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How do you reconcile difficult passages in Torah with your concepts of moral behavior?
What do you think about creating physical spaces to protect those who have committed some awful wrong (like manslaughter)? What should those spaces be like? What would a contemporary city of refuge look like?
Here we are already, at the last chapters of the book of Bemidbar/In the Wilderness/Numbers. Wow… that was a quick trip! It took the Israelites 40 years of wandering and took us just 10 Sabbaths of reading about their journey. Remember back in May when we started this desert trek?
Back then I mentioned that the opening chapters of Bemidbar contain several recurring themes, and that one of them is the theme of traveling and zig-zagging. We wander between texts that read like a triptych or map and texts that have a story or narrative to offer. In these final chapters we have a lot of GPS-like information (see Numbers 33:5-37 — and more!). All the place names! All of the camping sites! Sounds like an extended article in the New York Times Sunday Travel section.
Please note that this Shabbat we read a double portion: Mattot and Masei. The G-dcast for Mattot is done rap-style and worth your time to find out more about the difficulties in dividing up the Land of Canaan according to what each tribe desired.
When we get to chapter 34, we read about the boundaries of the map of the Land of Canaan which the Israelites are about to inherit.
Our storyteller this week focuses on how the Land is going to be divided up among the tribes; she paints a picture of a master plan for a utopian society based on the way land is to be used. She begins with the idea that every tribe will have its own specified section, except for the tribe of Levi — and they will receive their allotment as donations from the other tribes. This is to be in exchange for what the Levites will provide to the entire Israelite nation — leadership and role modeling — demonstrating good ethics, wisdom, teaching, and guidance.
While the idea of dividing up the land and giving the Levites their own cities is central to these last chapters of this 4th book of the Torah, there are a number of other important, even essential ideas that I want to highlight.
The idea of “cities of refuge.” You can read about them in chapter 35, verse 6 and verses 9-13. Basically there are designated places where those who have killed someone unintentionally (perhaps we would call this manslaughter) are offered a safe place, protected from those presumably seeking retribution, such as the kinsmen of the victim. The cities of refuge could be used by both Israelites and resident aliens who lived in the land. The Torah goes on to enumerate what circumstances would qualify to label a killing “unintentional,” or who merits the label “manslayer” instead of “murderer,” therefore deserving of protection in a city of refuge. Fascinating distinctions are being made here about the consequences of taking someone’s life. The rabbis of the Talmud were also fascinated by these distinctions, and constructed pages and pages of discussion on these verses. For example, chapter 35 verse 30: “If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may only be executed on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death.”
From this, the rabbis riffed on how many witnesses (at least 2), who must be deposed separately (so as not to be influenced by the testimony of each other), and who must also be eye-witnesses to the event in question. Also, the rabbis concluded that the witnesses needed to have heard the killer being told (verbally) about the laws concerning murder, so that he would be fully aware of the consequences of his actions. There are literally dozens of exceptions in a capital case, so much so that by the time of the Talmud, laws about the cities of refuge are supplanted and made even more stringent, opposing simple and ancient judicially-imposed laws of retribution, such as: you kill someone, we will put you to death…. no extenuating circumstances count.
Expropriation of land belonging to others. This one is difficult for many of us to accept. When I read chapter 33 verses 50-56, I start to cringe. Why? Well, it seems that God is commanding the Israelites to utterly wipe out the indigenous people of the land that they are about to enter — the Land of Milk and Honey, the Land of Canaan, the Land of Israel, promised way back when to Abraham and Sarah. “You shall dispossess all the inhabitants…you shall destroy all their figured objects and molten images; you shall demolish all their cult places….”
For many, this exhortation sounds completely unethical and makes us wonder how the forward-thinking idea behind the cities of refuge (commanded by a God who tells us to always pursue justice) can stand side by side with a commandment to dispossess another people from the land on which they live. Does the success of one nation depend on the subjugation of another? What does it mean to favor one people with a “promised” land when others will need to be driven out of their homes, or worse? How are we to understand this?
As you read about and watch this week’s Torah portion, some ideas to consider:
Is zealotry ever warranted? Why and why not?
What do Zelophechad’s five daughters have to teach you about speaking truth to power?
What do you think of Moshe’s reaction to being told he is going to die without going into Israel?
If you can remember all the way back to last week, we ended the parasha about the talking donkey (Balak) with the story of a zealot priest by the name of Pinchas who stabs to death Cozbi, the Midianite princess, and Zimri, the Israelite son of a chief in the Tribe of Simeon, while they are having sex. Pretty salacious and graphic — and an insight into the personality of Pinchas.
