Parashat Naso

Parashat Naso
BaMidbar 4:21 - 7:89
Haftarah Shoftim 13:2 - 25

(Birkat Kohanim [Priestly Blessing] at the Kotel; Art by Alex Levin)

Parashat Summary

A Census and Duties of the Gershonim, Merarim, and Kohatim
Purifying the Camp
Offerings
Sotah - The Suspected Adulteress
The obligations of a Nazir vow are explained
Moshe is instructed by G-d to teach Aharon and his sons the Priestly Blessing
Moshe consecrates the Sanctuary, and the tribal chieftains bring offerings
Moshe speaks with G-d inside the Ohel Mo'ed

4:21 vayedaber HASHEM el-Moshe lemor
And HASHEM spoke to Moshe, saying:
22  nasho et-rosh benei Gershon gam-hem leveit avotam lemishpechotam
Also take a census of sons of Gershon according to the house of their fathers according to their families.
 After counting the families of Levi descending from Kehat and instructing them in their tasks, Moshe was commanded to count the Benei Gershon in order to determine who among them was fit for duty in the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Mo'ed).

Then Aharon's sons assigned each his duties, and Itamar, fourth son of Aharon, was appointed permanent supervisor of the B'nei Gershon.

The Levi'im belonging to Gershon's family were assigned the following tasks:
  1. Preparing the woven materials, the curtains, coverings, and the screens of the Ohel Moed and the Courtyard for departure, and transporting them.
  2. Singing during the daily morning and afternoon burnt offerings (olah), as well as during all communal olah-offerings, and the communal peace offerings (shelamim) on Shavuot.

The Levi choir was comprised of at least twelve singers, and more could be added as desired.  The choir was usually accompanied by instruments.  Even non-Levi'im were permitted to be musicians.

As the people stood in the Azarah, they heard the beautiful choir of the Levi'im and the orchestra.

In the Beit HaMikdash, the choir chanted every day of the week a different chapter from Sefer Tehillim.
  •  On the first day (Sunday) - "The earth and its fullness is HaShem's, the world and they that dwell in it" (Tehillim 24:1)
This verse was appropriate for the first day because it reminds us of the first day of Creation.  HaShem was then clearly recognized as the sole Ruler, since no beings, not even the angels, had yet been created.
  • On the second day (Monday) - "Great is HaShem and very much praised in the city of our G-d, in the mountain of His holiness" (Tehillim 48:2)
On the second day of Creation, HaShem established the firmament to divide between the upper and lower waters, and appointed the upper spheres as His residence.  Parallel to this, He appointed a place of special kedushah in the lower world where He would reside: "the city of our G-d, the mountain of His holiness."
  • On the third day (Tuesday) - "G-d stands in the congregation of judges" (Tehillim 82:1).
On this day G-d gathered the waters into oceans, thus exposing the continents which would be inhabited.  However, mankind would be permitted to live there only if it exercised justice, one of the pillars of human society.  Should man pervert justice.  HaShem would command the ocean to flood the dry land, as later happened to the generation of the Mabul (Flood).
  • On the fourth day (Wednesday) -"G-d to Whom vengeance belongs, HaShem, G-d, to Whom vengeance belongs, appear" (Tehillim 94:1).
On this day the heavenly bodies were created.  In the future HaShem will punish all those who worshiped them.
  • On the fifth day (Thursday) - "Sing aloud to G-d our strength, cry out with a joyful shout to the G-d of Yaakov" (Tehillim 81:2).
On this day the Almighty created the millions of species of birds and fish.  Whoever sees them proclaims the Creator's praises joyfully.
  • On the sixth day (Friday) - "HaShem reigns.  He is clothed with majesty; HaShem is robed, He has girded Himself with strength" (Tehillim 93:1).
This verse is appropriate for the sixth day, on which the entire glorious Creation was completed and HaShem's majesty over the universe became apparent.
  • On Shabbat - "
Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat - A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day" (Tehillim 92:1) This verse refers not only to the weekly Shabbat, but also to the era after the Redemption, the "great Shabbat of history."

The weekly Shabbat was given to us to serve as a model for the future era, which will be totally and eternally good.  Just as we labor each week in order to honor the Shabbat with delightful things, so we prepare in this world for the future world, when we will enjoy the fruit of our labor.

With the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the beauty of song ceased.  Our present-day songs do not recapture the kedushah or the harmony of spiritual perfection inherent in the melodies sung in the Beit HaMikdash.
After the first destruction, the emperor Nevuchadnetzar led a group of captive Levi'im to Bavel (Babel).  Observing them weep and lament, he exclaimed,

"Why so sad?  Come and make merry!  Before I have my repast, play your violins before me and my gods, just as you were wont to do for your G-d!"

Looking at each other, the Levi'im whispered,

"Never!  We who have played in the Beit HaMikdash for the Almighty shall now play for this midget (Nevuchadnetzar was a small man) and his idols?  Had we, instead, exerted ourselves in singing for the Almighty, would have never been exiled!"

But how could they effectively disoby their captor's order?

In an instant a plan was contrived.  Each Levi, without hesitating, severed the thumb from his right hand.  Raising up the bleeding stumps for Nevuchadnetzar to see, they wailed,

"How can we sing the song of HaShem (Tehillim 137:4)?  Don't you see that our hands are maimed and we can no longer play our instruments?"

Enraged, Nevuchadnetzar massacred thousands of captives.  Nevertheless, the Levi'im were glad that they had not agreed to play music before idols.

That group of Levi'im eventually returned from the Babylonian exile and witnesses the rebuilding of the second Beit HaMikdash.  HaShem promised the Jewish people with an oath, "The Levi'im injured their right hands for My sake; I, therefore, swear by My right hand that I shall ultimately defeat your enemies and restore Yerushalayim to you."

4:29 benei merari lemishpechotam leveit-avotam tifkod otamThe sons of Merari, according to their families and according to the house of their fathers you shall count them.
The family of Merari was the last of the three families of Levi to be counted and assigned their duties.

Its members carried the Mishkan's boards, bolts, and sockets.  Itamar, son of Aharon, was their supervisor.  He assigned each individual Levi his job.

Once a Levi had received his assignment, he was not allowed to switch with another Levi.

5:1 vayedaber HASHEM el-moshe lemor
HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying:
2 tzav et-benei Yisrael vishalchu min-hamachane kol-tzarua vechol-zav vechol tame lanafesh
Command Benei Yisrael that they must expel from the camp, anyone with tzaraat, and anyone from who flows a seminal discharge and anyone who became defiled by a [departed] soul.

HaShem commands that all temayim (impure people) leave the Camp:

On Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the Mishkan's last Inauguration Day, HaShem told Moshe, "All three Camps of the wilderness are holy.  The innermost Camp of the Shechinah is holy to the highest degree.  The Camp of the Leviim that surrounds it, and Benei Yisrael's Camp which surrounds that of the Leviim, are of lesser sanctity.

"An impure person may have to leave one, two, or all three of these Camps, according to the severity of his tumah."

Hashem explains to Moshe that this mitzvah would appertain to future generations in Eretz Yisrael (Land of Yisrael) as follows:
  • The Camp of the Shechinah in the wilderness would correspond to the area extending from the Ezrat Yisrael (the main court in the Beit HaMikdash) inwards.
  • The Camp of the Leviim in the wilderness would correspond to the entire Har HaBayit (Temple Mount) surrounding the Ezrat Yisrael.
  • The Camp of Benei Yisrael in the wilderness would correspond to the entire city of Yerushalayim, excluding the Temple Mount.

The severest of all types of tumah was tzara'at (leprosy):
  • A leper was expelled from all three Camps
  • A zav, zavah, niddah, and a woman who had recently given birth were barred from two Camps, the machaneh shechinah and the machaneh leviyah (where the Leviim camped and later corresponded to the Temple Mount), but were permitted to remain in the Camp of Yisrael.
  • The mildest type of tumah was impurity through contact with a dead body, the carcass of an animal, or the carcass of one of the eight sheratzim (reptiles) declared impure by the Torah.  Someone defiled by this category of tumah was excluded from only the Camp of the Shechinah, but could remain in the Camps of the Leviim and Yisrael.

Hashem proclaimed, "My Presence resides in all three Camps.  The impure must therefore leave the various Camps so as not to desecrate their kedushah."

Why didn't Hashem announce the mitzvah of ejecting the temayim immediately after Matan Torah?

The answer is that this commandment had been unnecessary then since no lepers or zavim were to be found.  prior to the giving of the Torah, the angels had healed all the physical defects of Benei Yisrael.

