Hebrew Insights into Parashat Bamidbar - Bamidbar (Numbers) 1 – 4:20
"And YHVH spoke to Moses in the wilderness…" (emphasis added), are the opening words of the Torah's fourth book, Bamidbar (Numbers). In this first verse YHVH is "speaking" – "va’ydaber" – “in the wilderness" - "ba-midbar," with both words originating from the same multifaceted root - d.v.r (dalet, bet/vet, resh). Let us examine this root and follow it to a number of unexpected places.
“In the beginning was the word (“davar”), and the word (“davar”) was with Elohim, and Elohim was the word (“davar”)"… And the word (“davar”) became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:1,14). Davar – is the spoken word, the all-powerful utterance that creates or generates everything, while “thing” is also "davar." Thus, all "things" appear to be the results of that which has been "said" or "spoken." In the Tanach many terms, such as “lies, wisdom, falsehood, truth” and more, are preceded by “d’var” – meaning “thing of….” In this manner greater dimension and weight are accorded to these terms. Davar is that which proceeds out of the mouth of Elohim, and is therefore "the Word of Elohim". “Matters” or “business” are also “davar” (or “dvarim,” in plural form), as we see for example in Shmot (Exodus) 5:13,19: “Fulfill your works, your – dvarim - daily tasks" (emphasis added), and in Shoftim (Judges) 18:7, where reference is made to the Danties who “… had no – dvarim - business with any man” (emphasis added). Terms such as “deeds" (Jer. 5:28, speaking of "deeds of the wicked") are also “dvarim.” "Reason, motives, customs" (“the custom of the king” in Esther 1:13) also fall within the framework of “davar.” The famous “after the order of Malchitzedek” is literally, “upon my divra, Malchitzedek.” The form “divra” (and its content) illustrates the depth and scope of “davar,” which may be also rendered as an “order, pattern, type, arch or proto type."
From this point, let us venture further a-field to “dever,” which is "plague." Although this abrupt transition (in such a negative direction) may seem curious, it is consistent with many such disparities found in the Tanach. If we remember that "davar" also means "reason," than the "plague," or "dever," illustrates the principle that “the curse causeless shall not come” (Pro. 26:2). Indeed, time after time the plague is the result of rebellion against Elohim, as in the case of the plagues of Egypt. YHVH says to Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) about the people of Yisrael: “I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine and by the plague” (Jer. 14:12 italics added). The following is what He speaks to the Land of Yisrael through the prophet Y’chezkel (Ezekiel): “The sword from without and the plague from within” (Ez. 7:15 italics added). Amos 4:10 presents another warning by Elohim to send a plague upon His people.
"Subdue,” or "destroy" is once again from the root d.v.r, with its infinitive “lehadbir.” In T’hilim (Psalms) 18:47 we find, for example: “Elohim… subdues the people under me” (emphasis added). This verb also means “to expel or send away," such as sending off the flock to pasture, or to the desert. Thus, in Mi’cha (Micah) 2:12 the flocks are seen in the midst of their “hidabar” which is translated "fold" or "pasture."
The "subdued" enemy (or the sinner) is thus often “pursued," "sent away," or “driven” to the "wilderness" or "desert" - the "midbar." But just as the wilderness may turn out to be a place of “pasture” for the flocks, in the same way it can become a place of spiritual refreshing to those who are fleeing there. For the latter the quite desert becomes of a place of learning, experiencing, or of hearing the “Word.” YHVH has many ways in which to sound out His word in the lonely and deserted wilderness, and the list of those who spent time there is very long indeed. Another place where YHVH’s voice is heard is in the Holy of Holies, which in Solomon’s Temple is called Dvir (ref. 1st Kings 6:16). Dvir is the furthest and innermost place within the Temple. Divine communication, therefore, is to be found in the furthest and remotest of places; sometimes even in a land of banishment and punishment, which may not only become a refreshing oasis, but may even turn into a 'Holy of Holies.'
In summation, the Word, as epitomized by the Son of Elohim, is life giving, but rejecting Him (the "Davar") may result in a plague (“dever”), which subdues and drives ("madbir") one to the desert ("midbar"), there to be spoken to ("daber") to by the Living Word ("Davar") Who utters the Word of Truth ("dvar emet"). “And I will woo her to Me in the wilderness…” we read in Hoshe’ah (Hosea) 2:14. D.v.,r. teaches us why it was essential for the Israelites to go through their wilderness journey on the road to becoming a nation.
The rest of chapter 2 describes a situation similar to the one that we have already encountered in Parashat Ki Tissa, where the Israelites were charged to take a census (Ex. 30:11-16). However, whereas on the previous occasion each of them had to "give a ransom for his soul to YHVH while numbering them" (which was of one half shekel that was used for the Mishkan), here they are not required to do so.
