This Week’s Torah Portions (Beha’alotcha): Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Israel finally leaves Sinai and Moses’ problems multiply. Numbers is a story about a beaten-down people, a people who find the smallest faith in God difficult. Few nations tell stories like these about themselves. As origin stories they are less than heroic. No doubt, in later times, they were used as lessons in what not to do.
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A Few Highlights from the Hebrew and the Commentary
Numbers 8:4 — kamar’eh asher her’ah Adonai et-Moshe, כַּמַּרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר הֶרְאָה יְהוָה אֶת־מֹשֶׁה, “according to the likeness shown to Moses.” The tabernacle and its implements were built by revelation. The unstated idea behind this is simple: the earthly sanctuary represents realities from the unseen realm. What happens on earth mirrors some reality in heaven. This theology implies that there is more to life than what we see in this world.
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Numbers 8:19 — velō yihyeh bivnei Yisra’el negef begeshet bnei-Yisra’el ‘el haqodesh, וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶף בְּגֶשֶׁת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ, “that there will not be a plague among the children of Israel when they come near the holy place.” The giving of the Levites to God in service prevents a disaster from happening in the holy place. Since it is a bit of heaven on earth, the tabernacle is dangerous. The presence of such holiness so near to a nation of ordinary people invites dangers, such as blatant disrespect or inadvertent errors. People might stray into the holy place bringing things with them that do not belong there. We live day in and day out with signs of death all over us. God keeps the sanctuary free from the usual signs of human death. When people bring unpurified impurity with them, they pollute a place meant to be kept separate. But the Levites are given to the task of guarding the holy place, preventing people from making foolish mistakes in approaching it carelessly.
Numbers 9:15 — uva’erev yihyeh al-hamishkan kemar’eh-eish ad-bōqer, וּבָעֶרֶב יִהְיֶה עַל־הַמִּשְׁכָּן כְּמַרְאֵה־אֵשׁ עַד־בֹּקֶר, “and in the evening it was on the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning.” The visible manifestation of God’s presence in the wilderness rested on the tabernacle, on the outside, where all the people could see it. By night they could see that there was fire inside the pillar of cloud. By day, there was still fire inside, but the light made it less visible. The cloud on the outside of the pillar obscured the glory of God so the people would be able to look at it and not die (see, for example Lev 16:13). God’s appearance is always described with terms involving fire and light.
Numbers 10:10 — uvayōm simachtem uvmo’adeichem, וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶם וּבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם, “and on the day of your joy, your appointed times [festivals].” The Torah lists a number of occasions when the priests should blow the two silver trumpets, including festivals. The fact that Israel made only two silver trumpets should clarify that they were a people small in number. As I have explained elsewhere, the numbers in Torah for the population of Israel have been corrupted in transmission (there were not 600,000 men of fighting age as the current text of Torah indicates). As for the silver trumpets, they have a function similar to shofars (rams horns) except there were only two originally and only the priests could sound them, whereas all the people could sound shofars. In several places Torah associates the festivals with joy and rejoicing. The religion God calls good is not a stark, mirthless kind of self-denial (except on a limited number of occasions). God endorses enjoyment, happiness, and delight.
Numbers 10:34 — ve’anan Adonai aleihem yōmam, וַעֲנַן יְהוָה עֲלֵיהֶם יוֹמָם, “and the cloud of Adonai was above them by day.” The columns of Israel marched out, headed as the text says to the place of which God had said, “I will give it to you.” Who was their guide, Jethro [Hobab] or the pillar of cloud? We have here an interesting picture, with Israel following both divine guidance (the Pillar) and human knowledge (Jethro-Hobab). As far as the description of Israel’s marching columns goes, this passage must have been an inspiration to later generations of Israelites, imagining their forefathers in array, with tribal standards, led by Moses, Jethro, and God himself.
Outlines of the Week, Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
NUMBERS 8:1-14 Instructions for mounting menorah lamps (1-4), cleansing for active-duty Levites (5-14).
NUMBERS 8:15-26 Levites as gifts to the priesthood (15-19), performance of Levitical purification (20-22), retirement of Levites (23-26).
NUMBERS 9:1-14 The first Passover outside of Egypt (1-5), those who cannot celebrate due to impurity (6-8), Passover sheni [Second Passover] (9-13), same law for the resident alien (14).
NUMBERS 9:15-10:10 Israel’s journey resumes and the Presence goes with them (9:15-23), the silver trumpets (10:1-10).
NUMBERS 10:11-34 The cloud Presence lifts and Israel journeys at last (11-13), the tribes travel in a column in order (14-28), Moses persuades Hobab/Jethro to accompany them (29-32), summary of journey (33-34).
NUMBERS 10:35 – 11:29 Liturgy for the Ark of the Covenant (10:35-36), the anger of God burns against the camp (11:1-3), the riffraff complain about food (4-9), Moses’ complaint (10-15), seventy elders to get Spirit (16-25), Eldad and Medad prophesy (26-29).
NUMBERS 11:30 – 12:16 The plague of quail (11:30-35), Miriam and Aaron jealous of Moses (12:1-2), the humility of Moses (3), God speaks for his servant Moses (4-8), Miriam stricken with scale disease (9-14), Miriam healed after seven days (15-16).
To read full commentary on Numbers 8:1 – 12:16, click here.
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