When I guided a young Christian through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul.
Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The book is now available through Amazon and in select bookstores. All profits from book sales are contributed to charity. See at: https://tikkunolam613.com
Free will is granted to all people: If you want to follow a good path and to be righteous, it’s up to you. If you want to follow a bad path and be wicked, it’s up to you. This is what it means when God says, “See, the human has become like one of us, with the ability to know good and evil.”
– Maimonides, Laws of Repentance
With the book of Numbers we embark on a new narrative – and on forty years of wandering, homeless, in the wilderness. In this book our identity will be challenged. Our selfishness will be held up alongside our commitment to creating a harmonious society, and we shall repeatedly fail the test. We will find ourselves homeless when we fail to put aside our own petty interests for the greater goal, when we insist on taking for ourselves now, rather than on building a future for others. As we look with longing to our Promised Land, we must remember that our nation will be defined not by the territory we conquer, but by our commitment to service of God, and to righteousness for our fellow human beings.
After the existential turbulence of Leviticus, the fact that we are still reading does not necessarily mean we are reconciled to God’s arbitrary nature, nor that we have fully forgiven God and accepted God’s world and our role in it. Perhaps we are fascinated by the horror of it all and cannot tear ourselves away until we have seen every last painful detail – determined to go on despite God’s seeming aloofness, God’s erratic rewards and impulsive punishments. Or maybe it’s simply that human beings are hard to kill. We can put up with tremendous adversity, with terrors and suffering that we cannot begin to fathom until we are actually faced with them.
The book of Numbers is a vast biblical road trip, filled with characters both colorful and diabolical, holy and devious, and including some of the Torah’s most devastating, as well as some of its funniest, episodes. The entire first portion is devoted to an extended census, in which the whole nation of Israel are counted and the arrangement of the camp is specified (which doubles as the standard military array when Israel will go into battle). This is followed by a detailed sub-census of the clans of the Levites, and an enumeration of their specified tasks in the management of the Tabernacle.
The opening of the book Numbers, in which the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land, echoes the opening of the book of Exodus, which recounts the seventy souls who went down to Egypt with Jacob. There the Torah counted the people as they headed into exile; here they are counted as they prepare to march to redemption. Little do they know….
In his commentary on the book of Numbers, the great, Inquisition-era rabbi, Isaac Abarbanel (Portugal and Italy, 1437–1508), lays out a vison of the Torah’s structure. In Abarbanel’s outline, we see a parallel in the way the Torah, as a narrative, deals with its own concept of time:
Genesis – Gives the ancestry of the world and the forebears of the people of Israel, starting from the moment of the Creation, the world which will receive – and will desperately need – the Torah.
Exodus – Introduces the fundamental Jewish theme of exile and redemption; the revelation of the Torah, and the making of the Tabernacle.
Leviticus – Holiness finds its home in the Tabernacle; Torah law is sacred, normative behavior.
Numbers – The struggle to lead the people. Israel’s journeys, their wanderings in the wilderness. Rebellion, delay, and despair. Forty years in the wilderness, leading to the closing of the story of Israel’s exile.
The final book, Deuteronomy, is a retelling of Israel’s narrative from Moses’ point of view. Abarbanel seems to read it as an amalgam of Moses’ handiwork, spliced in with God’s. It may be that God gave the words, while Moses put them in their final order. Or that Moses wrote, and God approved.
In terms of the Torah’s literary structure, the book of Numbers closes the three-book narrative that started with Exodus. It brings to a close the wanderings in the wilderness, setting the stage for Israel’s entry into the Promised Land.
The opening of Numbers is very specific with regard to the setting. The place and time of the events are stated precisely: “And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of assembly, on the first day of the second month, in the second year of their coming out of the land of Egypt” (Num. 1:1). On a pragmatic level, this portion is about establishing a military draft, and the specificity of the date sets the age range of eligibility for military service. By the end of the book, it will also establish the dividing line between those destined to die in the wilderness, versus those who will enter the land of Israel. From a literary perspective, this will repeat in the opening verses of Deuteronomy, which distinguish between those who will not enter the land and those who will. And of course, God’s command to take a census harks back to the sin of the Golden Calf in chapter 32 of Exodus, where Moses was instructed to take and count up a half-shekel from every able-bodied man.
The half-shekel is omitted this time. In the earlier census, it was an equalizer; God commanded that the rich not give more than half a shekel, nor the poor less. By contrast, this census highlights the differences between individuals, from the array of the tribes and their banners around the Tabernacle, to the tasks assigned to each sub-clan of the Levites in the care and transportation of the Tabernacle.
