Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Our parasha is far more than a tribal census: it is our true beginning as a people. In Genesis, we were a small family of nomads. In Exodus, we were first slaves in Egypt and then a vast mob of people escaping our bondage. Leviticus steps outside of our narrative to focus on the priestly laws, so that from the standpoint of a timeline, Numbers picks up where Exodus finishes.
BaMidbar , the Hebrew name of both the book of Numbers and this week’s portion, means “In the Wilderness.” In the Wilderness, God revealed Torah in the hearing of all Israel at Sinai. In the Wilderness, a new generation would be born and raised in freedom on our way to the Promised Land. In the Wilderness, a mob of slaves became a nation, and it all began with a census.
The Toraitic census was quite different from a modern census. A modern census tries to capture demographic information about a population: how many people live in each city, state or nation; what are their ages, genders, ethnicities, etc. A modern census is about who we are, where we live now, and perhaps about how well we live. A modern census is about the present. The census at the beginning of Numbers is about the future.
First, each tribe is given a specific location within the camp. At the center of the camp will be the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The tribe of Levi will surround the Mishkan. The twelve tribes of Israel are located along the four points of a compass, with three tribes assigned to specific places along each axis. Once these sub-camps are established, they will be the Israelite formation on the march and at rest. Marching and camping in formation marks the end of the former mob of slaves. It is a new beginning.
But there is more.
Of the tribes of Israel, each male who is of age to fight must be counted. From within the tribe of Levi, a similar count of those able to serve at the Tabernacle is taken. Each tribe is assigned a purpose – either protecting the people from external attack, or connecting the people with God through sacrificial offerings. No longer property, each Israelite has the ability to make a difference in their community.
But there is more.
The Hebrew phrase often translated as “count the heads” really has another meaning altogether. Se’u et rosh literally means: “lift the heads.” The census elevates the Israelites – and in many ways.
We are elevated when we know that we have a special place that is ours. Put simply, after the census we know that we belong, because each of us has a special place in the camp. The place where we belong, where we will always belong, we call home. Home for us is not a physical structure – it is a spiritual one. Home is where our family, where our people live. Even when we are in exile, we are at home with each other. Even more, we need each other. Each of us has different tasks to fulfill, not just in the moment, but in the future as well. If one tribe were to neglect its responsibility, all of Israel would become vulnerable. In other words, each one of us matters. Our lives have worth.
A modern census counts heads, and when it is concluded we have been counted. The census BaMidbar, lifts our heads. When it is concluded we finally understand that it is each one of us who count.
And that is when the real journey begins.
Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
In last week’s parasha, Kedoshim, we read the Holiness Code. Kedoshim is for all of Israel, it details how each of us can strive for holiness. This week the exploration of holiness continues, but the focus shifts from all of Israel to the priests, and especially, to the high priest. Emor details a whole slew of additional requirements for the priests, such as prohibitions regarding contact with the dead and who priests may or may not marry. However, early in the parasha, we encounter a verse with startling implications:
“You shall sanctify him [the priest], for he offers up the food offering of your God; he shall be holy to you, for I the Lord Who sanctifies you am holy.” (Lev. 21:8)
This verse is different than the others in this section because it is directed to us, not to the priests. We, not Moses, not the other priests, are commanded to sanctify the priest.
The tradition interprets this verse to mean that the first reading from the Torah scroll in synagogue is reserved for the priest. The Talmudic rabbis underline the importance of this practice by legislating that if no kohen (priest) is found then the honor may not be transferred to anyone else. The first reading is for the kohen alone. (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 59b)
The first aliyah, the first reading from Torah is a very high honor, and since kadosh (the Hebrew word for holy) literally means ‘set apart for God,’ setting aside the first aliyah for the kohen technically fulfills the commandment: every synagogue that follows this practice is setting aside the kohen for God during the Torah service.
That said, is this enough to fulfill the commandment? Is setting aside the first aliyah truly a meaningful sanctification? Even more, what does it mean to sanctify the priests when we no longer offer sacrifices? Is it simply to maintain the holiness/purity of the line in the hope that one day the sacrificial cult will be reestablished?
For those who daily pray for the rebuilding of a Third Temple, the maintenance of the first aliyah for the kohanim by the synagogue is enough - so long as the kohanim themselves continue to follow the other holiness restrictions that have remained for them following the destruction of the Second Temple.
Yet regardless of our specific hopes for a messianic future, there is another possibility that bubbles to the surface. Emor is clearly about the priests, rather than all of Israel. It clearly lays out a whole slew of additional restrictions to further separate the kohanim from Israel so that they can maintain an even higher level of holiness. And, in order for the kohanim to succeed in maintaining their higher level of holiness it is necessary not only for the priests to live within specific boundaries, but for Israel as a whole to make the priests holy. Without the help of the entire community, the priests will never truly be holy. We, the collective of Israel, are their guarantors.
But wait, there’s more.
Earlier in Torah, at the top of Mount Sinai, God commanded Moses to teach Israel the importance of staying true to the Covenant. If we do so, the result for us is definitive: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6)
Following Torah makes us a kingdom of priests – we are all on a path towards holiness. Yes, most of us are not genetically kohanim, but we are nevertheless rodfei kodesh, pursuers of holiness. And, like the priestly caste, none of us can succeed on our own. Each of us needs the help of our tradition and our friends and neighbors; each of us needs to be sanctified through the many mays we are supported in holy community.
The High Priest and the institutions of the Temple in Jerusalem may be no more, but we can and must sanctify each other, help each other on our sacred paths of Torah.
There is no other way forward.
Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
What is the essence of Torah?
For generations, the sages argued and debated about which verses from the Hebrew Bible best summed up Judaism. Most people consider Hillel’s answer the best. Hillel famously turned to this week’s parasha, to the section known as the Holiness Code: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) However, Hillel did not quote the text as written, but rather framed it in the negative, teaching what we should not do: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a)
I love Hillel’s answer. Hillel’ statement acknowledges that love is a difficult emotion to scale. How can we truly love everyone if we love some people more than others? For that matter, how can we even measure our love to know if we are properly observing the commandment? Hillel brilliantly concretizes the commandment: treat others the way we want to be treated.
I love Hillel’s answer, but I don’t think that it sums up the entirety of Torah.
There are 613 commandments in the Torah, all of which fall into two categories: ethical commandments and religious commandments. When we focus on how we interact with each other, we enter the realm of ethics, so the ethical commandments are those which mediate our relationships with each other. Examples of ethical commandments include the commandments against murder, stealing and adultery. Similarly, the religious commandments mediate our relationships with God. The commandments to observe Shabbat and avoid idolatry are examples of religious commandments.
Hillel’s restatement of the Golden Rule encapsulates the essence of the ethical commandments, but does not address the religious commandments.
There is, however, another verse - also from the Holiness Code - that encapsulates both the religious and the ethical values of the entirety of Torah: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
Kadosh, the Hebrew word for ‘holy,’ literally means ‘set apart for God.’ Shabbat is holy, because it is set apart from the other six days of the week. The observance of both the religious and the ethical commandments together sets us apart for God. One without the other is insufficient. The Holiness Code itself demonstrates this through its structure: a series of successive stanzas which pair ethical and religious commandments together before ending with some variant of the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.”
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares a lovely insight about the commandment: “holiness is a developing condition, not a completed one. Only God is kadosh now.” (Voices of Torah, CCAR Press, p. 314) The essence of Torah, then, is our journey towards holiness, our sacred act of becoming.
All the rest is commentary; let us go and study …
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras