Parashas Bamidbar – Desert, Water and Fire : This week we enter the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar. Usually translated in English as 'The Book of Numbers', because one of it's major themes which occurs within the book and in particular in this weeks sedra is that of the census of the people. We see from the beginning of this week's parasha that the members of the tribes were counted individually, as every Jew passed in front of Moshe and Aharon and presented proof of his tribal descent. Ramban in fact brings this down as one of the reasons why Hashem wanted a census to be taken, so that each member of the nation would know that they had a right to the personal attention of the two great leaders, and by conducting a census this provided a perfect opportunity for every Jew who passed before them to tell them his name and be counted as an individual of personal worth. Another benefit would be so that they could receive a blessing from the great Prophet and his holy brother, and the half-shekel contribution used to make the census would bring them atonement. When commanded to undertake the census, Moshe was told to... “Taken a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel... by number of the names” [1:2]... this appears to be a very strange language which is used to describe how the counting is to be done, 'by number of the names/במספר שמות'. We learn out from this that we as Jews are never just another number, and it is actually forbidden to count Jews directly... this is why the half-shekel donation was used in order to then count the coins to determine the number of people. Even though we might all appear to be quite 'black and white' on the surface, we all have something that is individual and that is our name. We are told by the Kabbalists that someone's name is not merely a title, rather it is the essence of a person and it can describe the individuality of someone. The word for someone's soul 'Neshama/נשמה' has the word 'Shem/שמ' in the middle which means name... this is no coincidence as both are intrinsically linked. Getting back to the point then... when Moshe is asked to make the census by number of names, he was also being told to determine from these names their individuality, abilities and role (the name) within the community (the overall number). It is also important to note that certainly it would have been easier and quicker to count the people en masse, and that would have been the proper course if all that mattered was sheer numbers. But this process would have caused the individual to be an insignificant member of the total community and it would have obscured his personal responsibility to grow and contribute. Each tribe had its own uniqueness to contribute to the national well-being and each individual was precious in his own right, by counting them individually this proves the infinite worth of every Jew.
Parashas Bamidbar begins with us being told that “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai... on the first of the second month...” [1:1], this means that the command to count the nation was given on the 1st of Iyar which was to be twenty days before the nations entry into Israel. Ramban brings down that due to the timing of Hashem's command, we can infer that this census would determine who qualified to serve in the army in preparation for the military campaign which would have to be undertaken to conquer the land. The census would also be used to know how many people were eligible to receive portions of Land. Another famous reason as to why Hashem wanted his nation to be counted is brought down by Rashi who tells us that this was because of G-d's love for the Jewish people... we see on many occasions that Hashem counts his people throughout the Torah; the seventy who originally descended to Egypt, immediately after they left Egypt (Parashas Bo), following the sin of the Golden Calf to see how many were left after the death of the sinners and of course throughout Bamidbar, the book of Numbers. A person invests time and effort to inspect and count items that are precious to him. The more valuable the item, the more carefully he will scrutinise it. When I was young I used to count my football stickers for hours and then when I grew a bit older I used to spend even more time counting my collected pocket money as this brought about pleasure. So to, Hashem frequently counts the Nation of Israel, demonstrating that in His eyes every individual Jew is important. From this we see why the Torah goes to great lengths to detail the numbers of the Jewish people and to add to our list above we have another four different censuses in this week's Parasha alone.
In Hebrew, however, Bamidbar does not translate as 'Numbers' but literally means 'in the wilderness or desert'. In fact we received the Torah in the Sinai desert and this has to be questioned as to why we needed to experience the climax of the exodus, the giving of the Torah in such a harsh environment. There's a Midrash that says the Torah was given in three things... fire, water and desert. The first explanation brought down on this by the mefarshim is that this statement implies that we need to have faith in Hashem and need to make personal sacrifices in order to learn Torah and to serve G-d fully. The fire, water and desert link to three key events in the Torah in which we see this;
Fire- When Avraham leapt into the furnace of Ur kasdim to prove his faith in Hashem amid the evil Nimrod
Water- When the Jewish nation jumped into the Red Sea before it split and the faith they showed in Hashem to walk through the split sea with walls of water around them (no fear was shown that the walls would collapse and the sea would drown them)
Desert- This was the faith and sacrifice it took to follow Moshe into the wilderness of the desert out of Egypt and trust that Hashem would take care of them
We can therefore learn that in order to achieve in Torah there has to be an element of sacrifice whether that be financial, time or even the sacrifice of home comforts in order to go and learn in Israel at Yeshivah. Ultimately it is through these sacrifices and difficulties that we get rewarded most and it is ironically this 'wilderness' environment devoid of material comfort that usually produces the best results. Concerning this possuk the Midrash also says that we were given the Torah in such a way so that we would learn that we need to turn ourselves into a desert... What does this entail you ask?... There are two ways in which one deals with his Yatsa Horra which is the primary fighting force within us against doing mitzvot and more dangerously, committing sins and acting in a non-Jewish way; the first of these is that of the fire/water which involves us pouring water on the fire of the Yatsa Horra when it tries to entice us, this is a successful but difficult process as there are inevitably going to be times when the fire is too great for even water to extinguish it. The more successful method of fighting the evil inclination within us is by turning ourselves into a desert... when this is achieved temptations no longer exist for us as we are in such a high state of control over ourselves that no fire or water is necessary in our desert. An example of this would be if you were to ask an average frum Jew to eat some bacon... this temptation is so far removed from us that we wouldn't even consider it in the slightest, rejection isn't even a challenge for us as we are in this high state of control in this area. There is nothing physical or tempting when one has turned himself into a desert and developing this ability can lead one to be successful in more challenging areas of temptation that occur for us. Of course, being a Sandground, I already have a head start in turning myself into a desert... that one was just for you Dad.
So there are a lot of figures of numbers given over in this week's parasha so what is the relevance of all these numbers, is there something deeper hidden within the amounts? The answer is obviously 'of course there is' as the Torah doesn't waste a single letter let alone chunks of text with numbers. So one cool observation I heard which I think was the Chasam Sofer originally... The Torah writes, “ the tribe of Binyamin... their count are thirty-five thousand, found hundred” [2:22]. The land which the tribe of Binyamin later settled in Israel contained the holy city of Jerusalem and the Beis HaMikdash which was the source of blessing for all the Jewish people, where all the offerings took place and the Kohanim performed the services of the Temple. Now with that in mind... King Solomon instituted that every Jew should make at least 100 brachas/blessings a day... So if we were to calculate how many brachas we should be making every year...
100 brachas a day X 354 days (in a Jewish year) = 35400...
which happens to be the exact amount given over by the Torah for the count of the tribe of Binyamin, who populate the region which was the source of blessing for the whole Jewish nation.
With that I wish you all a very good Shabbat and of course we have been counting down since Pesach and the time is nearly here with Shavuot next week so a huge Chag Somayach!
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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