Heading Somewhere: Bamidbar

Journey into the Soul of the Weekly Torah Portion

The Book of Numbers: A 10 Part Journey

The Book of Numbers
recounts the struggles and the triumphs
of our ancestors’ travels in the wilderness-
A metaphor for our own journey through life.

The journey taught them how to bring life,
spiritual and physical, even to a desert.
The destination kept them mindful that
a journey is also a preparation
for something much greater.

Bamidbar: To Count or Not to Count
In this lesson we will examine The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s analysis of Rashi’s commentary on why the tribe of Levi was excluded from the national census that was taken at the outset of the Book of Bamidbar. We will discover that while the tribe of Levi may not have been counted physically, they certainly counted spiritually. We will proceed to evaluate their spiritual role vis-à-vis the roles of the rest of the Jewish people and the Kohen Gadol. We will then see how these three types represent distinct spiritual models of Avodat HaShem (service to G‑d) that are available at different times to every person, and how these models of G‑dly behavior relate to the concept of number and quantification.

Naso: From G‑d's Mouth to Moses' Ears
Near the end of this week’s Torah portion we learn that that HaShem would regularly communicate His instructions to Moshe for the entire Jewish people, near the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark that was located in the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. It was through this communication between HaShem and Moshe that the centrality of prophecy in Jewish life was established. But, one may ask: Why was the intermediary of a prophet necessary? Why didn’t and doesn’t HaShem communicate directly with each of us? And, even if certain individuals are more able to clearly and correctly understand HaShem— with Moshe being first among us— why was it necessary for much of his prophecy to occur in one particular place, and no other? In this week’s class we will discuss the concept of prophecy in general and learn why it was critical for the Divine Voice to be confined to the Ohel Moed. We will then see what this implies about the gift of human free will, and the obligation for us to freely choose to spread our Torah knowledge far beyond the “tents” in which each of us studies Torah.

Behaalotecha: Infinite Nourishment
This lesson will examine the similarities shared by the manna — the food that HaShem’s miraculously supplied to our ancestors as they traveled through the wilderness — and the Torah itself. We will first examine the unique characteristics and then the miraculous attributes of the manna. We will see how on the one hand, both the Torah and the manna initially appear to be physical, limited entities. We will then learn how they extend in their essence far beyond the limitations of physical boundaries, transcend worldly confinements, and give the Jewish person the ability to simultaneously be in the world while rising above mundane existence. We will learn how Torah, like the manna, is heavenly bread, something that enables each of us to be sustained by far more than physical or even intellectual nourishment.

Shelach: Counter-Intelligence: Spying the Truth
This week’s parshah contains the story of the spies who were sent by Moshe to investigate the Land of Canaan in anticipation of the Israelite conquest. Not only did the spies fail in their mission, but their subsequent incitement of the entire nation against G‑d and Moshe were considered by HaShem to be extraordinarily rebellious. As a result of the people’s acquiescence to the spies’ negative report about the Land of Israel, the entire nation was forced to wander the desert wilderness for forty years until a new generation would arise that was fit to enter the land. In this week’s class we will explore the issue of where the spies went wrong. We will see how as emissaries of Moshe they had a particular responsibility to him, and that their failure in that role was at the root of the problems that they caused for the entire nation.

Korach: The Individual and the Collective
In this week’s parsha we learn how a group of 250 Jews led by Korach challenged the authority of Moshe. Specifically, they questioned the appointment of Moshe’s brother, Aaron, to the position of High Priest. Moshe attempted several avenues of reconciliation. Eventually, he proposed a test with the hope of discouraging their rebellion: Moshe suggested that all 250 men, along with Aaron, attempt to perform the sacred ritual of the incense offering, hinting that only a true priest would survive the ritual. But their mutiny persisted nonetheless, and they were prepared to take Moshe up on his challenge and risk their lives in the process. Many important contemporary questions are addressed in this episode. Is there an ideology or institution that could transcend the conflict between the individual and the collective so that both can be satisfied? Did Korach and his followers, believing they were correct, have the right to rebel? How should a Jewish leader respond to a fundamental challenge to the structure and order established by HaShem?

