Rabbi Oury Cherki

Bemidbar - General and Detail

Translated from Hebrew. Published at the Noahide World Center website and in Shabbat B'Shabbato.

Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook used to say that the book of Numbers is a book about a trek, on foot. What did he mean by this?

As opposed to the first three books of the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus – which emphasize the wondrous organization of the world, starting with creation on through the appearance of humanity and the nation of Israel, leading up to the revelation of the Shechina (the holy Presence) in the Tabernacle and the worship there by Israel, the book of Numbers is a separate entity. Until this book one could have thought that the Torah was given to a well organized humanity, in a stable world with few disturbances. However, this book describes a series of crises and uncertainties which are typical of life in a desert, a life of movement. In this situation, society breaks down into its component parts, and each one pulls in its own direction.

In addition to the negative aspects of such a breakdown, there is also a positive side. A desert is something of a laboratory situation, where the role of every element of the public can be analyzed separately and put into its proper place. In order to deal with a lack of organization, the first thing that is necessary is to take a census of the nation before it goes on its journey. The census is a reminder that in the beginning of the trek there was complete order even if during the travels it unraveled because of the pitfalls of desert life. The people will return to an ordered life in the census carried out in the Torah portion of Phinehas, when they are about to leave the desert.

These considerations show us the deep meaning of the Torah's approach with respect to counting. When a community is counted there is a feeling of discomfort, because such a count is by its very nature impersonal and does not take individual identities into account. This is true about totalitarian forms of government, which trample over the worth of the individual. It might be possible to replace a general number by using every person's name, but that would harm the unity. The Torah therefore commands that Israel should be counted, "by the number of names" [Numbers 1:2]. A number is a general element, emphasizing the unifying factor, while the names take note of the individual value of every person. The same is true of the methods by which the Torah is interpreted, such as "a generality which is in need of detail, and a specific detail which needs the general rule." This type of approach is needed in order to confront all of the pitfalls which will be encountered during a lifetime.

During the trek in the desert, the main figure that leads the nation is the tribe of Levi, which occupies the center of the camp. This tribe has unique qualities at a time of doubt and crisis. It is intimately linked to the whole nation, since it is not connected to any specific element. It is not priestly and aristocratic, but it is also not linked to a specific heritage, like the common folks. It is an intermediate figure which has the capability of uniting them all. Once the nation arrives in the Land of Israel, the tribe of Levi – the tribe of movement – will no longer play a central role. It will be replaced by the tribe of Benjamin, which occupies the geographic center of the land. This tribe can teach the Torah of the Land of Israel, since Benjamin was the only one of the twelve brothers who was born in the land.