Forty days thereafter, when Yisrael constructed the Golden Calf, everyone's former sickness returned.  Some became lepers again and others zavim.

Therefore, when the Mishkan was established, the Almighty instructed Moshe, "Now that I have taken up permanent residence in the midst of Benei Yisrael, send away the temayim!"

This mitzvah is prefaced with the phrase, "Tzav et Benei Yisrael - Command the Benei Yisrael"(5:2)

This phrase occurs wherever the person finds it difficult to observe a mitzvah.

It is said in praise of Benei Yisrael, however, that they immediately and joyfully complied.  The temayim themselves did not resist when they were told they were banned from the Camp; they left willingly.


Vidui - the mitzvah to confess one's sins verbally
5:5 vayedaber HASHEM el-Moshe lemor
HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying:
6 daber el-benei Yisrael ish o-ishah ki ya'asu mikol-chatot ha-adam limol ma'al baHASHEM ve'ashmah hanefesh hahiv
When a man or a woman commits any of the sins against man, thus being untrue to HaShem, and that  person is guilty.
If a Jew transgressed a negative Torah commandment (mitzvat lo ta'asai) or failed to fulfill a positive commandment (mitzvat asai) and he regrets his deed/omission, it is a mitzvah for him to do teshuvah.

Teshuvah is comprised of three main parts:
  1. Sincere regret for one's past misconduct
  2. Oral confession thereof
  3. Firm decision never to repeat it

Parashat Naso discusses the middle stage of the three parts, vidui - the oral confession.

How does one confess?

The sinner says, "Please HaShem, I sinned and now I am sorry and ashamed of my deed, and I shall never repeat it.

He presents his case to HaShem in his own words and beseeches Him for atonement.

In the time of the Beit HaMikdash, the sinner had to enunciate the vidui previous to the slaughtering of the animal which he offered as a sin-atoning korban.

Why did the Torah command us to pronounce our wrongdoings?

There are two obvious answers:
  1. By confessing a sin to the Almighty, we acknowledge our belief that He punishes sinners and rewards those who observe His mitzvot.
  2. A full oral vidui will greatly strengthen the sinner in his determination to improve his conduct in the future, and will aid him in persisting in his teshuvah.

Hashem says, "As soon as a Jew admits that he did wrong, I am merciful to him."

Whoever says vidui before he dies has a portion in the World to Come.  If he does not know how to recite vidui, he is told to say, 'Let my death be an atonement for all my sins.'

There is a special mitzvah to say vidui on Yom Kippur, the day of the year that has the power to cleanse from sin.


The Sotah
5:11 vayedaber HASHEM el-Moshe lemor
HASHEM spoke to Moshe, saying:
12 daber el-benei Yisrael veamarta alehem ish ish ki-tiste ishto uma'ala vo ma'al
Speak to Benei Yisrael and say to them:  [This is the law] if any man's wife is suspected of committing adultery and being false toward him,
This chapter treats the laws that apply to a woman who is suspected by her husband of adultery - the laws of sotah.  For this reason it is known as "the sotah chapter."

According to our Sages, three kinds of sinners descend to hell and never emerge: one who engages in carnal relations with another man's wife; one who shames another in public; one who refers to another by a nickname, even if the person named does not mind and is not embarrassed by it. (Bava Metzia, Chapter 4)

As a result of sexual immorality, indiscriminate death afflicts the world, destroying the righteous and the wicked alike.  Thus we saw in Parashat Noach that one of the reason for the great Flood was depravity.

When a person commits an act of adultery with another man's wife, he is guilty of violating all of the Ten Commandments.

The act itself indicates that the individual does not recognize G-d's existence, and he thus transgresses the Commandment, "I am HaShem you G-d" (Shemot 20:2).  This is conveyed in the Torah text (5:12) through iteration of the word ish (man).  For by committing adultery, a woman is false to G-d to whom the Scripture sometimes refers as ish - as in, "HaShem is the Master (ish) of war" (Shemot 15:3) - and she is false to her husband (the ish of that woman). (BaMidbar Rabbah; Tanchuma)

Although a person who is guilty of theft or withholding funds is also said to have offended against G-d and his fellow man, such offenders cannot be compared to an adulterer.  In their case, if the victim forgives the criminal, that is sufficient.  But in adultery, even if her husband were to forgive the adulterer for defiling his wife, G-d will not forgive him, and the sin remains unexpurged.

Since the adulterer contravenes G-d's will, he shows that he values his own wishes above His, so the adulterer also transgresses, "Do not have any other gods" (Shemot 20:3).

If he is caught and tried for his offense, he will swear that he is innocent, and thus be guilty of violating the commandment, "Do not take the Name of HaShem your G-d in vain" (Shemot 20:7).

The adulteress may become pregnant and bear a son whom everyone will associate with her husband.  When he becomes an adult, this son may in his ignorance hurt or insult his true father and thus violate the commandment, "Honor your father and mother" (Shemot 20:12).

When a person is about to commit adultery, he is prepared to kill the husband in order to gain admission to the house.

The violation of, "Do not commit adultery" is obvious.

Since the adulterer steals the affection that rightly belongs to the husband, he is guilty of violating the commandment, "Do not steal" (Shemot 20:13).

If the woman is suspected of becoming pregnant from an adulterous union, she will testify that the father of the child is her husband.  She thus violates the commandment, "Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor" (Shemot 20:13).

Finally, by desiring another man's wife, the adulterer is guilty of violating, "Do not be envious of your neighbor's wife."  Since any son born of this union will unjustly share in the estate of the paramour's husband, he would also be guilty of violating the Commandment, "Do not be envious of your neighbor's house" (Shemot 20:14).
The students asked Rav Huna, "We see how he could transgress all of these commandments.  But how does this act violate the commandment, "Remember the day of Shabbat to keep it holy" (Shemot 20:8)? 
"I will explain it to you as follows," replied Rav Huna.  "Consider the case where a man commits adultery with the wife of a Kohen, and as a result of their union, a son is born.  If the adulterer is not a Levi, this son also does not have the status of a Kohen.  But since he is accepted as the son of a Kohen, he will come to perform altar duty on a Shabbat."  These duties usually involve doing work that is forbidden on the Shabbat, except when done in the Temple by a Kohen.  Because this one is not actually a Kohen, he is thus violating the Shabbat." (Akedat Yitzchak; BaMidbar Rabbah; Bachya; Chinuch; Ir Miklat)
From all this, we see what consequences follow in the wake of adultery.  Accordingly, King Shlomo has declared, "I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and traps" (Kohelet 7:26).

More bitter than death is an adulterer's fate, since he, the adulteress and his bastard son can violate all the Ten Commandments.

Therefore, has G-d given us the present commandment to make the suspected adulteress drink the bitter water.  In His immense compassion for us, He desired to protect us, to cleanse us of all filth and blemish, and by purging from our midst every strain of immorality and illegitimacy, transform us into a nation apart, more radiant and pure than any other.  For we are that people within whom the Divine Presence is to dwell.

The purpose of this commandment, on the personal level of the individuals affected, is to expunge every doubt from a man's heart who suspects his wife of adultery.  For if she is innocent, she will emerge vindicated, and if not, she will be destroyed.

Since it is incumbent upon a husband to be felicitous to his wife, to live with her in friendship and love, there must be no doubt in his mind about her chastity.  The Torah therefore instructs us that if doubt and suspicion have entered his heart, let her drink the water at once, lest he be overtaken by disgust for her.

If, however, the contrary is true, and she has been secretly unfaithful to him, let her be unmasked.  It is a source of reverence for the Jewish people, and an eminent virtue, that we had this means of exposing an adulteress.

Should a husband discern in his wife brazenness and unbecoming behavior with another man, he is under obligation to respond resolutely by warning her in the presence of two witnesses. He is to say to her, "Know that I do not find this behavior of yours acceptable and I do not want you to be in the company of that man."

This warning is designated in the Torah as kinui - jealous reaction; as the verse here declares, "The man expressed feelings of jealousy (kina) against his wife."

After expressing himself thus before witnesses, he is to warn her against being along with the man.

If, nonetheless, she disobeys and secludes herself with this man for a span of time sufficient for her to be compromised, and the two witnesses saw her do so, the husband is prohibited from living with this woman until she drinks the bitter water to establish whether she has or has not committed adultery.

This test of drinking the bitter water was to be given in the Temple in Yerushalayim, and in no other place. Its administration involved these steps:

The husband would appear before the court in his home town, and make the following declaration: "My masters, I hereby make it known to you that I expressed my displeasure to this woman and gave her warning not to seclude herself with that individual.  She has disobeyed me and entered into seclusion with him, according to the witnesses that I have brought with me.  She insists that she is pure and has not lain carnally.  It is my wish, therefore that this matter be settled by having her drink the water."

