"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" - 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….” indicating that the origin of all things is the ‘utterance’. 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, 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 literal rendering for “after the order of Malchitzedek” (ref. Ps. 110:4), is “upon my divra, Malchitzedek,” that is, “upon my word.” The form “divra” illustrates the depth and scope of “davar,” which may be also rendered as an “order, pattern, type, arch or proto type." Likewise the “Ten Commandments” are “aseret ha-d’varim,” that is, “the ten words” (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13, 10:4).
From this point let us venture further afield to “dever,” which is "plague," or “pestilence.” Although this abrupt transition may seem curious, it is consistent with many such disparities found in the Tanach. If we remember that "davar" also means "cause," than the "plague," or "dever," illustrates the principle that “the curse causeless/without reason 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
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 - dever” (Jer.
14:12 italics added). The following is what He speaks to the Egypt
through the prophet Y’chezkel (Ezekiel): “The sword from without and the plague
– dever - from within” (Ez. 7:15 italics added). Amos 4:10 records another
warning by Elohim to send a plague upon His people. Land of Yisrael
"Subdue,” or "destroy," stems 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."
Hence the "subdued" enemy (or the sinner) is 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 repentance and spiritual refreshing to those who are fleeing (or are forced) there. In the quietness of the desert one can learn, experience, or hear the “Word.” YHVH has many ways in which to sound out His word in the “midbar’s” stillness. The Bible records an impressive list of those who can attest to this fact. Another place where YHVH’s voice is heard is in the Holy of Holies (or “inner sanctuary”), which in Solomon’s
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 be a refreshing oasis, but may even turn
into a 'Holy of Holies.' Temple
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") by the Living Word ("Davar") Who utters the Word of Truth ("dvar emet") in His inner sanctuary, or most holy place (dvir). “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.
Chapters 1 and 2 of Bamidbar describe the formation of the congregation of Yisrael’s encampment for the purpose of a census (cf. Ex. 30:11-16). However, whereas on the previous occasion (in Exodus) 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 "Golgota," which is Aramaic for "skull," lends an even greater credence to the above statements. In Hebrew Insights into Parashat Shmot (Ex. 1-6:1) we noted that, as soon as the Egyptians embarked on their program of subjugating the Hebrews they treated them as a nameless mass (ref. Ex. 1:10-12). This is in striking contrast to what we encounter in Bamidbar chapter
1. In Verse 18 we read, “State
their genealogies,” or “declare their pedigree,” or “register their ancestry”
(depending on the translation), which is designated by one word - “hit’yaldu”
- the root being y.l.d (yod, lamed, dalet) for “child” or “to give birth.” This
is the only place where this root is used in this form, literally meaning, “to
become a child.” Thus, the restoration of the nameless individuals and
clans to their respective origins, with the various groupings and families
being recognized, acknowledged and brought to the fore, is part of the redemption
process. This aspect of redemption will one day be experienced again when all
the names of the families, clans and tribes of Yisrael will be revealed, so as
to make up the full Commonwealth of the Household 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
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 the
former slaves 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 (and
in 1:52) 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
toward His "select" people, and over each member of this chosen race.
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 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
had made'". This
may account for the strict orders of the camp's formation. Israel
The above mentioned orders excluded the Levites, who were to serve in the Mishkan, and 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 (Num. 3:29, 35). The Hebrew word here for “side” is “yarech,” of the root y.r.ch (yod, resh, kaf/chaf), meaning “thigh, loin or base.” The thigh represents man’s strength and power (see Gen. 24:2; 47:29), 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 refers to the “furthermost point,” to the “backside” or to the “rear” (Jud. 19:1, Is. 14:15), and hence the application to “side.”
The vicarious role of the Levites as firstborn follows in Bamidbar 3:41, 45, with a reference to their required conduct. It says there that, they were to be taken “instead” or “in place of all the firstborn among the sons of
.” The word for “Instead,”
or “in place of,” here (and in numerous other places) is “tachat,”
meaning “rear, under or underneath.” This underscores the
required attitude of humility and servitude congruent with the tasks assigned to YHVH’s
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'haron and his sons (vs 19, 20). "They shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die," is the Parasha's last verse, 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. 16:30-34). Thus, A'haron’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.,