This week’s parasha is actually named after that very same priest, Pinchas, about whom we will say more later. For now, though, we concentrate on one of the most promising and up-beat stories of the entire Torah: the story of the five daughters of a man named Zelophechad.
Zelophechad: hard to pronounce but important to remember because of the way he might have inspired his daughters to speak truth to power. In English, you might pronounce his name Z’LOFF-HOD, the way the storyteller does in the G-dcast episode. In Hebrew, we pronounce it with a twist at the beginning, TZ’LOAF-CHOD (with a guttural ch sound for the final syllable).
The storyteller rightly zeroes in on the story of the perfectly articulated case of the five women, Mahlah, Noah, Hohglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah, the unwed daughters of Zelophechad, from the Tribe of Manasseh. The women state that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s portion of land after his death, just as would be the case if they had brothers — if Zelophechad had sons. But he didn’t, and so they come forward to Moshe/Moses to point out the inequity of this situation.
Now, here is the astounding part: Moshe presumably doesn’t know how to answer them because he brings their case forward to God. God replies,
“Rightly do the daughters of Zelophechad speak,”
and continues to amend the laws that had been previously understood concerning who may inherit land so that the tribe continues to hold onto its territory (Numbers 27: 7-9). Later, in chapter 36, we get an amendment to this law, which the storyteller points out.
This is a giant step forward for the women of the day (biblical times) and an essential message to all of us today. Namely, when something seems out of joint and plainly unfair, one must step forward to make the case for equality. Is it just coincidence that the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down this week by the Supreme Court? Hopefully, Mahlah, Noah, Hoghlah, Milkah, and Tirtzah will continue to motivate and even encourage us to bring forth arguments for equal treatment before the law to the legal authorities who have the power to change the status quo for the better.
Immediately after settling the issue of daughters being able to inherit, God tells his servant Moshe to ascend to the top of Mt. Abarim and look over the whole land that is promised to the Israelites. He is then told that he will not be allowed to enter the Land (Numbers 27: 13-14). Is Moshe shocked? He doesn’t seem to be. God gives him the reason (again, verse 14) and maybe, just maybe, Moshe realizes that his sin was sufficiently grievous, such that he merits this harsh sentence. Also, maybe Moshe understands that he is of the old generation and no longer an optimal leader.
Out of his love for the people he has shepherded all these years he asks God to appoint a successor (“so that the Lord’s community will not be like a flock without a shepherd”). God instructs him to take Joshua/Yehoshua, the son of Nun, and stand with him in front of Eleazar, the priest, in full view of the people and lay his hands upon the new leader, investing in him the power and the wisdom to lead the people into their Promised Land.
I think you might be wondering about the sin that Moshe merits. The hint comes when God says that Moshe and Aaron “rebelled against My word in the Wilderness of Zin…to SANCTIFY Me through the water” in front of the complaining masses of thirsty Israelites. God’s instruction at the time was for the two brothers to speak to the rock, making it crystal clear that it was the same God who redeemed the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt who is now slacking their thirst, bringing forth water from the rock, again saving them. Instead, Moshe and Aaron said to the Israelites, “shall we bring forth water for you?” implying that it is they who are the saviors of the people, rather than God. God knows that this people have little faith and need to be reminded of God’s miracles all the time — God needs to be sanctified and made holy at every opportunity. And in this Moshe and Aaron failed big time, and thus their punishment not to enter the Promised Land.
I said I would return to the character of Pinchas, who is a complicated figure because of his zealotry. As Moshe imagines who will lead the people after his death, one might imagine that Moshe would think that Pinchas would be the logical successor. After all, Pinchas is from the priestly clan, and has already shown himself to take leadership (when he killed Cozbi and Zimri to avert the decimation of the entire Israelite nation). In last week’s parasha, Numbers 25: 11-12, Pinchas is even granted a covenant of peace, a “brit shalom.” But… one letter of that word, shalom, the letter vov (which looks like a straight line and gives that “o” sound), is calligraphied with a break in its middle. Kind of a visual hint or reminder that true peace cannot come from zealotry. And true leaders cannot be hotheads, who take a spear in their anger, and aim to kill.