"Lift the heads of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their skulls” (literal translation, Num. 1:2 emphasis added). "Nahmanides emphasizes that the census was personal and individual… impressing on us the value and sterling worth of each and every soul which is a unique specimen of divine creativity and a world of its own." In the same vein, Isaac Arama says: "They were not just like animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own like a king or a priest. Indeed Elohim had shown special love towards them and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status; for they were all equal and individual in status." Yeshua’s death, for each and every man (ref. Heb. 2:9) on the Hill of "Galgota," which is "skull" in Aramaic, lends an even greater credence to the above statements. In Parashat Shmot (Numbers 1-6:1) we noted right away that once the Egyptians embarked on their program of subjugating the Hebrews, they treated them as a nameless mass. This is in striking contrast to what we encounter in Bamidbar chapter 1. In verse 18, the two words for (depending on your translation) “state their genealogies,” “declare their pedigree,” or “register their ancestry, is designated by one word - “hit’yaldu” - the root being y.l.d for “child” or “to give birth.” This is the only place where this root is used in this form, literally meaning, “becoming a child.” Thus, the restoration of the nameless individuals and clans to their respective origins, with the various groupings and families being recognized and acknowledged and brought to the fore, is part of the redemption. This aspect of redemption will one day be experienced once again when all the families, clans and tribes of Yisrael will be revealed and named, so as to make up the full Commonwealth of the House of Yisrael.
When the roll call was completed and the Levites' duties in the Mishkan were dispensed, "YHVH spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 'Everyone of the children of Israel shall camp by his own standard, beside the emblems of his father's house; they shall camp some distance from the tabernacle of meeting'" (2:1,2). The organizational process, of turning these nomadic tribes into a nation, is continuing. The Israelites were to array themselves according to their tribes in specified directions around the Mishkan. The “standard" mentioned here is "degel," of the root d.g.l (dalet, gimmel, lamed). In Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) 5:10 we read: "My Beloved is bright and ruddy, standing out among ten thousand"; "standing out" is "dagul," of the same root. "Dagul" may also be interpreted as "chosen" and "selected." Again in the same book, the betrothed says about her beloved, "And His banner ("diglo") over me is love" (2:4). The various banners, or standards (according to the respective tribes) with their emblems, were indicative of YHVH's favor and love over His "select" people. The "emblems" are "otot" (plural, and "ot" singular). "Ot" (alef, vav, tav) is a widely used term, denoting "sign, token, pledge, assurance, miracle, omen" and more. Although we do not know what the banners looked like, it appears that each of them had the "ot," or sign, of a particular "father's house," which thus rendered each tribe much like a family related to a single progenitor.
Concerning the grouping around the Mishkan, which was in the midst of the camp, Nahmanides says: “It was a kind of Mount Sinai on which the Torah was given, accompanying them on all their journeying.” Benno Jaccob follows up this idea: “The Lord transferred His presence from Sinai to the Tabernacle, from the sanctuary of the Lord which His hands had established, to the sanctuary which Israel had made'". This may account for the strict orders of the camp's formation.
The above mentioned orders excluded the Levites, whose services were to be rendered within the Mishkan, and who were to be at YHVH's disposal. In the course of the detailed description of their duties and their responsibilities for the various parts of the Mishkan, mention is made of the edifice’s sides (in chapter 3). The Hebrew word here for “side” is “yarech,” of the root y.r.ch (yod, resh, kaf/chaf), which means “thigh, loin or base” (see verses 29, 35). The thigh represents man’s strength and power, both in terms of virility and force (being also the place upon which the sword was placed). That is why in order for Ya’acov to become Yisrael his thigh had to be injured, and likewise the repentant one, who in order to demonstrate his true intentions had to smite that part of his body (e.g. Jer. 31:19, Ephraim’s repentance). Similar to the root d.v.r. in some of its uses, “yarech” also refer to the “furthermost point,” to the “backside” or to the “rear” (Gen. 24:2, Jud. 19:1, Is. 14:15), and hence the application to “side.”
The vicarious role of the Levites as firstborn follows in 3:41, 45, as well as a reference to their required conduct. They were to be taken “instead” or “in the place of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel.” “Instead,” or “in the place of” is rendered here (and in numerous other places) “tachat,” meaning “rear, under or underneath “; thus underscoring the required attitude of humility and servitude congruent with the tasks assigned to them.
In chapter 4 we view how the chosen family of K'hat (Kohath) was to dismantle the Mishkan, when it was time to move on. During this awesome procedure they had to restrain themselves and avert their gaze from the holy articles, with the help of A'ha'ron and his sons (v. 19). "They shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die," is the Parasha's last verse (v. 20), which literally says, "And they shall not go in to see, at the swallowing of the holy things, [lest] they die." The usage here of "swallow" ("bela") for "covering" the Mishkan articles is very unusual. It may be alluding to the fact that an unwarranted gaze could bring upon the onlookers (that is, the members of the K'hat clan) the penalty of being swallowed alive (a form of punishment which was sometimes inflicted – supernaturally - upon offenders, such as in the case of Achan in Num. 16:34). Thus, A'ha'ron’s family was being charged with responsibility over the lives of their brothers, the K'hats, whose "keepers" they were to be.
1 New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,