Five Rashis, Bamidbar: Creating a Camp and a People

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

The Roots of Punishment

The book of Bamidbar opens with a count of the Jewish people, first by tribe and then by tribe within encampments. This is part of showing the nation developing into a unified whole, but with clear subdivisions. The Levi’im were counted separately by specific divine command, with. Bamidbar 1;49 saying אך את מטה לוי לא תפקד, do not count the Levi’im (with the rest of the nation), and Rashi offers two possible reasons.

First, the king’s legion is worthy of its own count. This fits with the general view of Levi, who are taken for special lives and special service to God—the tribe does not receive its own share in the land of Israel, it has to serve in the Mishkan and, later, Beit HaMikdash, and so on. Separate in one way leads to separate in other ways, such as in being counted on their own.

More interesting to me is the דבר אחר, the second explanation. Rashi says Hashem knew that all included in this count would be punished with death for their role in the sin of the spies, and therefore excluded the Levi’im, since they had not been part of the sin of the Golden Calf.

They did sin with the rest of the nation when the spies came back. The dying in the desert wasn’t purely for the lack of faith shown in crying over the spies’ report, it was cumulative of all of their sins. The Levi’im had not joined that earlier sin, so were not included in the decree.

I take two lessons from this Rashi, this time around. First, it means that more than just Yehoshua and Kalev survived the desert. Second, it reminds us that we cannot always evaluate punishment from how it seems—if we see two people act the same way and get different results, Rashi here is telling us that one reason would be their different pasts. One who sinned at the Golden Calf and at the spies saw a different consequence than one who sinned at the spies alone. But if we only looked at the result of the spies incident, we would see inexplicable disparities of fate, and might even complain about how unfair it was. Because we were using too narrow a lens.

Tribal Identifications

Hashem tells Moshe, 2;2, that the Jews should encamp with his tribe and father’s household by their family or tribal flags, באתת, with flags. One option for those signs is that they were the same color as the gemstones that represented that tribe on the חושן, on the breastplate the Kohen Gadol wore. If so, this was “their” color, the color that signified the tribe’s role in the Jewish people.

The other option is that the tribes arrayed themselves as Ya’akov had told them to when bearing his corpse to burial. In this version, some aspect of the tribes’ roles were set when they were individuals, not tribes. Yet that which Ya’akov had arranged was assumed to be continuingly relevant, a part of how each tribe took its role in the larger people.

The idea of lasting identities suggests that for all that we might be born new, we are expected to take our place within an existing tradition. Members of the tribe of Dan or Zevulun or Gad were born to different expectations, the “accident” of their birth to a particular tribe determining where they would encamp, and setting certain parameters on the lives they would live. It is a reminder that we are neither blank slates nor predetermined from birth, we’re in the middle.

Counted from Birth

3;15 sets the count of the Levi’im from one month old. The other count included only those who could be drafted to military or national service, twenty and above.  Rashi writes on the words מבן חדש ומעלה that as soon as we are confident a Levi baby was full-term, we count him, despite the obvious fact that he won’t perform any service until he’s much older.

To explain, Rashi cites R. Yehudah son of R. Shalom (probably from Tanchuma 19) that this is a tribe known to count its children from when they are little, since Bamidbar 26;59 refers to Yocheved (Moshe’s mother and Levi’s daughter) as having been born as they reached Egypt, but she is counted among the seventy family members who went with Ya’akov.

Rashi doesn’t explain why ordinary Jews count from when they can perform their adult functions, but this tribe’s members count from birth? One option, it seems to me, is that Levi’im fulfill a function by their very existence: from the nation’s perspective, members of other tribes have national impact only when they actually serve the nation as a whole. Levi, the helpers of the priests, serve also by who they are. And, as soon as they are full term, they are who they are.

Who’s Counting the People?

3;16 refers to the count of the people as having been על פי ה’. Most simply, this would mean it was in response to God’s command.   Rashi, however, records a presumed conversation between Moshe and Hashem, in which Moshe points out he cannot actually count the people, since that would involve entering all the tents to find all the family members.

Hashem’s reply seems oxymoronic. He tells Moshe to do his part and He, as it were, would do His. Moshe stood at every doorway, the Divine Presence would check out the house, and a Voice would announce how many babies were in the tent.

If Hashem’s willing to do the count, why have Moshe do anything? That would seem to be one more example of the relatively common idea that we are expected to do our part, and only then will Hashem do His. In looking for Rashi’s source, though, my Bar-Ilan showed me Maharal of Prague’s comment on this Rashi, that Moshe felt that going into the tents was inappropriate, not too much trouble. That fits Rashi’s use of the word יונקותיהם, which more literally translates as suckling, babies that are still nursing.

If so, Maharal might be suggesting that Rashi thought that aspect of life was too private, that for Moshe or his representative to enter homes where nursing occurred was too much of an invasion. Hashem seems to have agreed, that the census, important as it is, did not justify abrogating our usual modesty around certain bodily functions, such as nursing.

Peer Pressure, It’s Like the Weather

I have consciously been choosing Rashis I think are less well-known, but here’s one of those exceptional ones, where I think it’s known but not absorbed or remembered. 3;29 places the family of Kehat (including Korach) in the south, which would be near Reuven, and 3;38 puts Moshe and Aharon and his sons in the east, near Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun.

Rashi notes that in the first case, אוי לרשע ואוי לשכנו, living near evildoers hurts us, Datan and Aviram (for whom Rashi has no great love) and 250 others from Reuven were swept up in Korach’s rebellion because of their proximity to him. The other three tribes’ closeness to Moshe led to their being uplifted, Yehudah becoming a lawmaker for the Jewish people, Yissachar the academics, who knew the abstruse areas of Torah, and Zevulun also having those who were scribes and scholars.

Some people do this in choosing neighborhoods and schools, but once that larger choice has been made, I’m not sure how many of us remember to continue choosing our social circles with the awareness that those with whom we spend time will affect our sense of right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, ideal and not. If our friends, mentors, and other influencers are righteous, it will be good for us. If not, less so.

Building a Nation

This week’s Rashis show us how identities within the Jewish people were both set and malleable. Levi was separate and counted from birth because much of their role was set. The tribes’ flags and place in the camp were externally set, but the privacy of the home was protected, and there was room for subgroups to develop, some taking tribes to higher and better places, some the other way.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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