The Torahparasha this week is named after a non-Israelite king, Balak, who decides that the Israelite tribes are a threat to his people, the Moabites. So King Balak hires Balaam ben Be’or, a soothsayer and prophet, to go and deliver a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22: 5-7). Balaam accepts the gig; he and his talking donkey become two of the most comical or mysterious characters in the whole Torah. The G-dcast storyteller this week, Rabbi Andrew Shapiro Katz, formerly of San Francisco and now residing with his wife and growing family in Be’er Sheva, Israel, has given us a shorter-than-usual and very provocative commentary on this parasha.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? That the only way to “explain” a talking donkey is to imagine that Balaam projects a piece of himself, some intuition coming from his “gut,” right into the mouth of his donkey. It gets even better… Balaam ends up having a conversation with his donkey, almost the way you sometimes get two parts of yourself arguing with each other (on the one hand….but on the other hand…). There is also some medical evidence that the very same cells that formed our brains when we were in our embryonic and then fetal state also formed the organs associated with our gut, such as our intestines. For more on brain gut, you can read this.
The donkey stops because he sees God’s messenger in the path in front of him, forbidding him to continue onward. And Balaam just beats him for that — witness their absurd interaction in chapter 22 verses 28-30. When Balaam himself finally hears the voice of God’s messenger, he changes direction, both metaphorically and physically.
The King and his for-hire prophet end up discussing the parameters of the instructions to curse Israel. The prophet realizes, after several encounters with the Holy One of Israel, that he cannot go against the powerful Lord of the Hebrew tribes. He knows he is going against his contract, but he ends up actually blessing the Israelites with the words…
“How goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your dwellings oh Israel!” Mah tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov; mish’k’notekha, Yisra’el!
— Numbers 24:5
…which appear in a lengthy poem of praise to the Israelites. This phrase has entered our liturgy, part of the opening morning prayers, every day…. Amazing, huh?
To recap: religiously observant Jews in the 21st century recite a line of poetry, now part of the daily prayers, ascribed to a pagan prophet whose story was captured in the Bible, dating back to perhaps the 8th century before the common era (BCE).
The story ends with King Balak being very angry. More poetry is exchanged, and, in the end, the prophet Balaam goes home and the King goes back to his despair and his wrath, never having achieved his goals of cursing the Israelites.
Chapter 25 has one more story: how the Israelites, who had just been blessed and praised by a foreign prophet, have resumed their naughty behaviors, in imitation of their pagan neighbors. And what is the crime? They go “whoring with the daughters of Moab.” They begin to engage in the cultic and sexual activities related to the worship of Baal Pe’or. Of course this behavior is not acceptable to God, and so Moshe/Moses tells his chiefs to impale the wrong-doers so that the people can be saved from idolatry.
One of these leaders, a member of the priestly tribe and the grandson of Aaron, is Pinchas/Phineas, a hyper-energized zealot who takes a spear in his hand and stabs an Israelite man, Zimri, son of Salu, chieftain of the Simeonite tribe. Zimri is caught in flagrante delicto (Latin for “in blazing offense,” sometimes used colloquially as a euphemism for someone caught red-handed in sexual activity) while engaged in sexual intercourse with Cozbi, daughter of Zur, a Midianite chief. She is a princess and he is the son of a chief of one of the Tribes of Israel; these are not your average schleppers, and the fact that their lineage is mentioned means that they are prominent and well regarded, until now. Seems that God wanted to make an example of God’s utter intolerance of the alliances and intermarriages between the Midianites and the Israelites, despite the fact that in a previous generation, Moshe/Moses married Tzipporah, a Midianite, daughter of Yitro/Jethro, the beloved priest of Midian.
The attitudes of the Israelites towards assimilation and interchanges with their neighbors vacillate and change with the times… In some generations intimacy seems to have been more or less OK, and at other times completely forbidden. Do you think that vacillation exists today as well? How have attitudes towards intermarriages between races and religions changed over the past several generations?
I murder hate by flood or field,
Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;
In wars at home I’ll spend my blood –
Life-giving wars of Venus.
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I’m better pleased to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty.
I would not die like Socrates,
For all the fuss of Plato;
Nor would i with Leonidas,
Nor yet would i with Cato:
The zealots of the church and state
Shall ne’er my mortal foe be;
But let me have bold Zimri’s fate,
Within the arms of Cozbi!
To think about as you read this week’s installment:
What do you think about rituals surrounding purification around death/caring for a deceased person?
How do you reconcile following laws that make no sense to you? Would you ever obey a law that you can’t understand? Why or why not?