The judges proceed to take testimony from the witnesses, which they record.  The husband and the wife are then sent to Yerushalayim, chaperoned by two learned men, since it is not permitted for him to have sexual relations with his wife until she has partaken of the bitter water and is no longer a suspect.  Indeed, if on their way to Yerushalayim he transgressed the prohibition and has intercourse with her, the test would no longer be conclusive.

In Yerushalayim, the woman is brought before the High Court without her husband, where by dire warnings and threats she is exhorted not to insist on drinking the bitter water, but to confess.  They try to prevail upon her by telling her, among other things, that a person's youth can bring one to transgress, and therefore, since it is not entirely her fault, she should admit her deed, if true, rather than cause G-d's great and sanctified Name to be erased by the water.

She is further exhorted in the following manner.

"My child, you are not the first one who has been led astray to commit this sin.  It has happened even among the very great, when the evil urge waylaid them and drew them into sin to which they succumbed."

All this is urged upon her so that she might confess and thus make it unnecessary to erase the Name of G-d.

If she does confess, admitting that she has been unchaste, or even if she does not confess but says that she does not want to drink the bitter water, she remains forbidden to her husband, and is divorced without receiving her contractual property settlement (Ketubah).

If, however, she remains adamant in her insistence on taking the test, she is taken to the gate of the Temple, on east side of the Temple.  Once there, she is led to many different locations, walked hither and thither, up and down, with the purpose of tiring her so that she will become discouraged and confess.

If, nonetheless, she still proclaims her innocence, she is brought outside the eastern gate, where she remains.  If she was wearing white garments, she is dressed black ones; and if she had on pretty black garments, these are covered with unsightly ones.  If she has on any ornaments, these are removed.

A great thong of women gathers about her, every woman present in the Temple being obliged to attend.  The purpose: by witnessing the terrible humiliation of the suspected adulteress, to draw the porper conclusion for themselves, of not falling into the same predicament through their actions.

Any man who so wished, could also attend, even though she stood among them attired as if she were in her own home - without a kerchief and with veil covering her face.

None of her servants or employees were allowed to be present, since by recognizing them she would be strengthened in her resolve not to confess.

The woman is then reminded that all the indignities heaped upon her stem from her having secluded herself with that man. (Yad, Sotah 1)

Before being given the bitter water to drink, an oath is administered to her by the Kohen Gadol - in these explicit words.

5:19 vehishbya otah hakohen ve'amar el-ha'isha im-lo shachav ish otach ve'im-lo satit tumah tachat ishech hinaki mimei hamarim hame'arerim ha'eleh
The Kohen shall place her under oath and say to the woman: 'If a man has not lain with you [conjugally] and if you have not gone astray to be defiled while you were married to your husband, you shall be unharmed by these bitter, lethal waters.
20 ve'at ki satit tachat ishech vechi nitmet vayiten ish bach et-shechavto mibaladei ishech
[But] you, if you have gone astray while you were married to your husband, and if you have been defiled, and if a man has had intercourse with you, [a man] other than your husband.'
21 vehishbi'a hakohen et-ha'isha bishvuat ha'ala ve'amar hakohen la'isha yiten HASHEM otach le'ala velishvua betoch amech betet HASHEM et-yerechech nofelet ve'et-bitnech tzavah
[At this point] the Kohen shall place the woman under oath containing the curse.  The Kohen shall say to the woman, '[In such a case] HaShem shall make you a curse and an oath among your people, when HaShem causes your sexual organs to rupture and your abdomen to swell up.
22 uva'u hamayim hame'arrim ha'ele beme'ayich latzbot beten velanpil yarech ve'amra ha'isha amen amen
This bitter, lethal water will enter your abdomen to swell the abdomen, and your sexual organs to rupture. The woman shall respond, "Amein, Amein.'"
If the woman did not know Hebrew, she answered in any language that she understood.

When writing this oath on parchment, the Kohen Gadol would write out the Name of G-d in its entirely - in the form YKVK.

5:23 vechatav et-ha'alot ha'ele hakohen basefer umacha el-mei hamarim
The Kohen shall write all these curses, on the scroll and dissolve them [the writing] in the bitter waters.
24 vehishka et-ha'isha et-mei hamarim hame'arrim uva'u va hamayim hame'arerim lemarim
He shall have the woman drink the bitter, lethal waters and the lethal waters, shall enter her to become bitter.
Then, into a clay bowl that had never been used, he would draw 1/2 log (6.8 ounces or 200 cc.) of water from the washstand and carry it into the Temple Hall.

Near the entrance of the Hall, on the right side, there was a one-cubit by one-cubit floor-board that could be raised by a special rink.  From under it, the Kohen Gadol would scoop up a bit of soil, which he would cast into the water, and add some bitter grasses, such as wormwood, in accordance with the instructions of the Torah that the water be "bitter water."

Into this water he put the scroll upon which the curse and G-d's Name had been written, leaving it there until every letter was totally erased.

One of the Kohanim of the Temple court would then approach her, take hold of the front of her garment and rip it until her heart area was exposed.  He also removed her head covering and disheveled her hair in order to render her odious.

A rope of Egyptian straw would then be placed above the breasts, to keep her garments from slipping down and leaving her naked.

Use of this kind of rope served as a reminder that she had committed an act associated with Egypt, where adultery was commonplace.

If no Egyptian rope was at hand, some other rope was used instead.

5:25 velakach hakohen miyad ha'isha et minchat hakena'ot vehenif et-hamincha lifnei HASHEM vehikriv otah el-hamizbe'ach
The Kohen shall take from the woman's hand meal-offering of jealousy and he shall wave the meal-offering before HaShem, and bring it close to the Altar.
26 vekamatz hakohen min-hamincha et-azkarata vehiktir hamizbecha ve'achar yash.ke et-ha'isha et-hamayim
The Kohen shall scoop out from the meal-offering its commemoration and burn it on the Altar, and after that he shall cause the woman to drink the water.
The barley meal supplied by the husband (1/10 of an efah) was then deposited in an Egyptian basket, which the Kohen placed in her hand in order to tire her.  The meal would subsequently be transferred to one of the sacred vessels of the Temple.

Neither oil nor frankincense would be added to the offering.  Although these were standard ingredients of any meal offering, here the Torah has specifically written, "He shall not pour oil on it, nor place frankincense on it" (5:15).

After again placing the vessel in her hands, the Kohen would push her hands up in a waving motion, which he did by putting his hands under hers.  As explained in Parashat Tzav, this waving motion was characteristic of every meal-offering.

Her offering would then be sacrificed as the south-western corner of the Altar, as with any meal offering brought by a private individual.  A handful of it would be burned on the Altar and the rest was eaten by the Kohanim.

5:27 vehishka et-hamayim vehaita im-nitme'a vatimol ma'al be'isha uva'u va hamayim hame'arerim lemarim vetzavta vitna venafla yerecha vehaita ha'isha le'ala bekerev amah
He shall make her drink the water, and it shall be that if she had been defiled and had deceived her husband, the lethal waters shall enter her to become bitter, and her abdomen will swell and her sexual organs will rupture, and the woman will be a curse among her people.
28 veim-lo nitme'a ha'isha uteho'ra hiv venikta venizre'a zara
But if the woman was not defiled and [she] is pure, she will be cleansed and shall bear seed.
29 zot torat hakena'ot asher tiste isha tachat isha venitma'a
This is the law of jealousies, when a woman goes astray during her marriage to her husband and is defiled.
30 o ish asher ta'avor alav ru'ach kina vekine et-ishto vehe'emid et-ha'isha lifnei HASHEM ve'asa la hakohen et kol-hatora hazot
If a man is overcome with a spirit of jealousy and he is jealous of his wife, then he shall have the woman stand before HaShem, and the Kohen shall do unto her all these laws.
31 venika ha'ish me'avon veha'isha hahiv tisa et-avona
The man is cleansed of sin and that woman shall bear [the burden of] her inquity.
Following the burning of the jealousy offering, the woman would drink the water.  If she was chaste, nothing happened, and she was free to resume living with her husband.  If she was defiled, the water would begin to take effect.  Her face turned green, her eyes bulged and her organs became inflated.

When those around her beheld these symptoms, they cry out for her to be taken outside.  For the pain would cause her to menstruate, and this would prohibit her presence in the Temple court.

Then her belly distended, the sexual organs ruptured, and death followed.

At that precise moment, miraculously, her paramour, too, would die a similar death, wherever he happend to be at the time.  His stomach burst and his genitals ruptured.

