seem to be an essential aspect of their duties, and a physical perception of these objects while they are being covered would distract the Kehathites from their spiritual contemplation and thereby in effect desecrate the objects themselves.”  [1]

If I might put this into my own words, I think what the Torah and Rabbi Hirsch are talking about is the danger of cynicism when one is too much of an “insider.”

The Kohathites might metaphorically “die” in the sense of being spiritually disillusioned by seeing the holy objects swallowed up or in a state of disarray.  Sort of like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ peeking behind the curtain and seeing just an ordinary person playing with sound effects. 

If your passion is music, maybe you might get disillusioned by getting too much of an insider’s view of the business side of contract negotiations and labor disputes.

If you’re a legislator you might get disillusioned by the messy “sausage making” deals involved in passing laws.

If you’re a clergyperson you might get disillusioned by congregational politics.

If you’re a school teacher or academic you might get disillusioned by turf wars and budget battles.     

I think what the Torah is saying is that we need to safeguard our idealism through our own conscious efforts to avoid cynicism. In this sense, we are like the Kohathites of old. At the same time, we hope to be shielded from cynicism by the support and mentorship of others who can help protect us from disillusionment.  Such was the role of Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons with respect to the Kohathites.  In this sense, we are like Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons for those who look to us for mentorship.

Ideals are by definition illusory in the sense that they are not yet reality.  Let us retain those ideals, guard ourselves and others from cynicism, and not be cut off.

For disillusionment and cynicism is death. 

And we are a people who are called upon to choose life. 

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg 5775/2015


[1] (The Hirsch Commentary, edited by Ephraim Oratz, translated from the original German by Gertrude Hirschler, New York, The Judaica Press, 1986, p. 526) 

Posted on April 13, 2016 .