One might think that the way parashat Chukkat opens, with details about the way one must purify oneself after being in contact with the dead, we would be reading mind-numbing minutia of priestly rites with absolutely no relevance for us today. All this talk about a red heifer and how Eleazar the priest must sprinkle its blood hither and yon, followed by the burning, and how to use the sacred ashes. Whew! So impossibly arcane!! Turns out that the early rabbinic commentators used this particular law of the parah adumah (red heifer) to suggest that the Israelites had two separate categories of law: chukkim (statutes or Divine decrees) and mishpatim (logical laws).
The chukkim were (and are) laws that make no rational sense to us on the surface. Why would touching the ashes of a dead red cow purify one from being in contact with the dead? Or why are we still not allowed to mix certain kinds of fabrics (like linen and wool)?
The mishpatim were (and are) laws that seem to be based in logic. For example, the laws dealing with interpersonal relations such as not stealing or not murdering. They are rational if one is to build a civil and moral society — that is, they “make sense” to us.
The red heifer saga, which opens our parasha, is a prime example of a chok (law; the plural form is chukkim) that makes no sense. Nevertheless, it was very important to have some kind of ritual to draw a sharp line between contact with the dead and re-entry into daily life among the living. On a recent trip, I spent some time in the “Four Corners” area of the U.S., an area of land which belongs to the Navajo Nation. While in the Tribal Lands, I read a fascinating book, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing, by Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D., in which she talks about the customs surrounding death in Navajo culture. For example: it is forbidden to touch a dead person; only those who care for the corpse may touch it. After they have prepared the body for burial, the people who have cared for the deceased remove their own clothes, and wash themselves completely before getting dressed again and mingling with the living. When a dead body is removed from a house or hogan, the hogan is burned down, and the place is abandoned. While there are many differences between contemporary Navajo and the Israelites of the desert, we can appreciate that the desert-dwelling Israelites had complex rituals for purification after contact with the dead, and it isn’t so completely different from the customs of other tribes.
But hold on, that’s not all this parasha has in store for us!
This parasha also includes the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the two siblings of our greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) at the beginning of chapter 20. Miriam becomes forever linked to water. Think about the episodes linking Miriam and water: she protected baby Moshe when he was set afloat in the Nile, and she later sang the Song of the Sea as the Reed Sea waters parted to let the Israelites escape into freedom. Some of us have added the “Cup of Miriam” to our Passover seder tables to remember her special link. The rabbis connected Miriam to a magical well with springs of fresh water following the Israelites in the desert, because immediately after the verse marking her death (Numbers 20:1) we read “and the community had no water, and they assembled against Moses and against Aaron.” It was as if once Miriam died, the water dried up. So those creative early rabbinic commentators came up with the midrashim (stories) about Miriam’s well.
Aaron, big brother and life-long partner to Moshe/Moses, dies at the end of chapter 20; the description of his death in verses 24-29 reads like a scene from a movie. It is poignant, filled with ceremony and unstated emotion. Perhaps because the landscapes of the Navajo Tribal Lands are still in my brain, I flashed on Native Americans when I re-read these verses — the descriptive scene of Aaron’s death seemed like something I had seen in a movie about the death of a great Native American chief.
Finally, we get to the snake/serpent/viper. The G-dcast storyteller focuses on this fascinating little story in Chukkat — the symbol of the snake or serpent.
As with some alternative medical therapies, where one may be given the tiniest amounts of an allergen to ingest to counter-act one’s allergy, the G-dcast storyteller offers some ideas of how the snake became a healing symbol to counteract its poisonous bites (Numbers 21:6-9). The symbol Moshe/Moses is instructed to fashion is called “Nechash Nechoshet.” Biblical scholar and translator Robert Alter quotes medieval commentator Rashi, who remarked that G-d had just mentioned a “nachash” (serpent), but Moshe said: “the Holy One calls it nachash and I’ll make it out of nechoshet — a pun.” Alter points out that the force of replicating the same letters “reinforces the device of sympathetic magic whereby the sight of the bronze image of the serpent becomes the antidote for the serpents’ poisonous bite.”
This week’s parasha (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) is named after its key protagonist, a feisty fellow by the name of Korach, born into the priestly tribe of Levi, the same leadership tribe as Moshe/Moses and Aaron. The scene is the desert: the Israelites are complaining and want a change, wishing they were back in good old Egypt. The vibe is just right for a populist revolt. Korach steps into the breach and stirs up trouble. He basically demands an answer to this familiar question: “Who made you the boss over us?” Korach asserts that Moshe is an elitist, busy interacting with God while leaving everyone else out, and then proceeds to organize a band of people who agree with him to confront Moshe.