Significant in this connection is that the word 'cursed' (waters) (m'arerim) - has the numerical value of twice 248 רמ״ח (resh mem chet), corresponding to twice the number of organs in the human body.  That is, he, too, would die. (Yalkut Reuveni)

This test of the bitter water was effective, however, only if the husband was free of sin, in particular, if he had never sinned carnally.  When the contrary was true, the water caused no reaction.

Therefore, if the husband knew that he was not free of sin, he was not compel his wife to take the test, lest he incur an awful punishment for having caused G-d's great Name to be erased needlessly.  Furthermore, he was then subverting the disciplinary function of the test as such.  For the woman would boast to her friends that, just as she had committed adultery, had then partaken of the water, and had nothing happen to her, nothing will anything happen to them.

For this reason, during the time of the Second Temple when sexual license became widespread and husbands were openly promiscuous, the Sanhedrin abolished the test of the bitter water.

The law of the suspected adulteress also stipulated that should a woman refuse to drink the water, she is not forced to do so.  Her husband divorces her and she does not receive her statutory marriage contract (ketubah) endowment. (Yad, Sotah 4)

If, however, her refusal comes after G-d's Name has been erased, she is forced to drink the water.


Measure for Measure

The general teaching imparted by the fate of the adulteress, is that a man's punishment accords with his transgressions, measure for measure, in every detail.

She had posed herself in the doorway of her house to be visible to her lover, and the Kohen places her, disrobed, at the entrance to the Temple Court.  She put beautiful flowers in her hair for adornment, so the Kohen dishevels her hair and removes the covering from her head.  She adorned her face, so her face turns green.  She shaded her eyes, so her eyes bulge.  She plaited her locks, so her hair is tangled.  She placed charming belts about her, so the Kohen girds her with an Egyptian rope.  She extended her thigh, so her thigh is ruptured.  She allowed him on her belly, so her belly swells.  She fed him delicacies, so her offering is of barley, a food of cattle.

This barley also symbolizes her brazenness.  For unlike wheat which comes out of the ground modestly attired in many layers of husk, barley emerges relatively uncovered, just as she displayed herself in order to entice men to approach her carnally.

Wheat is hot, while barley is cold.  Those who sin carnally are aroused into heat by the evil inclination, and the offering of barley is symbolic warning which says, "Men, do not allow yourselves to be aroused by what is forbidden."

She had served her lover drinks in handsome pictures, so the Kohen brings her water in an earthenware dish.

She herself drank from elegant goblets, so she is made to drink the water from a vessel of clay.

She sinned in concealment, so G-d proclaims her sin to the world.

This also explains why G-d had specifically commanded that no oil or frankincense be added to her sacrifical offering, and why it was a barley offering.

She had secluded herself with him in darkened places and behaved like an animal, so her reminder-offering lacks light-giving oil and it is constituted of animal feed.

She departed from the path of righteousness upon which have trodden our Matriarchs Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, whom Scripture denotes as frankincense (levonah); as it is written, "Before the day cools, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to... the hill of frankincense" (Shir HaShirim 4:6); so her offering is devoid of frankincense.

If the Kohen violated this proghibition against adding oil and frankincense to the meal offering, he incurred a double measure of corporal punishment. (Sotah, Chapter 1; Yalkut Shimoni)

As for the Mishkan soil that was blended into the offering, it pointed to the fate that awaited her as a result of her transgression.  She would die and dwell in the worm-infested earth.

Accordingly, the Torah says, "He will take some earth from the Mishkan floor," the literal meaning of "Mishkan" being a dwelling place.

These three ingredients of the sotah drink - earth, water and G-d's Name - recall the three aspects spoken of in the following maxim of Akavya ben Mahallalel.
  1. "Ponder three things and you will not sin:  whence you came...from a putrid drop (of semen)"  - in the sotah drink this is represented by the water
  2. "where you are bound... to a place of earth and worms" - represented by the earth that her drink contains
  3. "before Whom you are to render an account - before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He" - represented by G-d's Name that is placed in the water.
All three ingredients are blended into her drink as a reminder that had she pondered upon the above three things she would not have committed the sin.

There is also significance in the fact that the bitter water was given to her by a Kohen. The Kohen Gadol Aharon was a lover of peace among men and he labored to achieve it, and drinking the water was a means of making peace between a husband and a wife who was innocent. (Toledot Yitzchak)

Although she may be innocent, the Torah nonetheless places a special obligation upon the husband to express his jealousy against his wife; thus, "When a man simply has a feeling of jealousy against his wife he shall..." (5:30). And when a husband does so, he is overcome by a spirit of purity.

He should not, however, express his feelings of jealousy before others, at first.  With soft words and only between themselves, he should tell her not to seclude herself with the man of whom he is jealous, and among men, generally, she should not be indecently attired.

If a person does not exhort his family to walk in the path of modesty; and does not make the effort to watch over their behavior, he commits a sinful error.  For as the Scripture declares, "You will know that there is peace in your tent, you will charge your habitat, and [only then] you shall not be remiss" (Iyov 5:24).

In our time, a husband should never admonish his wife in the presence of witnesses.  For if he does so and she then conceals herself with the same man against whom he warned her, he will be forbidden to live with her from then on.  Since we have no cursed waters with which to test her, he will have to divorce her, and she loses her marriage contract (ketubah) endowment.  He should therefore admonish her only in private. (Yad, Sotah 1)

When the Benei Yisrael were in Egypt, the Egyptians claimed that they had defiled the Yisraeli women, and as a result many Benei Yisrael suspected that what the Egyptians were saying about their wives was true.  For this reason, G-d was to say to Moshe, "It is My wish that you test them with the bitter water.  Write the Explicit Name, place it in the water, and have them drink it."

Subsequently, they were all examined and found to be chaste; indeed, it was because the Benei Yisrael were free of immorality that they were redeemed. The test was administered when the Benei Yisrael arrived at Marah, as it is written, "and there He tested them" (Shemot 15:25).  Its purpose was to remove all suspicion from their husbands' minds.

In other words, when they came to Marah, whose waters were bitter (Shemot 15:23), G-d tested them with that water as one tests a suspected adulteress   At the same time, the men, too, were tested, to establish that they had not been promiscuous with the Egyptian women. (Zohar; Recanti; Sifetei Kohen)


The True Nazir
6:1 vayedaber HASHEM el-moshe lemor
HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying:
2 daber el-benei Yisrael ve'amarta alehem ish o-isha ki yafli lindor neder nazir lehazir laHASHEM
Speak to Benei Yisrael and say to them, "If a man or a woman sets apart a vow, a nazir vow, to set [himself] apart for HASHEM,
The nazir (asceticism) laws of this chapter pertain to a person who resolves to become a nazir by uttering a vow to that effect, or to consecrate himself in regard to any thing whatsoever.

If, however, by mere habit such things as, "I shall become a nazir unless I get to do such and such, or I do not get to do such and such," he acts wickedly. His asceticism is an asceticism of wickedness, for by making such a binding affirmations in connection with every little thing, such people find themselves unable to honor their vows, for the most part, and are drawn into the very harsh sin of violating a pledge. (Yad, Nezirut 10)

When the nazir vow is taken because of a holy resolve to escape temptation and sin, it is a step at once admirable and commendable, and such a person deserves to be called "saintly" (kadosh).

That is the kind of nazir which the Torah here discusses, namely, a man or a woman who "expresses a nazir vow to G-d."

G-d says to Moshe, "If a person desires to set himself apart from matters of this world as a means of attaining greater saintliness, and towards achieving that end, rather than out of frustration or any other self-serving motive, he or she takes a vow of asceticism in order to come close to G-d, that is the kind of asceticism I commend as holy, and [whose laws I hereby] command " (Alshekh)

The following story from the Talmud tells how Shimon the Just came to partake of the guilt offering (asham - 6:12) of a nazir - the one and only time he did so.  He was at the time the Kohen Gadol:
One day he saw an extremely handsome young man, obviously a nazir, who had come to the Temple from the southern part of the country. 
"Why do you not take care of your beautiful hair?" asked the sage when he saw his cascading locks. 
"In my native city, " replied the young man, "I was a shepherd for my father.  But once I happened to see my reflection in the water and was seized by a wanton urge that threatened to destroy me.  So I said to myself, 'You knave!  Why are you strutting about in a world that is not yours?  Will your end be more than dust, worms and maggots?  I will shave off your hair for the sake of Heaven!" 
By his concluding words, he had, in effect, taken a vow to become a nazir for a fixed period of time.  When that period came to an end, he promptly cut off his hair and presented himself at the Temple, as required. 
Kissing him on the head, Shimon the Just exclaimed, "May many like you in Yisrael take upon themselves the nazir vow!" and he readily partook of the sacrifice that the nazir had brought.  For the young man had taken the nazir vow in order to tame his passions, and had thus merited live in the Hereafter. (Sotah, Chapter 1; Yalkut Shimoni; Rashi)

We can now understand why the chapter dealing with the nazir immediately follows the sotah chapter.  The Torah teaches us that if a human being truly desires to escape sin and its aftermath of disgrace and humiliation, such as befell the adulteress, he should vow abstinence from wine.  For addiction to wine leads to many evils.

