The Book of Bamidbar — "In the desert" — begins with G-d commanding Moshe to take a census of all men over age twenty — old enough for service. The count reveals just over 600,000. The levi'im are counted separately later because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings and assembling them when the nation encamps. The 12 Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: east, south, west and north. Since Levi is singled out, the tribe of Yosef is split into two tribes, Efraim and Menashe, so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp. A formal transfer is made between the first-born and the levi'im, whereby the levi'im take over the role the first-born would have had serving in the Mishkan if not for the sin of the golden calf. The transfer is made using all the 22,000 surveyed levi'im from one month old and up. Only levi'im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining first-born sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our first-born today. The sons of Levi are divided into three main families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the kohanim — the special division from Kehat's family). The family of Kehat carried the menorah, the table, the altar and the holy ark. Because of their utmost sanctity, the ark and the altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the levi'im prepare them for travel.
The Good Book
“In the desert” (1:1)
This week we start reading the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers. The Hebrew name “Bamidbar” means “in the desert”. Why was the Torah given in the desert?
The desert is the archetype of desolation, the antithesis of life and activity. The symbol of civilization, of the flow and vitality of life, is the city. A city consists of houses, and the houses, stones.
The words of a sentence are like stones. Just as each stone by itself is devoid of life but when combined together into a house they form a setting for life and vitality, so too are the letters of a word. When left by themselves they radiate no light or life. They are merely lifeless stones. But when they are built into words and sentences, sayings and utterances, they radiate the light of intellect that infuses life into man, that leads him and guides him.
“With the word of G-d the heavens were made.” The entire world was created with the combination of the letters of the Hebrew aleph-beit. The letters and the words are spread out and dispersed over the whole face of the earth.
We have a choice. If, through these letters and words, we recognize G-d in the world; if they are like beads of a necklace revealing the G-dly thread that weaves the world into One, then the world is no longer a desert of desolation but a populous city vibrant with life and purpose.
However, if we fail to comprehend the writing of the Divine Hand, if we make no effort to assemble the letters of existence into words and sentences, then the world remains a desolate wilderness.
Picture two people reading the same book. One reads with insight and understanding; the other spews forth a jumble of letters and words without grasp or comprehension. The first reader kindles the light of wisdom that is in the words and he brings them to life. The second leaves behind him a trail of dead stones.
The world is a large book. Fortunate is he who knows how to read and understand it.
- Sources: Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin in Torah U’Moadim