‘Pulling the Trigger’ Parashat Bemidbar 5780

The Book of Bemidbar opens with a census that spans the entire first portion of Bemidbar along with the first part of the second portion of Naso. What seems almost important as the census is when and where it took place. The Torah is very specific about the details [Bemidbar 1:1]: “On the first day of the second month in the second year following the exodus from Egypt, G-d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting, saying…” That is to say, G-d spoke to Moses on the first day of the month of Iyyar in the year 2448. What is so special about this date that made G-d want to count the Jewish People?

Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains why the Torah spends so much time and energy on a seemingly boring census: “Because [the Jewish People] are dear to [G-d], he counts them all the time: When they went forth from Egypt, He counted them; when many of them fell in the episode of the Golden Calf, He counted them to ascertain the number of those left; when he was about to make His Divine Presence (Shechina) dwell amongst them (i.e. when He commanded them to make a Mishkan (Tabernacle)), He again took their census; for on the first day of Nisan the Mishkan was erected and shortly afterwards, on the first day of Iyar, He counted them”. The reason G-d counted the Jewish People on the first day of Iyyar, 2448, was because it was one month after the consecration of the Mishkan, which took place on the first day of Nissan, 2448. The obvious question is why did G-d wait one month to perform the census? Why didn’t He do it immediately after “making His Divine Presence dwell amongst them”?

This question is asked and answered by a number of commentators. Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, who lived in Turkey in the fifteenth century, poses this question in his supercommentary on Rashi. His answer is short and succinct: “It is as if He counted them on the first of Nissan”. You’re bothered by one measly month? What’s the big deal? Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the “Maharal”, who lived in Prague in the sixteenth century, addresses this question in “Gur Aryeh”, his supercommentary on Rashi. The Maharal  draws our attention to a law in the Tractate of Nedarim that states that a person is considered to “dwell” in a city only if he lives there for at least a month. Similarly, for the entire month of Nissan, G-d’s Divine Presence sort of “hung around” the Mishkan. Only after thirty days could it be said that it actually “dwelled” there. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who lived in the Ukraine and in Jerusalem in the last century, proposes a similar Halacha-oriented answer in “Oznayim LaTorah[1]”. Rabbi Sorotzkin draws a parallel to the commandment to attach a mezuzah to the doorpost of one’s home. In the Diaspora, a thirty-day waiver[2] is given between the time a person enters his new home until he must attach the mezuzah, meaning that a person cannot truly be considered to “dwell” in a new location until thirty days have passed.

I would like to propose an alternate solution but before doing so, we must take a deep dive into the laws of the New Moon. The moon orbits the earth once every 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds. Operationally, this means that a lunar month can be either 29 or 30 days long. At the beginning of each lunar month, we celebrate the new moon (Rosh Chodesh). Rosh Chodesh has the status of a minor holiday: the celebratory Hallel prayer is recited and certain acts of mourning are prohibited. Originally, Rosh Chodesh was declared after two witnesses had observed the thinnest lunar crescent. In the fourth century, this method was replaced by a fixed calendar that is still in use today. The Jewish calendar is “lunisolar” in that, while it revolves around the lunar months, it ensures that the seasons are maintained by appending an extra month seven times every nineteen years. One could very easily assert that the Jews look to the moon – or at least to a model of the moon – in order to determine the date. This assertion is not only incorrect, it is almost heretical.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who lived in Frankfurt am Main in the nineteenth century, in his explanation of the verse [Shemot 12:2] “This month is for you”, completely recalibrates our understanding of cause and effect in the Jewish Calendar. Rabbi Hirsch asserts that we have become jaded as a result of years of living with a calendar that is set in stone. He states unequivocally that the Jewish People do not “worship the moon” but that the actual determination of the beginning of a Hebrew lunar month is the direct result of the actions of the Jewish People and not the result of some astronomical phenomenon.

Rabbi Hirsch brings a number of laws that strengthen his argument. For instance, the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [3:1] rules that “If the court and all of Israel saw [the lunar crescent], if the witnesses were examined and there was no time left [for the court] to say ‘Sanctified’ before it grew dark[3], then the month [has thirty days]”. Even if it was indisputably proven that the astronomical month should have twenty-nine days, if the court does not actively declare that it is Rosh Chodesh, then it is simply not Rosh Chodesh. Another proof brought by Rabbi Hirsch: The Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [25a] teaches that the court has permission to disregard or to disqualify the testimony of the witnesses if it wishes to ensure that Rosh Chodesh falls on a certain day. For example, to prevent Yom Kippur from falling on a Friday or a Sunday[4], Rosh Chodesh Tishrei (the first day of Rosh Hashanah) must not fall on a Wednesday or a Friday. Even if two righteous witnesses come to the court and testify honestly that they have seen the New Moon, the court is allowed to completely disregard their testimony[5]. Rabbi Hirsch summarizes his argument by reiterating that the appearance of the New Moon does not determine the date of Rosh Chodesh. Rather, the phase of the moon is a trigger that sets into motion a process that is culminated by the court declaring that it is Rosh Chodesh. Rabbi Hirsch’s words go to the heart of Jewish philosophy. Judaism is a religion of action, not of dogma. Judaism requires a person to shake a lulav, to light candles, and to don tefillin. Judaism does not want the Jew person look at the sky waiting for the stars to align. It challenges him to become an active source of holiness, to generate his own light, like the sun, rather than to reflect someone else’s light, like the moon.

Now we can return to the census that opens the Book of Bemidbar. The Jewish People worked for nearly a year to build the Mishkan. After the building was completed, Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim, underwent an eight-day consecration (miluim) ceremony, at the end of which fire rains from the heavens onto the altar and the Mishkan opens for business. We are told [Shemot 40:34] “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of G-d filled the Mishkan”. But the consecration of the Mishkan was only a trigger: At this point, G-d’s Divine Presence lies in wait inside the walls of the Mishkan. It would not “dwell upon [the Jewish People]” until they had together performed a positive action – by performing a census in which each and every Jew proudly stood outside of his tent so that he could be counted by their leader, Moshe. It is for this reason that the Torah stresses that the census took place “in the Tent of Meeting[6]”, in the very same “Tent of Meeting” that had been completed only one month earlier. Until this point, G-d would “meet” there only with Moshe. After the census had been taken, G-d could now “meet” with the entire Jewish People.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1]Oznayim LaTorah” is often mistranslated as “The Ears of the Torah”. While an “ozen” is indeed an ear, the word is also used in reference to utensils as a “handle”.

[2] A person who purchases a new home in Israel must attach a mezuzah immediately upon entering the home because of the great importance of settling the Land of Israel.

[3] A Jewish court can rule only in the daytime.

[4] Our Sages felt that two Shabbatot in a row would be too difficult to keep.

[5] It is assumed that the general public would understand why their testimony is being disregarded. Otherwise, the court would be guilty of besmirching the good name of these two witnesses.

[6] Nearly all of the other commandments in the Torah were transmitted to Moshe from the “Tent of Meeting”, even those that appear in the Book of Vayikra, before the census in Bemidbar was taken. The Torah seems to be making a point here – that there was some kind of innovation – by stressing that the commandment to perform the census was given specifically in the Tent of Meeting.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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