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Entering the Wilderness

The 4th book of the Torah opens with Parashat Bamidbar (Num.1:1–4:20) when the nation of Israel is called together in preparation for the physical and spiritual challenges they will face in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Much like the time spent in the midbar by great leaders such as Moses and King David, the hardships they encounter should serve to unite the people, as well as strengthen and shape them—teaching Israel to rely only on HaShem. This preparatory period begins when G-d instructs Moses to take another census:

"Take a census of the whole Israelite fighting men by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. Associated with you shall be a participant from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house." -- Numbers 1:2-4

This is another in a series of roll calls for the nation, one that heralds a new phase for Israel. Rashi tells us that the census was taken because of G-d's care for His people. It also reminded them just how much they literally counted. More than a census, it was a crucial rededication of each person's unique talents, skills, and even their aspirations which had been refined during the 49 days of the Counting of the Omer wherein everyone measured their daily growth in preparation for an epic meeting on the 50th day with the Creator.

The people are counted as unique individuals—united in one purpose: to build a Holy nation that will be the salvation of the planet. But census served yet another purpose; to remind Israel how deeply connected they had been when they first arrived at Har Sinai. We see that in Exodus 19:2:

"Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain."

Rashi, commenting on the above verse, states that the Hebrew word for encampment is also in the singular, rather than plural, to illustrate that the people were one of mind.

After the census, the Torah describes the placement of the 12 Tribes around the Mishkan, which was the beating heart of the nation. The positioning of the their tents recalls how the sons of Jacob supported their father's aron (casket) when it was transported from Egypt to eretz Israel for burial. That placement reflects how vital the Mishkan, and later the Temple were for the very existence of Israel wherein each Tribe has a specific role in supporting the work of the Temple.

Chapter Two of Numbers concludes with a listing of the legions of Israel and their banners, while Chapter Three references the Tribe of Levi, as well as the duties of the kohanim for dismantling and preparation for transporting the Tabernacle through the wilderness. The narrative opens, appropriately, by listing the lineage of Aaron but specifically mentions the deaths of Nadav and Avihu who would have carried on the lineage of the High Priest—had they not died for bringing “strange fire” to the dedication of the Mishkan. This curious reference to that tragedy written prior to the duties of the priesthood in this Torah portion, is a stark reminder to Israel of the gravity of G-d's commandments. Nadav and Avihu’s fate reminds us of Adam, when he was placed in Gan Eden, originally, to be the High Priest of the earth but failed to follow G-d’s instructions. The message to Israel is that HaShem cannot allow the stewards of His planet—His priesthood, to arbitrarily follow their imaginations. They would not survive and ultimately the planet would not survive either. It's a sobering reminder that despite the challenges of Israel's journey their continued growth was a necessity, one that holds true today. On a hopeful note, Rav Raphael Samson Hirsch wrote, “G-d’s Torah looks towards a time when our people have matured as the nation of G-d, the nation of the Torah of G-d."

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