BaMidbar (5778)

Drash Cards for BaMidbar (5778)

by Marc Mangel

  • I have drashed on BaMidbar at least 7 times in the last 18 years (that’s how many I Drash Cards I have on my personal web site), but I got stuck this year on verses 1 and 2.
  • Read the verses
  • It is as much etymology as anything else – and the words are BaMidbar (verse 1) and S’u (verse 2).
  • In the spirit of Shlomo, I remind you that we should not call this book Numbers, but rather BaMidbar – and if you want to be really old fashioned call it Chumash Ha-Pekudim or Sefer Ha-Pekudim. Pinchas Peli in Torah Today says that the change in name is mentioned inn Mishna Yoma 7, 1 – but I could not find it.
  • Parshat BaMidbar is almost always read the Shabbat before Shavuout. It starts out the story of wandering from the 2nd year of the Exodus to the 40th, in the Midbar.
  • What is Midbar. Some translate it as desert; others as wilderness. Jacob Milgram says that the difference is that a midbar cannot be cultivated but can provide adequate pasteurage for flocks. What do we learn when we study organisms in the midbar?  These are not places where organisms die, but places where they succeed with less – and thus there is much to be learned from life in the midbar.
  • Indeed, all three monotheistic religions have revelation in the midbar central to them. And in fact, Joseph Smith too his Mormon flock from Illinois into the midbar of Utah – to Zion in fact.
  • In Torah Gems, R. S.Ludmir writes that midbar symbolizes humility. He also notes that the numerical value of BaMidbar Sinai is 378 – the same as B’Shalom/B’Shalem: to thrive in the wilderness, the tribes were united as one, with one heart.  And of course 3+7+8 = 18.
  • What is the source of this humility. In Midrash BaMidbar Rabba, chazal say that “Our sages inferred that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and wilderness.” Why these?  Because fire, water, and wilderness belong freely to all humanity, so does the Torah.
  • That is, the wilderness belongs to no single people and the same is true with God’s love, loyalty, and concern. R. Bradley Artson writes that the Torah was given in the wilderness ‘To warn Jews not to mistake this precious gift for favoritism nor imagine that possessing the Torah makes us more worthwhile, more valuable, or better than others. On the contrary, it bestows on us particular  responsibilities…to fulfill to all humankind”.  Think about it – the way one becomes a Jew is to take on those responsibilities.
  • The Midrash continues that a wilderness is open on all sides and that R. ibn Gabriol said that wisdom comes to one “who is willing to accept truth from any source”.
  • I also got stuck on S’u at the start of verse 2. It is usually translated as count/take a census, but it can also be translated as ‘elevate’. For example, the Tzemach Tzedek (Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the third Chabad Rebbe)  followed Ibn Ezra and translated “Ki tisa et rosh” as “When you lift up the head” with the implication that  by performing mitzvoth given to us in the Torah we elevate the essence of our soul.
  • In his book of Torah commentary, appropriately called Mei HaShiloach (waters of life), R. Mordecai Yosef of Isbitz also translated S’u as raise and that “By means of counting the number of all the tribes, each individual will experience elevation, and a special significance is seen in each one”.
  • In writing this, he is building on Rashi, who says that counting something is a way of showing that we value it. The Rebbe goes on to say that by counting how much of something we have, we also take note of how each unit contributes to the aggregate and how each unit is indispensable to the whole.. That is why in the census each Jew counted as 1 – to show that every Jew is equally dear to God.
  • Counting is especially meaningful today, the 49th day of the Omer the minor sephira Malchut, the major one Malchut: actualizing within actualizing. We need to get out and do things.
  • God spoke to us in the wilderness to remind us of the need for humility, to be open to all sources and wisdom and knowledge, to remind us to serve humankind, and to elevate us.
  • I once reviewed a book on the biology of deserts and closed the review with “Deserts are places where can often see evolution in action”. I meant, of course, evolution by natural selection. But in reading all of  BaMidbar this year, perhaps can see – and experience for ourselves – spiritual evolution in action. And may we all be elevated by it.