Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot
(Rabbi Helfgot, an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion, is
Judaic Studies Curriculum Director at Maayanot Yeshiva High School, Teaneck,
NJ and director of the Talmud/Tanakh program at the Drisha Institute for
Jewish Education in New York City)
The title of Sefer Bamidbar, like other books of the Torah,
is not translated into English literally as "In the Desert,"
but rather as "Numbers," a term borrowed from the Greek translation
of the Bible, and one which reflects the Rabbinic name of our Sefer, "Chumash
or Chomesh HaPikudim" (The Book of the Two Censuses). Both titles
are very significant for understanding the thrust of this very rich Sefer.
It is important to note that in real geographical terms
the Jewish people have NOT REALLY MOVED at all since arriving at Mount
Sinai in the middle of the book of Shemot! The second half of Sefer Shemot
and the entirety of Sefer Vayikra all take place on or around Har Sinai.
This emerges clearly from the text of the Chumash and the exceedingly important
comments of the Ramban at the beginning to his commentary to parashat Behar.
The Har Sinai experience, including the debacle of the Golden Calf and
the restoration of the covenant symbolized by the building of the Mishkan,
take up the bulk of the second half of Shemot. No travels are recorded
in that section at all. Sefer Vayikra opens with a subtle shift - God is
no longer speaking from Har Sinai but from Ohel Mo'ed, down on earth, but
still in close proximity to the mountain. No travels are recorded in Sefer
Vayikra. Indeed, Sefer Vayikra contains a series of lengthy presentations
by God to Moshe of the corpus of Torat Kohanim, and other series of laws
and commands interrupted by a number of short narrative portions such as
the dedication of the Mishkan and the story of the mekalel. All these sections
are centered on Ohel Mo'ed which the Torah emphasizes is IN MIDBAR SINAI,
just as the Torah emphasizes that Har Sinai is situated in Midbar Sinai.
In relation to Matan Torah, this is made clear by the verses in Shemot
19:1-2: "In the third month ... they came to MIDBAR SINAI. And they
came to MIDBAR SINAI and they camped in the DESERT; and Yisrael camped
there opposite the mountain." By the beginning of Sefer Vayikra the
Jewish people have not still moved one iota. The focus is now on Ohel Mo'ed
as the center of God's revelation and consequently, the book of Vayikra
begins with that term; though it also is clearly in Midbar Sinai.
As we open Sefer Bamidbar, we have another subtle shift
in emphasis. After "Har Sinai" of Shemot, and "Ohel Mo'ed"
of Vayikra, we now find God speaking "BE-MIDBAR SINAI BE-OHEL MO'ED."
Once again, this is not a geographic change, but the Torah has subtly shifted
the emphasis in order to focus our attention on the fact that the Jewish
people are now about to enter into a new phase, in which they are traveling
through the desert on their way to the promised land. Before this point
they had also been in Midbar Sinai, but in the context, firstly, of Har
Sinai, and then the creation and dedication of Ohel Mo'ed, as a "portable
Sinai." The final and clearest proof of this is the verse in Parashat
Masei which summarizes the route of the Jewish people: "They travelled
from Refidim and camped at MIDBAR SINAI. They travelled from MIDBAR SINAI
and camped at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava" (33:15-16). This, in effect, covers
all the parshiot from Shemot 19 till Bamidbar 11 - including the entire
book of Vayikra!
This idea also emerges from the comments of the Midrash
Hagadol at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar: "The Torah was given in
three places, in Egypt, at Har Sinai and at the Ohel Mo'ed: In Egypt, the
laws of Korban Pesach, Firstborns and Tefillin; at Har Sinai the Ten Commandments
and the laws of the Mishkan; at Ohel Mo'ed the laws of Korbanot and other
mitzvot." This last stage, of course, includes Sefer Bamidbar which
occurred "Bemidbar Sinai Be-Ohel mo'ed."
To further explore this, let us spend a moment looking
at the basic structure of Sefer Bamidbar. One obvious division of the Sefer
would be to organize it into two basic units:
1. Chs. 1-19 - Narrative of the first generation in the
2. Chs. 20-36 - Narrative of the second generation as they prepare to conquer
the Land of Israel
An alternative division would be to see the book as divided
into three major units:
1. Chs. 1-10:28 - The organization and establishment of
the camp around the Mishkan, preparing to travel in the desert and entering
the land of Israel.