Furthermore, this census is more complex than that first one. Two verbs repeat in the text in describing the action. They are forms of the Hebrew words nasa – to lift, and pakad – a complex root with a range of meanings including to remember, to visit, to punish, to redeem, and to command. For our purposes, we shall invoke the idea of remembering.
In verse 2, God commands Moses to “Lift up the heads of the whole congregation of Israel,” with the command Lift in the plural – meaning both Moses and Aaron are to perform the count. In the next verse, the command finishes, “count (remember) them according to those of military age, you and Aaron.”
When we analyze these two Hebrew verb roots according to the principle of first occurrences, a fascinating juxtaposition emerges. The root nasa appears in the human realm, while pakad is in that of the divine.
The first occurrence of nasa is Genesis 4:7. God admonishes Cain after rejecting his offering: “Is it not true that if you do well, it shall be uplifted?” This is probably best translated as, “Isn’t it the case that if you improve, your offerings will be accepted?” We all know the outcome of that scene.
In Genesis 21:1, “God remembered (pakad) Sarah,” and the impending birth of Isaac was announced. This verb surfaces again at the end of Genesis (50:24), when Joseph is about to die. “And God shall surely remember you…and will take you out of this land of Egypt, to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” In fact, Joseph makes his brothers swear an oath on these very words: “God will surely remember you; and you, bring up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25).
Not only is that oath passed down; it gives it hope for the future when Israel is enslaved in Egypt, and it is the remnant that ties Israel to its deep past. The proof that this remained embedded in the Israelites’ consciousness is when (Ex. 4:31): “The people believed, and they heard that God remembered Israel…and they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves” – though to what exactly, they knew not.
Now, as we embark on the wanderings of the book of Numbers, we believe that we know.
How wrong we are!
The opening sequence describes the battle array and the order of march the Israelites will follow as they head off to take possession of the Promised Land. So yes, it appears they have remembered God’s promise – to return Abraham’s descendants to the land of Israel. But they have forgotten all that came between: the need not merely for strong leadership, but for a cohesive society to follow those leaders; not merely the right to be taken care of, but the obligation to care for others. Not merely the blessings of the manna, the divine pillars of fire and smoke, but the spiritual qualities and ritual observances required to maintain the covenantal relationship. It will take forty years to begin to learn – to re-learn all that the Torah requires of us.
So it remains today. God continually offers us the opportunity to combine human volition – lifting – with divine providence – remembering. Like Cain, we frequently end up not being up to the task. Forty years on, though not yet ready, we shall be propelled across the Jordan River.
Still, God’s delays are not God’s denials. The theme of the book of Numbers is the tension and the balance between the nation of Israel and the individual Jew: balancing our individual destinies with the eternal arc of the destiny of the Jewish people, as well as taking our proper role in the hierarchy of the nation. For the generations that perished in the wilderness, this may seem a bitter lesson – a remembering, in the sense of chastisement. For those who are able to regard themselves as part of the overall destiny of the Jewish nation, it is no longer purely bitter. “Is it not the case that if you improve, it shall be uplifted?” Is it not within the power of each of us, individually, to better the situation?
The book of Numbers is a contorted knot of clashing narratives. Starting with a clear description of each person’s place in society – both literally, in the configuration of the camp, and more broadly in terms of specific tasks assigned by family and by clan – the book quickly moves on to describe the Israelites’ descent into rebellion. People are not content to be who and what they are, but all seek to grasp something that has been assigned to someone else. Above and beyond the standard grumbling over food and water, we shall see the people in rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, both by upstart groups of Levites – their own kin – as well as by other groups within the nation. Moses and Aaron themselves will violate a direct command from God. Finally, the entire people will throw off the yoke of Heaven and descend into casual idol worship born of sexual wantonness.
Are these truly the people chosen to bring God’s Presence into this world? As we have seen over and over again from the earliest pages of the Torah, the bearers of the blessing and of God’s message are not perfect, but the Torah insists that we strive to perfect ourselves. Chosenness is decidedly not the concept that “God chooses an imperfect vessel to do His perfect work.” Rather, it is a two-way street: God chooses Israel to receive God’s message. Israel, for its part, dare not engage with the challenge. And now that the Torah has come into this world, anyone can choose to follow it. Can choose to become chosen. As the book of Numbers will demonstrate, it is not an easy path.
Yours for a better world.