Compare what the Torah says about the Kohen Gadol, "since his G-d's anointing (nezer) oil is upon him" (VaYikra 21:12) and what it says here about the nazir: "since his G-d's nazir (nezer) crown (his uncut hair) is on his head" (BaMidbar 6:7)

The Scripture thus teaches us that the stature of the nazir surpasses that of the Kohen Gadol. For, unlike the Kohen Gadol whose ascendant condition of sanctity is not based on his personal accomplishments, but derives rather from the oil with which he was anointed, the distinction and virtue of the nazir derives from himself.  On his own, he abandoned the pleasures of this world and adhered to the ways of G-d.

That the Torah recognizes here only this kind of asceticism (nezirut), is conveyed in the words, "when a man or woman expresses a nazir vow...," where the term yafliy denotes, "to be withdrawn and set apart."

In other words, that kind of asceticism is meant in which a person withdraws form the gratifications of this world in order to become saintly.  He acts for the greater glory of G-d rather than out of anger at the world, or in the expectation of gaining some advantages.

The same root word from which yafliy is constructed, appears also in connection with Shimshon (Samson) and carries similar connotations.  After the angel had informed Manoach of the forthcoming birth of his son, and Manoach asked the angel's name, the reply was, "Why do you ask my name, seeing that it is peiliy" (Shoftim 13:18).

He was telling Manoach, "Know that any name we are given is related to the particular mission upon which we are embarked.  Since at this time I come to reveal that your son will be a Nazir, my name, accordingly, is peliy."

It is now clear that true asceticism has as its own underlying motive a man's desire to be protected against sin.  Accordingly, G-d commands him to abstain from three things.
  1. One is abstention from wine, since drinking wine causes mental confusion. When a person drinks a quantity of wine he loses his clarity of mind (and for this reason may not judge halachic questions). Drinking alcoholic beverages is a major factor leading to immoral behavior. A nazir is prohibited not only to drink wine but even to eat grapes or raisins, including their seeds or peels. If he approaches a vineyard, he is warned, "Do not walk through it; take a detour around it!" Chazal  thereby teach us the principle that the best precaution against sinning is to distance oneself from any temptation.
  2. Not to cut his hair and thus avoid grooming himself, since a handsomely barbered man is drawn after his base urges. The purpose of a haircut is to make a person look hansome. By letting his hair grow long, and at the end of the nezirut period shaving it completely as is required, the nazir banishes from his mind all thoughts of beautifying his body. This is a means of distancing himself from earthly desires. Although the nazir's long hair may not conform with our concept of beauty, the Torah terms it a crown (6:7). The Shechinah rests upon the nazir, because he observes the laws of nezirut.
  3. The nazir should not be defiled by proximity to corpses.  Since his aim is to cleave to holiness (kedushah), it is unseemly for him to become ritually impure (tamei) by coming in contact with the dead.  He must at all times be in a condition of purity, for sanctity cannot take effect where there is ritual pollution (tumah).  (Abarbanel)  Whoever sanctifies himself, is rewarded with additional kedushah from Heaven. Hashem bestows upon the nazir a level of kedushah similar to the Kohen Gadol's. Just as the high priest may not be metamai himself even for his closest relatives, so is the nazir forbidden to be metamei himself even for his closest relatives. The tumah caused by a dead body cannot be tolerated by his high level of kedushah.

6:13 vezot torat hanazir beyom melot yemei nizro yavi oto el-petach ohel moed
This is the law of the nazir: when the days of is naziri status are fulfilled, he shall bring himself to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
The Torah explains the sequence of actions bearing on the nazir who successfully completed the term of his nazir vow.

When the nazir period is concluded, he brings three offerings of cattle: "one unblemished yearling male sheep for a burnt offering, one unblemished yearling female sheep for a sin offering, one unblemished ram for a peace offering" (6:14).  He also brings "a basket containing unleavened wheat loaves kneaded with oil and flat matzahs saturated with oil, along with the prper meal offerings and libations [for the animal sacrifices]" (6:15)

This is followed by the Kohen sacrificing the burnt offering and the sin offering, and then the peace offering (6:16).

The Nazir then shaves off his hair at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting in the women's gallery of the Temple.  this location was called the Chamber of Nazirim and was situated on the south-eastern corner of the women's gallery.

The peace offering is cooked at this location.  The Kohen takes some liquid form the vat in which it is cooked and powers it over the hair, which he then casts into the fire under the vat.

It should be understood that when the Scripture writes, "at the Tent of Meeting entrance the nazir shall shave off the crown of hair on his head," it doe snot mention that he actually stands at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and there shaves his hair, since that would be an affront to the dignity of the Temple. Rather, the verse tells us that when the nazir is shaving his head in the Chamber of the nazirim, the gate of the Tent of Meeting must be open.

After the hair cutting, the Kohen takes the cooked foreleg of the ram, along with one unleavened loaf, and one flat matzah, and places them on the nazir's open hands (6:19).  These he proceeds to wave in the motions prescribed for a wave offering (6:20)

After this service, the nazir is permitted to drink wine, may allow himself to become defiled by handling a corpse, and so forth. 


Birkat HaKohanim (The Priestly Blessing)


The commandment regarding the Priestly Blessing is directed at the Kohanim.  G-d says to them, "When blessing the Benei Yisrael, you are not to add to or delete from the words of that blessing, which read,
May HaShem bless you and keep watch over you.
May HaShem make His Presence enlighten you and grant you grace.
May HaShem direct His providence toward you and grant you shalom.
By placing the commandment of the Priestly Blessing immediately after the Nazir chapter, the Torah teaches us that the Kohanim must not be drunk with wine when blessing the Jewish people.  It is conveyed in the words, "This is how you must bless the Benei Yisrael;" that is, he must then be like the Nazir who drinks no wine.

This situation is the basis for the rule that the Priestly Blessing is not recited during Mincha (the Afternoon Service), since at that hour a man has had his dinner and is bound to be inebriated. (Yad, Tefillah 14; Orach Chayim 128)

We must realize that by His desire to bless us, G-d conferred a great kindness upon the Jewish people.  For this reason, He commanded that the blessing be pronounced by saintly human beings, by the Kohanim whose thoughts are always preoccupied with serving G-d and whose souls cleave to Him in awe.  Through their merit, the blessing will be realized.

The Midrash declares, "The people say to G-d: You have commanded Your Kohanim to bless us.  But we do not need these Priestly blessings, since You, Yourself, could bless us; as it is written, 'Look down from Your holy habitation in heaven, and bless Your people Yisrael and the land that You have given us, the land flowing with milk and honey...' (Devarim 26:15)."

G-d says to them, "Although I have commanded the Kohanim to bless you, the blessings do not come from them but from Me, for I Myself stand over them to bless You."

When the Kohanim raise their hands to bless the Jewish people, G-d is over them; as it is written, "Behold, He stands beyond our wall, He looks in at the windows, He peers through the lattice" (Shir HaShirim 2:9).


That is, when the Kohanim stand intoning the Priestly Blessing, the Divine Presence is there, peering in through the "windows" - the spaces between their extended fingers.  From between the lattice of clefts He pears through to bless Yisrael. (Yalkut Shimoni)

"Do not imagine," G-d declares, "that the Kohanim are the ones who confer the blessing.  They only need to pronounce My Name, by uttering the Priestly Blessings, and I will provide the blessing." (Tzeror HaMor; Alshekh)

That G-d has arranged for the Kohanim to be the ones though whom His abundance is channeled, is a great gift for them as well.  It constitutes the twenty-fifth privilege conferred upon them, the other twenty-four consisting of the various tithes and offerings that accrue to them. (Bachya)

The nature of that boon is implied in the words, "This is how you must bless the Benei Yisrael."  Since anyone who blesses the Jewish people is in turned blessed by G-d, as it is written, "I will bless those who bless you" (Bereishit 12:3), their twenty-fifth benefit comes as a consequence of the Priestly Blessing.