2. Chs. 10:29-19 - The narratives of the desert focusing on the murmurings
of the Jewish People against God and Moshe, undermining the journey and
mission to enter the promised land and leading to the wanderings of the
forty years in the desert.
3. Chs. 20-36 - The narratives of the second generation in the fortieth
year, on the very cusp of entry into the land of Israel, including the
arrival at Arvot Mo'av, on the east bank of the Jordan River.
While both of these divisions are certainly viable conceptual
frameworks for dividing the Sefer, it does appear that the Torah views
the first 10 chapters of the Sefer as a separate unit. Firstly, these 10
chapters are virtually bereft of dramatic narrative, in sharp contrast
to the second portion of the book, which includes the sections of the Kivrot
Ha-ta'ava, the Spies, and the rebellion of Korach. Moreover, there is a
very interesting literary parallel between the opening and closing of the
first section as well as echoes to the last part of the Sefer.
Ch.1 begins with a place and specific date -
1. Hashem spoke to Moshe in MIDBAR SINAI IN OHEL MO'ED,
on the FIRST OF THE SECOND MONTH IN THE SECOND YEAR.
2. This is followed by the list of the Nesi'im, by name.
3. The census of the tribes followed by the organization of the tribes
as DEGALIM - with the various groupings; e.g., degel Machaneh Yehuda etc.
In an act of literary enveloping, the last sections of
Ch.10 parallel this opening, bookending the first ten chapters and emphasizing
its structure as one lengthy portion:
1. Ch.10, verse 11: "In the SECOND YEAR IN THE SECOND
MONTH ON THE TWENTIETH OF THE MONTH ... Benei yisrael travelled from MIDBAR
2. This is then followed by the term "Va-yisa DEGEL MACHANEH Yehuda."
3. Each of the Nesi'im is once again presented with his tribe.
In effect, then, we have a structure in which the entire
first section (which though consisting of 10 lengthy chapters transpires
over the course of less than three weeks) is enveloped between the preparations
to move from midbar Sinai and the actual first movement from Sinai. In
a startling DOUBLE chiastic literary move the following structure emerges:
A. Ch.1:2 - Place: BE-MIDBAR SINAI / Date: The first of
the second month. Ch.10:11-12 - Date: In the second year in the second
month / Place: MI-MIDBAR SINAI.
B. Ch.1 - List of Nesi'im / Ch.2 - first use of term "degel
machaneh" in Sefer Bamidbar. Ch.10 - last uses of term "degel
machaneh" in Sefer Bamidbar / listing of the Nesi'im.
The preparations then, for moving from Sinai to Paran,
up towards the Land of Israel, the theme of these first 10 chapters, are
encased in a similar thematic and literary pattern.
Furthermore, in many ways it would appear that Ch.10 could
have functioned as the conclusion of Sefer Bamidbar, if not for the unraveling
of Jewish history that occurred in the subsequent chapters of the Sefer.
It is striking that just as parashat Masei, which concludes the Sefer by
enumerating the travels of the Jewish people throughout the forty year
period in the desert, opens with the phrase "EILEH MASEI BENEI YISRAEL"
(33:1), so too our section here ends with its own verse, "EILEH MAS'EI
BENEI YISRAEL" (10:28). In truth, the parallels between the two sections
go even further, if we look at the entire section of Ch.10:12-28 and Ch.33:1-.
a. VAYIS'U VENEI YISRAEL LE-MAS'EIHEM MI-MIDBAR SINAI...
b. Vayis'u ba-rishona AL PI HASHEM BE-YAD MOSHE (10:12-13)
c. EILEH MAS'EI VENEI YISRAEL LE-TZIV'OTAM (10:28)
c. EILEH MAS'EI VENEI YISRAEL...LE-TZIV'OTAM
b. BE-YAD MOSHE ... AL PI HASHEM...
a. VAYIS'U mi-Ramseis ...
What emerges, then, is that theoretically Sefer Bamidbar
could have and possibly should have concluded with Ch.10-11, with the Jewish
people beginning the last leg of their journey northwards towards the promised
land. Indeed, this is clearly indicated by Moshe's words to Chovav at the
end of Ch.10: "We are travelling to the place about which Hashem said,
I will give it to you" (10:29).