Chukat: The Message of the Copper Serpent
Most of this week’s parshah takes place near the end of our ancestors’ forty-year journey through the desert, as we were on the verge of entering the Land of Israel. Throughout their travels in the desert, the Jewish people would sometimes complain about the difficult aspects of life in the wilderness. But now they were complaining bitterly about, of all things, the miraculous manna that had sustained them for nearly 40 years. In response, HaShem sent snakes that killed some and poisoned others. But HaShem and Moshe simultaneously provided a cure for the snakebites in the form of a copper serpent mounted on a pole, an icon that would be used by the Jewish people for the next 800 years. In this week’s class we will examine this extraordinary story in depth and see how the purpose of the copper serpent was to enable them and us to ultimately see the good in everything.

Balak: The Fate of the Nations
In this week’s Torah portion we have one of the few references to the Messianic era in the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses. Interestingly that reference says as much about the nations of the world as it does about us. In today’s class we will examine the role of the nations of the world immediately prior to and during the Messianic era, as hinted at in the prophecy in this week’s parshah, and as expanded on by the Neviim, the Jewish prophets, and by Chasidic thought. What will the fate of the nations be in the Messianic era? Will they share the benefits of manifest G‑dliness? Will they need to change in order to survive and prosper with us? If they do need to change, how will that change take place? On the one hand, these are interesting theoretical questions. But they might also be very important practical questions, since how we answer them could very well have implications on how we should deal with the gentile world prior to the Messianic era in order to help ensure its speedy onset.

Pinchas: This Law is Not the Law
The Jewish people’s steadfast allegiance to the laws of the Torah can make one wonder. Is it ever permissible to intentionally violate these laws for what we believe is the greater good? If so, who has the right to do so, and when? In this week’s class, we will focus on how Pinchas, in a moment of zealousness, took it upon himself to be judge, jury and executioner, and slay a Jewish tribal prince and a Midianite princess who were publicly engaging in forbidden relations in their effort to sway the Jewish people to engage in idolatrous worship. By studying this case and others we will learn when and where such a zealous act is appropriate, and who among us has the occasional right to take this very dangerous step of performing a unique law that is not the law in most other circumstances.

Matot: Our Mysterious Strength as a People
The name of this week’s parshah — Matot, meaning tribes — is also related to the Hebrew word mateh, or staff, which symbolizes lasting strength. Matot is always read during the ‘three weeks’ prior to Tisha B’Av, the date of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, and many of the themes in the parshah and its haftorah relate to the inner strength that has enabled us to survive as a people through two thousand years of exile. In this week’s class we will examine three of the primary sources of this inner strength. First, there is the natural resilience in every Jew that ironically was implanted within us through the destruction of the Temple. A second major source of our strength has been our interdependence — the mutual support between those who are mainly secluded in a life of study, and those who engage more fully with the everyday world. Finally, our attachment to the leaders of the generations - our chachamim and tzadikim - has been our single greatest source of ongoing strength throughout the exile.

Maasei: Our Journeys through Life
This week’s parshah lists each of the 42 different journeys that our ancestors took during the 40 years of wandering through the desert. Comprising 49 verses in the parshah, the Torah lists each of the places that the Jewish nation journeyed from and to over four decades. In a few instances, there are brief reviews of important events that transpired in certain encampments. In today’s class we will see how each of the 42 journeys is meant to be replicated by each of us throughout our lives. Leaving Egypt is symbolic of the birth of every person. Afterwards, our lives are not meant to be one long, continuous trek — but should comprise discrete journeys. Each journey should be a completely new, meaningful and significant leap forward from one place to the next, higher place - until every one of us reaches the same destination, the supernal Holy Land.