The Priestly Blessing Explained
6:24 yevarechcha HASHEM veyishmerecha
May HaShem bless you and keep watch over you.
25 ya'er HASHEM panav eleicha vichuneka
May HaShem make His Presence enlighten you and grant you grace.
26 yisa HASHEM panav eleicha veyasem lecha shalom
May HaShem direct His providence toward you and grant you peace.
27 vesamu et-shemi al-benei Yisrael va'ani avarachem
They [the Kohanim] shall bestow My Name upon Benei Yisrael, and I will bless them.
The first verse of the Blessing (6:24) is comprised of three words, corresponding to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. The Torah thus teaches us that G-d confers blessings upon us on account of their merit.

The second verse has five words, which tells us that we are blessed on account of the Five Books of the Torah.

The third verse contains seven words - corresponding to the seven firmaments.

Moreover, the triplet of words of the first verse corresponds to the three men who are called up to the Reading of the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays.  The five words following them, in the second verse, reflect the five men who are called up to the Reading on a holiday.  Finally, the seven words of the last verse match the seven men called up on the Shabbat.

During a normal week, therefore, eight Jewish men are called up to the Reading (six on the Shabbat, five in the morning and one at the Afternoon Service, and one each on Monday and Thursday), and eight Leviim (four Leviim and four Kohanim), four on the Shabbat and two each on Monday and Thursday.

This distribution was established by our sages so as to eliminate discord between the Leviim and Benei Yisrael, and thus fulfill the concluding words of the Priestly Blessing, "and grant you peace."

Noteworthy, moreover, is that the first verse comprises fifteen letters, corresponding to the numerical value (gematria) of the Name (yod-heh), the second verse has twenty letters, reflecting Heh Yod Heh; and the twenty-five letters of the third verse correspond to Yod Heh Yod.  Together, these express the fact that G-d has existed in the past (hayah), exists in the present (hoveh), and will continue to exist (yehiyeh).  He was before He created the world, He is in the present, and H will continue to be.  May He and His Name be exalted. (Toledot Yitzchak)

Although all four verses (6:24 - 27) refer to the same thing, in the Torah they appear as distinct chapters (9, 10, 11, 12).  It means that they related to four different aspects, whose importance is such that between them they encompass the full measure of what is good in this world and in the Olam Habah (World to Come).

Thus, yivarech'cha - May.... bless you - concentrates all the blessings found in the Torah.

Vayishmarecha - May... keep watch over you - invokes divine protection in helping a person fulfill all the commandments of G-d.  Since that person then becomes worthy of possessing the good that accrues in the World to Come, it is the greatest possible blessing.

These words, yivarech'cha and vayishmarecha say more.  They declare: "May He bless you with possessions and safeguard your life" ; "As a result of this blessing, may you hold on to what is yours: let not the government cast covetous eyes upon your possessions" ; and, third: "May He protect you from temptaion, lest as a result of what the blessing will have given you in material resources, you are drawn into sin."

"May HaShem keep you safe from forces of destruction."

"May He uphold the covenant and promise which He vouchsafed to those world-sustaining colossi, our Patriarchs; as it is written, "Then HaShem your G-d will keep in mind the covenant and love with which He made an oath to your fathers" (Devarim 7:12).

"May He also keep watch over you by sheltering the soul upon its departure from the body, in realization of, "The soul of my master shall be bound in the bond of life" (1Shmuel 25:29).

May He keep you from Gehinnom, as it is written, "He will keep the feet of the pious ones" (1Shmuel 2:9); and may He keep watch over you in the World to Come. " (Yalkut Shimoni)

May HaShem make His presence enlighten you.  HaShem says, "I will provide for your progeny to be Sages who glow with the light of the Torah," as it is written, "For the commandment is a lamp and Torah is a light" (Mishlei 5:23); and "I will also make you worthy of begetting Kohanim, who by their ministrations brighten the Altar," as it is written, "The fire of the Altar shall be ignited with him (בו) " (VaYikra 6:5).

"I will confer upon you the light of the Divine Presence," as it is written "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of G-d has risen upon you" (Yeshayahu 60:1); "and I will also bequeath you the [mental] light of Torah."

And grant you grace - proclaims, "May He cause His Presence to rest upon you."  For the word vichuneka is related to the word chaniya a resting place.

Another connotation is chen (grace or charm). G-d thus says, "I will cause you to find favor with everyone."

It also means, "I will give you the wisdom to be compassionate (rachamim) to one another"  - in a sense similar to, "G-d will then have mercy on you" (Devarim 13:18).

This part of the Blessing (vichuneka) says, furthermore, "I will confer upon you the grace of knowledge and wisdom.  For you will be so entralled (charmed) when studying the Torah that you will be imbued with a love for it."

May... direct His providence (face) toward you.  "Should you ever be singled out for tragedy and you repent, may G-d acknowledge your prayers and nullify the harsh decree against you.

When one man is angry at another, he will not meet his gaze.  "[Let it be otherwise when you prayer to G-d.] If you incur His anger, may it pass and have Him turn towards you."

It is thus clear that the sublime Priestly Blessing encompasses every possible good fortune. (Sifetei Kohen)

The Three verse of this Blessing were inscribed about King Shlomo's couch as protection against evil and misfortune.  For the Scripture has written, "Behold the couch of Shlomo with its sixty valiant ones around it, of the mighty ones of Yisrael" (Shir HaShirim 3:7).

The verse does not mean that sixty valiant men, literally, were positioned around his bed.  King Shlomo was a mighty monarch who feared no one, and he did not require sixty men to guard his couch.

It refers, rather, to the three verse of the Priestly Blessing, whose sixty letters, corresponding to names [of G-d], were engraved around his couch.

When the Kohanim uttered these verse, those sixty letters would ascend to realms on high, where sixty angels, each of them associated with a different letter, and together corresponding to the 600,000 Benei Yisrael, would take hold of them.  After ratifying the blessings coming from the Kohanim, they would bring the letters before the Throne of Glory, and G-d would also ratify them.

That is the special intent of, "The Kohanim] shall bestow My Name upon the Benei Yisrael and I will bless them."

For this reason, awe and trembling would overtake each of the Kohanim when he was about to bless the Jewish people.  Overwhelmed by his awareness of the Divine Presence and the knowledge of the destination of the sixty letters he was about to pronounce, he would utter the words with supreme devotion, enumerating each one as carefully as if he were counting money or listing precious goods.

When raising his hands to offer the Priestly Blessing, the Kohen experienced a revealing omen.  If his arms felt tired, it meant that the generation - or he himself - was sinful.  If they felt light, G-d's love was evident and He was pleased with the blessings which the Kohanim was invoking on behalf of the Jewish people. (Yalkut Reuveni, Shelach.  See Bachya)

The Priestly Blessing is recited during the Amidah of Shacharit (Morning Service), also at the Musaf (Additional) service, and the Neilah (closing) service of Yom Kippur. (Orach Chayim 129)

The Blessing is performed only when a quorum of ten adult (thirteen years of age and over) Jews is present, including the Kohanim.

- MeAm Lo'ez; Bachya; Rashi, Midrash

Parashat BaMidbar

Parashat Bamidbar
Bamidbar 1:1-4:20
Haftarah
Hoshea 2:1 - 22


Parashat Summary

Gd commands Moshe to take a census of all the Benei Yisrael males over the age of twenty 
The duties of the Levi'im, who are not included in the census, are detailed
Each Tribe is assigned specific places in the camp around the Mishkan
The sons of Levi are counted and their responsibilities are set forth
A census of the firstborn males is taken and a special redemption tax is levied on them
G-d instructs Moshe and Aharon regarding the responsibilities of Aharon and his sons, and their duties

1:1 Vayedaber HASHEM el-Moshe bemidbar Sinai be'Ohel Mo'ed be'echad lachodesh hasheni bashanah hashenit letzetam me'eretz Mitzrayim lemor
And HASHEM spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first [day] of the second month, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt, saying,
 In Sefer Bereishit, the Torah spoke to us of the initial creation of the world, of the origin of the Jewish people, and of its family branches prior to the time of the Egyptian captivity.  In the Sefer Shemot, it related the story of that captivity and the subsequent redemption.

Included in its account of the subjugation of the community of Yisrael was a description of both the physical bondage: their bitter condition of slavery, and the spiritual bondage: the evil of their immersion in the superstitious practices and beliefs of the Egyptians.  But their G-d rescued them from these enslavements; He set them apart at the Revelation at Sinai, and commanded that they erect the Mishkan where He would cause His Presence (Shechinah) to dwell.

In Sefer VaYikra, G-d taught them about the life of holiness and purity they were to live so as to be in harmony with the sacred service of the Mishkan.  Only when the Kohanim and the rest of the community of Yirael is meticulous at all times in matters pertaining to the sacred order (kedushah), will the Divine Presence continue, without interrruption, to dwell within their midst.