This is further confirmed by the verse at the beginning
of Sefer Devarim: "Hashem our God said to us at Chorev: You have stayed
long enough at this mountain. Turn and travel, and go to Har Ha-Emori and
its environs ... the land of the Canaani. ... See, I have placed the land
before you, come and inherit the land" (1: 6-8).
The Jewish people were ready to enter straight into the
land of Israel on a direct northward path leading from Sinai through Kadesh
and up the Negev to the mountainous region of Harei Yehuda. This, however
was not to be. At the very brink of the final stage, the entire enterprise
began to unravel, beginning with the complaints at Kivrot Hata'ava and
culminating with the episode of the Spies and the rebellion of Korach.
The "Masa'ot" could have ended with a slightly expanded Ch.10
that included the final stations and the various mitzvot that were to be
given to the Jewish people before entry into the land. There would have
been no need for the bulk of Sefer Bamidbar and its narratives, including
the encounter with Moav and Sichon and the sorcerer Balak. Sefer Devarim
also would have been largely unnecessary. There would have been no need
to repeatedly remind the new generation of the history of the desert and
the covenant, as there would not have arisen a new generation at this point
and much of that history would never have occurred. The covenant at Arvot
Moav is ultimately a "bedi'eved" situation, which in the original
scheme of things should never have been necessary. In effect, then, most
of the rest of Bamidbar (except for some of the laws) and a large chunk
of Sefer Devarim would either not have occurred or would have been unnecessary.
In this way Sefer Bamidbar is in many ways parallel to
its counterpart of Sefer Shemot. The second book of the Torah also contains
within it this reality of "lekhatchila" and "bedieved."
The sin of the golden calf in parashat Ki Tisa upset the process of relevation
and progress of Jewish history to the point where the entire enterprise
was in jeopardy. Much effort and space is then devoted to reestablishing
the covenant, with new structures and strictures in the relationship between
God and the Jewish people. As the Ramban at the outset of Behar forcefully
notes, one must read the second half of Shemot together with Sefer Vayikra
as one unit. After Moshe's entreaties, Hashem granted the Jewish people
forgiveness. He restablished the covenant; however, there was a new aspect
to the relationship. At this point, the covenant would be framed in the
context of SANCTIONS, i.e., the Tokhacha. Thus, at the end of the reproof
section at the close of Sefer Vayikra the Torah emphasizes: "These
are the laws and statutes and teachings which Hashem gave, between Him
and Benei Yisrael, BE-HAR SINAI BE-YAD MOSHE" (26:46). The Tokhacha
section is the seal to the covenant at Sinai that was repeated at Ohel
Similarly, the second half of Sefer Bamidbar must be read
together with Sefer Devarim. The Jewish people should have ideally entered
the land of Israel by the middle of Sefer Bamidbar. It is possible that
many of the mitzvot relating to Eretz Yisrael would then have been presented
to the people as part of the covenant of Bemidbar Sinai, the continuation
of Ohel Mo'ed. There would never have been the arrival at Arvot Moav after
the 40-year circuitious journey to the east and the north and finally west
again. Instead, the Jewish people spend forty years in the desert and a
new generation arises. The covenant at Arvot Moav is thus a necessity,
and it too must be followed by the sanction of the Tokhacha at the end
of Sefer Devarim, in parashat Ki Tavo.
Thus what should have remained Sefer Bamidbar, representing
the experience at Midbar Sinai, is transformed by the historical events
into something else. It truly does become the book of Numbers, of the census.
The two censuses, as the Netziv so eloquently points out in his introduction
to the book, represent the transition from the generation that left Egypt
to the new generation forty years later that was to enter the land of Israel.
In the Netziv's very powerful language, the first part of the book can
be viewed as a "Sefer bifnei atzmo," its own book. Indeed, there
could have only been one census and the title would have remained Bemidbar
Sinai. However, history and Divine Providence shifted that possibility
and the book now reflected two different censuses. It is now Chomesh HaPikudim,
the book of Numbers, with the Jews not simply traveling from "Midbar
Sinai," but wandering in the desert, "Bamidbar" for forty