You can imagine that neither Moshe, his big brother Aaron, nor God are pleased with this uprising. After he gets over his initial shock, Moshe consults with God and receives instructions for something like a gunfight at the OK Corral (minus the guns), in which Korach and his cronies will be swallowed up by what seems like a gigantic earthquake.
Before we proceed to talk about what ultimately happened to Korach and his sons, I’m wondering if I’m the only one who feels some empathy with Korach and his position. This is what Korach says, verbatim, in chapter 16 verse 3:
“You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord, and why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?
Aren’t Korach and 250 of his closest friends just demanding what is due them? That is, to share the leadership? After all, God has told the people repeatedly that they are all a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (look at Exodus 19:6).
Some of us are puzzled by the searing condemnation and punishment Korach receives for raising the issue of a more democratic system in which Moshe would share leadership with the other Levites. For an insightful commentary on why siding with Korach really is missing the boat, read this piece by Dr. Benjamin Sommer of JTS.
Now, let’s go back to find out more about the fates of Korach, his buddies who joined in his rebellion, and his sons. As you saw in G-dcast’s video, no one remains; they are swallowed up and completely disappear — no one is left except Korach’s sons, who didn’t take their father’s side. And what turns out to be a strange twist is that the guy’s sons went on to write some dozen or so of the 150 liturgical poems found in the Bible, called Psalms. Many of these psalms still appear in Jewish daily worship and some are recited on Sabbaths and special occasions.
These poems are filled with profound insights expressed eloquently and with great beauty. Korach’s sons are mentioned by name in Exodus 6:24 — you can read more about them (and Korach himself) here.
Traditionally, Korach remains a power-hungry trouble-maker, despite the fact that on the surface, he seems to be raising a valid point about sharing leadership. And yet, his sons become known for their spiritual poetry, opening us up to the mysteries of life.
One more thing: in the Talmud, there is a shorthand way of classifying arguments between scholars: those that are “for the sake of heaven” and those that are not. The following quote is from the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:17:
Every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. And which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his followers.
Korach gets a bad rap — and deservedly so, despite his seemingly compelling critique.
To think about:
Even if Korah had a point, what do you think of the way he went about with his argument? Did he approach Moshe privately to have a quiet chat about his (and others’) dissatisfaction? Or was he looking for a fight? When you have difficult emotional issues to grapple with concerning divergent religious traditions, how do you resolve them?
What do you think of the family dynamics in our story? Cousin Korach spearheaded what turned into a huge rift with Cousin Moshe. Do families have propensities to argue with each other? And what about Korach’s sons? How did they manage to stay out of the rebellion? Is there a message for us when we read that Korach’s sons became composers of liturgical poetry? How does it happen that family members can have such divergent religious views as Korach and his sons?
Nechama is on vacation, but wanted to make sure you didn’t miss a beat. No lengthy discussion or questions to ponder, but you still get to enjoy a video!
Will the Promised Land be flowing with milk and honey, or giants and battles? This week’s guest narrator, Jay Michaelson, invites the spies of Parshat Shelach Lecha to look inside themselves and see what the true story behind the challenges to come is: WE CAN DO IT!!
Nechama is on vacation, but wanted to make sure you didn’t miss a beat. No lengthy discussion or questions to ponder, but you still get to enjoy a video!
Hold onto your hats, this is a really crazy G-dcast. One of the oddest, most thorny episodes in the Bible involves a man who suspects his wife of adultery. Inbal Freund-Novick, an Israeli activist for women’s rights, tells the excruciatingly difficult tale of the accused wife in Parshat Naso. Hard to believe this stuff is in the Torah, but it’s undeniably fascinating.
This week we begin reading the 4th of the 5 Books of Moses, which actually has 3 different names: Bemidbar (Hebrew for “In the Desert”), describing where the action takes place, and Numbers, because, following the early Greek translation of the Bible, the book begins with a census and close attention to counting. Finally, this book also had another, earlier name: Homesh Hapekudim (Hebrew for “the Fifth of the Torah about Counting” (or reckoning)), emphasizing the several censuses (first in our parasha, the first few chapters, and then again in chapter 26).
I like the name Bemidbar (in the desert) because the desert has a connotation of being an in-between place… That is, the place between the enslavement of Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land of Israel. The desert is also a wilderness: the word “wilderness” has in it an echo suggesting a place of wildness. It’s where a certain kind of desolation and emptiness can make one wild and/or can help one journey through whatever is required to make one civilized. Have you ever felt the need for isolation in a quiet, empty space to re-calibrate your own balance, to become more “civilized” and fit for social interactions? What is it about a “time-out” in a quiet space that takes the wildness out of us? For the Israelites, Bemidbar is the place where the ragtag tribes who were taken out of Egypt go in order to become a civilized nation, with rules and proper organization.