Here, in Sefer BaMidbar, after G-d has finished instructing and cautioning the Benei Yisrael concerning these matters of sanctity, the Torah proceeds with an account of their sojourn in the desert, recording their resting places and travel routes, the ordeals they passed through, the miracles performed on their behalf, and what happened to Korach and his band when they rebelled against Moshe. (Abarbanel)

In this book, G-d also teaches us a portion of the commandments.

Studying Sefer BaMidbar (Book of Numbers) is counted as sacrificing a crime offering.   As previously explained, there are five types of sacrifice:
  1. Olah - burnt offering
  2. Minchah - meal offering
  3. Chatat - sin offering
  4. Asham - guilt offering
  5. Shelamim - peace offering
Studying Sefer Bereishit is considered as sacrificing a burnt offering.  Sefer Shemot is considered like a meal offering.  VaYikra is like a sin offering; BaMidbar is like a guilt offering; Devarim is like a peace offering. (Kli Yekar, Tzav)

In general, when a person studies the entire Torah in order to know which laws he must keep and how they are to be kept, it is as if he had observed all the commandments.  This remains so even if there are laws that he cannot keep when - for example, there has never been an opportunity to keep them - since his intent is good.  Thus, as long as in his study of each individual portion of the Torah, his intent is not merely to pass the time, to know the world, or to be able to show off his knowledge, it is counted as actual observance of the particular laws studied. (Zohar, VaYera)

1:2 Se'u et-rosh kol-adat benei-Yisra'el lemishpechotam leveit avotam bemispar shemot kol-zachar legulgelotam
"Take a head count of the entire congregation of the Children of Yisrael according to their families to the house of their fathers counting the names of all males individually.
 As a general rule in the Torah, we know that conducting a census signifies esteem and importance; it is an expression of G-d's special regard for the Jewish people that He repeatedly counts them.

At the time of the Exodus, G-d's purpose in counting the Benei Yisrael was to show them that they had been blessed.  Although they had numbered only seventy souls when coming to Egypt, upon leaving they comprised a total of six hundred thousand males, not counting the young.

G-d counted them again after the events associated with the Golden Calf, to determine the total number of survivors.

Regarding that count, we can draw a comparison.  A flock of sheep, prized by its owner, was struck by a plague and decimated.  After the plague passed, the owner of the flock said to his shepherd, "Count my sheep so that I may know how many remain."  Similarly, G-d said to Moshe, "After they made the Calf and brought death upon themselves, I want you to count them so that I may know the number that survived."

Here, in Sefer BaMidbar, the Torah relates that once again G-d tallied the Benei Yisrael, and that it took place after H had caused the Divine Presence to dwell among them on the first day of the month of Nissan, when the Mishkan was completed.  That is, "On the first [day] of the second month" - the month of Iyyar - G-d commanded Moshe to count them. (Rashi; Mizrachi)

The Torah specifies the location where the census was conducted, the month, and the day of the month, to teach us that it was undertaken out of G-d's love for the Jewish people. (Sifetei Kohen)

When G-d brought into being the Flood Generation, He did not disclose the year, and when He destoryed them, He did not record the date of their destruction.  Nor did He mark the date of birth of the Bavel Generation, nor of the Egyptian; neither did he disclose when they were destroyed.

But when the Jewish people came into the world, G-d said to Moshe, "I will not act toward them as I acted toward the others before them.  For those were of lowly origin, while these are descended from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and it is My wish to record exactly when I caused My Present to dwell within their midst.  Write down, therefore, the month and the day of the month, and exact location."

Therefore the Torah has written, "G-d spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting) on the first [day] of the second month of the second year." (BaMidbar Rabbah; Yalkut Shimoni; Tzeror HaMor; Olat Shabbat)

At the same time, G-d cautioned Moshe against improperly executing the commandment to count the Benei Yisrael.  In particular, he was to avoid the procedure used for enumerating objects of no importance.  These are counted by direct numbering: one, two, three, and so on. (Sifetei Kohen)

Nor should he "count the heads," in the sense of first listing the heads of families and then adding to the total the number of persons in each family.

Rather, the dignity and integrity of every person had to be safeguarded by recording their names individually. Each and every name is as precious to G-d as the finest fragrance.

For this reason, the Torah has also written, "according to the names," that is, Moshe was to mention every person by his name. (Abarbanel)


Census Results:

Reuven -    46,500
Shimon -    59,300
Gad      -    45,650
.............................
                151,450

Yehudah  - 74,600
Yissachar - 54,400
Zevulun    - 57,400
.............................
                186,400

Efrayim    - 40,500
Menashe  - 32,200
Binyamin  - 35,400
.............................
                 108,100

Dan         -  62,700
Asher      -  41,500
Naftali     -  53,400
.............................
                 157,600

Total       - 603,550

In the cases of all the tribes, other than Naftali, the Torah begins the tally by saying "for the descendants" (li-bnei).  In the case of Naftali, however, the opening expression is "the descendants" (b'nai), without a lamed.  This alludes to the fact that in the tribe of Naftali, females outnumbered male descendants.

This is alluded to in Yaakov's blessing to Naftali, "Naftali is a free running deer, who delivers words of beauty" (Bereishit 49:21). The Hebrew for "free running deer who delivers" is ayalah sh'luchah ha-noten.  The initial letters of this phrase spell out Isha, meaning "woman."  This denotes that women would form the majority of this tribe.

1:48 Vayedaber HASHEM el-Moshe lemor
HASHEM spoke to Moshe, saying,
49 Ach et-mateh Levi lo tifkod ve'et-rosham lo tisa betoch benei Yisra'el
"However, the Tribe of Levi you shall not count and you shall not take their head count among the Children of Yisrael.
G-d told Moshe that the Levi'im were not to be counted in the same manner as the other tribes, by beginning with those over twenty.  Their census was to include everyone from one month of age.

Since the Levi'im were the King's own legion who would serve Him in the Temple, they deserved to be counted separately, and it was a mark of their distinction that they should all be counted, the young as well as the old. (Rashi; Mizrachi)  Even the one-month-old infants possessed the same distinction. (Sifetei Chachamim)

Another reason for not assigning to the Levi'im the same census classificaqtion of "over twenty years old," is this.  In the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf and the sin of the spies [who spoke against the Promised Land and swayed the people], all the Benei Yisrael who were twenty or over [at the time of the present census] were condemned to die in the wilderness, and they did not enter the Promised Land.

The Levi'im were untainted by the sin of the Calf or that of the spies.

However, since the decree applied to all those who had been included in the census of "over twenty years old," G-d commanded that they not be accorded the same classification, lest they, too, succumb to this decree. (Nachalat Yaakov.  See Mizrachi; Sifetei Chachamim)

1:50 Ve'atah hafked et-haLevi'im al-Mishkan ha'edut ve'al kol-kelav ve'al kol-asher-lo hemah yis'u et-haMishkan ve'et-kol-kelav vehem yeshartuhu vesaviv laMishkan yachanu
You shall appoint the Leviim to oversee the Mishkan of Testimony and over all of its utensils and over all that belongs to it. They shall carry the Mishkan and all its utensils, and they shall administer it, and they shall camp around the Mishkan.
G-d said to Moshe that before beginning to count the Levi'im, he should appoint from among them supervisors and officers over the Mishkan and all its furnishings.

"I command you to do this," He said to him, "because the Levi'im are fewer in number than any of the other tribes."

Even the smallest of the tribes, Menashe, numbered 32,000 persons, compared with the 22,000 members of the tribe of Levi, even though Menashe's tally included only those twenty years old and over, while that of the Levi'im included everyone, beginning with one month of age.

G-d therefore says to Moshe, "Make them realixze their privileged status of My servants, lest they succumb to dismay at being so few in number.  Tell them that they will be th eones in charge of the Mishkan and its accouterments   They will "carry the Mishkan and all its furniture," when travelling, takingit apart at the beginning and putting it together again at the end of each journey.  And when it is at rest, they will "serve in it." (Sifetei Kohen)

"They shall also 'camp around the Mishkan' for a distance of two thousand cubits." (Rashi)

1:51 Uvinsoa haMishkan yoridu oto haLvi'im uvachanot haMishkan yakimu oto haLevi'im vehazar hakarev yumat
When the Mishkan is to be moved the Leviim shall take it down, and when the Mishkan is to rest [in one place] the Leviim shall erect it, and the stranger who approaches, shall die.
52 Vechanu benei Yisra'el ish al-machanehu ve'ish al-diglo letziv'otam
The Children of Yisrael shall camp, each man at his own camp and each man at his own banner, according to their divisions.
No stranger was permitted to come near to perform any of the functions and duties reserved for the Levi'im. Death by the heavenly tribunal awaited anyone who did approach for this purpose, even if he was a Kohen.