Bemidbar begins with a head count, a census. This is where we get the notion that the tribes must engage in the business of nation-building, how to position themselves, how to divide things equitably, and how many able-bodied men there are to wage war. Israel is organizing — each tribe is assigned its proper place. In contrast, the Levites are not placed among the tribes; just as they don’t receive a regular inheritance in the Promised Land and have special responsibilities, they are assigned a location along side the Tent of Meeting, which is in the center of the camp’s concentric rectangles.
The whole book of Bemidbar is a composite book, with multiple narratives, and they don’t always fit together. More than any of the other five books, this one is clearly the result of an editorial process, according to biblical scholars. We have both snippets of ancient texts (often found in poetry) and chapters that seem to be written much later, but were added here by whoever edited the Bible, to emphasize certain points. You could think of the entire book of Bemidbar like a journal of a family trip: even though it looks like everyone was in the same place at the same time doing the same thing, each member of the family has his or her own experience of that place and that activity, and each will report on it in sometimes radically different ways. Each day of a family trip might be planned by a different family member, or parts of the day might be the responsibility of another member of the family. Bemidbar is our family’s journey in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land of Israel. It is a bunch of stories, some of which have the same theme, but sometimes the way the stories are assembled makes the narrative disjointed and confusing.
Another observation about the entire book is that the structural aspects of Bemidbar parallel its content. The 36 chapters alternate between discussions of laws and narratives. According to the late Professor Jacob Milgrom, one of the foremost scholars on Bemidbar, the book zigzags between laws and stories as follows: The first 10 chapters deal with laws. Then, chapters 10:11-14:45 are stories. Chapter 15 goes back to laws; chapters 16-17 are stories; chapters 18-19 deal with laws; chapters 20-25 are a narrative; chapters 26-27:11 again deal with laws; chapters 27:12-23 are stories; chapters 28-30 contain laws; chapters 31-33:49 are stories; and finally, from the end of chapter 33 through the end of chapter 36, we get more laws.
If you were to make a line drawing of the map of the wanderings of the Israelites and used what I listed, making a zig or a zag for every time there is a change in content, you would get a route that would show the extremely circuitous way that the people traveled through the desert, which is partly the reason they spent 38 years there, until the generation of those who experienced slavery died out.
One of the strongest narrative themes in Bemidbar is rebellion. There are eight different rebellions, most of them beginning with the Israelites complaining and whining and involving the same actors: Moses, God, the Israelites. The biblical scholar and prolific biblical translator, Professor Robert Alter, points out in his book, The Five Books of Moses, pages 676-77:
The scheme of the recurrent scene of ‘murmuring’ or complaint is as follows: the people bitterly protests its misery in the wilderness or Moses’s leadership or both: God’s wrath flares against the people, expressing itself in some sort of ‘scourge’ that decimates the Israelite ranks; Moses intercedes — in two instances God actually threatens to wipe out the entire people and begin anew with Moses — and He relents…. Restiveness under Moses’s rule is so epidemic that even Miriam and Aaron are infected by it, at one point resentfully rebelling against their brother (chapter 12). One suspects that all these repetitions of the scenes of murmuring are introduced because the writers conceived it as a paradigm for the subsequent history of Israel: recurrent resentment of God’s rule and of the authority of His legitimate leaders, chronic attraction to objects of base material desire, fearfulness, divisiveness, and the consequences of national disaster brought about, in the view of the biblical writers, by this whole pattern of constant backsliding.
On the other hand (and this is another zigzag), we will see as we continue to read this book of Bemidbar, that we get a strong counter image of this nation-in-formation, as a bunch of tribes who are molding themselves into a people with a grand historical destiny in their future.
This week’s parasha has a lot of counting in it — and it comes at the end of the counting period known as the Omer, the 49 days we count between Passover and Shavuot. In her Torah commentary this week, Rabbi Abigail Treu of the Jewish Theological Seminary reminds us that counting must be seen in context. As we begin the book of Numbers, when it seems the text is hung up on counting, she reminds us of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
She concludes, “With all of the numbers and counting pervading our week, let us not lose sight of the message they bring: that what counts the most is spending time with one another, and that we measure our years by counting day in and day out the moments we spend with others wandering with us, blazing paths together through the wilderness of life.