This explains why the Levi'im were bidden to "camp around the Mishkan"; specifically, to guard it against intruders.

1:53 VehaLevi'im yachanu saviv leMishkan ha'edut velo-yihyeh ketzef al-adat benei Yisra'el veshameru haLevi'im et-mishmeret Mishkan ha'edut
The Leviim shall camp around the Mishkan of the Testimony, so that there will not be anger upon the congregation of the Children of Yisrael, and the Leviim shall be careful to preserve the Mishkan of Testimony."
54 Vaya'asu benei Yisra'el kechol asher tzivah HASHEM et-Moshe ken asu
The Children of Yisrael did according to all that HASHEM commanded Moshe; they did it [exactly].
"Divine anger" had befallen Korach and his band, when they drew near to perform unauthorized ministrations in the Mishkan; it was now the task of the Levi'im to prevent any recurrence of such calamities.

By conveying these instructions to the Levi'im, Msohe will stress their importance and this will comfort them for their numerical inferiority.  His words will have the desired effect, moreover, because they will solace are spoken to someone in distress, they can be effective if the that had the comforter been in the situation of the sufferer, he would not have been comforted.

Such is the intent of the verse, "As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you..." (Yeshayahu 66:13).

G-d says to the Jewish people, "The salutary comfortings which you shall receive, will set your minds at east.  Even as a man who is anguished over the death of his father, the mainstay of his life, will find comfort in the solace expressed by his mother, since she, too, having lost her husband and provider, shares in his anguish; so will My consolation enter your hearts.  For I, too, am immersed in the same pain of exile."

Similarly, the Torah says here, "You shall appoint the Levi'im."  It would have been sufficient for the Torah to say "appoint the Levi'im," without including the expression "you shall."  The additional expression is inserted to stress the above idea.

G-d is thus telling Moshe, "If the Levi'im are to be comforted for being smaller than any of the other tribes, you personally must comfort them, for you partake of their pain." (Sifetei Kohen)


Why the Tribe of Levi Was Small

The tribe of Levi was small because of the confrontation between G-d and Pharaoh.

Pharaoh's purpose was to diminish the population of the Benei Yisrael, and for this reason he forced upon them the harsh labor of "mortar and bricks."  But even as he said to his people, "They may increase so much," (Shemot 1:10) revealing his obstinate resolves to stop them from increasing, G-d said, "Let them increase and flourish" - and they multiplied unceasingly.

The more Pharaoh forced them to toil, the more they would increase; as it is written, "But the more [the Egyptians] oppressed them, the more [the Benei Yisrael] proliferated and spread." (Shemot 1:12)

This did not apply, however, to the Levi'im; for the tribe of Levi was never subjected to the Egyptain bondage.  Accordingly, neither were they affected by the miracle.  They failed to multiply prodigiously, and as a result became the smallest tribe numerically. (Ramban; Sifetei Kohen; Parashat Derachim, Derech Mitzrayim.  See Tzeror HaMor)

2:1 Vayedaber HASHEM el-Moshe ve'el-Aharon lemor
HASHEM spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying,
2 Ish al-diglo ve'otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra'el mineged saviv le'ohel-mo'ed yachanu
"Each man at his own banner, with the insignia of their fathers' houses shall the Children of Yisrael encamp, at a distance around the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp.
When G-d came down on Mount Sinai, to present the Torah to the Jewish people, there came with Him a great host of an uncountable number of angels.  Of those, the retinue immediately around Him numbered 22,000 - the same as the number of the Levi'im.

It was an added indication of the pre-eminence of the tribe of Levi among the Jewish people.

The host of angels, moreover, was arrayed under banners (degalim) about the Throne of Glory (Kissei HaKavod); as it is written, "He is bannered (dagul) by the ten-thousand" (Shir HaShirim 5:10).

Upon seeing them thus arrayed, the Benei Yisrael were seized by a desire for the same thing, and they cried out, "O that we, too, would be marshaled under banners like the angels who camp about the Divine Presence!"

It is the same cry recalled in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) 2:4, "He brought me to the house of wine, and His banner (diglo) over me was love."

That is, "When G-d brought me to the house of wine," - Mount Sinai, where the Torah, which is like intoxicating wine for the human mind and spirit, was revealed - "we declared, if only G-d would confer upon me (Yisrael) the same love which He has conferred upon the angels that are marshaled under banners."

G-d then responded, saying, "Just as the angels are distinguished by banners, so will you be distinguished by banners; and even as you long for it, so do I swear to render it unto you."

It is as the Scripture has written, "May we rejoice in Your salvation, and in the Name of our G-d set up our banner (nidgol).  May HaShem fulfill all your petitions" (Tehillim 20:6).  The Benei Yisrael asked for the boon of being arrayed under banners, and G-d granted this petition.

Accordingly, the Torah says, here, "The Benei Yisrael....each person near the banner (diglo) having his paternal family's insignia." (Yalkut Shimoni; Bachya; Tzeror HaMor; Sifetei Kohen)

The degalim, which set off the various encampments in the wilderness, were of profound spiritual significance, and are not to be confused with today's familiar royal or national banners.

In fact, the nations of the world copied the idea of national banners from Jews; however, their flags are but poor imitations of the degalim, which were designed and displayed entirely by Heavenly direction.

Benei Yisrael prophetically envisioned the degalim at Matan Torah. They perceived the Shechinah descending upon Har Sinai accompanied by 22,000 chariots of angels that were close to the Shechinah and vast numbers of additional chariots surrounding them.

The angels were grouped around the Shechinah as four divisions, flying different flags:


  1. to the right (south) was the angel Michael's division
  2. to the left (north) was the angel Uriel's division
  3. in front (east) was the angel Gavriel's division
  4. in back (west) was the angel Rafael's division.
The fiery Heavenly banners were perceived by the Benei Yisrael in varying shades of color.

The inspiriting sight of the celestial armies called Benei Yisrael to exclaim, "If only we were organized under degalim, with the Shechinah in our midst, just like the angels"!

Why did they desire degalim?

They yearned to experience the special holiness of being situated like the Heavenly army, who enjoyed a higher level of attachment to Hashem.

Hashem informed Moshe then that He would grant Benei Yisrael's request for degalim

It was not until thirty days after the Mishkan was established (and the Shechinah, that had departed after the chet ha'egel [sin of the golden calf] had returned permanently) that Hashem considered Benei Yisrael worthy of achieving this superior level of kedushah.

He commanded Moshe, "Benei Yisrael shall encamp under four leading banners."

The four divisions corresponds to the four angelic divisions, as follows:

  1. Yehudah's division (in the east; included Yissachar and Zuvulun) reflected the Heavenly division led by the angel Gavriel.
  2. Efrayim's division (in the west; included Menashe and Binyamin) paralleled the angelic vision led by the angel Rafael.
  3. Reuven's division (in the south; included Shimon and Gad) corresponded to the Heavenly hosts headed by the angel Michael.
  4. Dan's division (in the north; included Asher and Naftali) was the earthly counterpart of the Heavenly division of Uriel Above. (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:9)
*Zohar, Bamidbar 118 has a different version.

Additionally, the symbols embroidered upon the four leading degalim corresponded to the four creatures that surround the Kisei Hakavod (as described in Yechezkel 1:10).
  1. Corresponding to the figure of a man beneath the Heavenly Throne of Glory was Reuven's degel, on which was embroidered dudaim-plants (whose roots resemble a person).
  2. Parallel to the figure of a lion underneath the Kisei Hakavod was Yehudah's degel, which bore a lion.
  3. Parallel to the heavenly figure of a bullock was Efrayim's degel, on which was embroidered a bullock.
  4. similar to the image of an eagle underneath the Heavenly Throne was Dan's degel, which bore the picture of an eagle (Midrash Lekach Tov, Yalkut Reuveni)



The Banners and Yaakov's Blessing

Before his death, Yaakov left them the following instructions. "Heed my words!  During the furneral that you will arrange for me in somber awe and concern for my honor, take care that no one who is uncircumcised shall come in contact with my coffin.  Neither shall any of your sons touch it, for you married Kanaani women and it is not my wish that their offspring touch my couch."

"When bearing my coffin, moreover, position yourselves in the following manner:

"Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevulun shall be on the eastern side; Reuven, Shimon and Gad to the south; Efrayim, Menashe and Binyamin to the west; Dan, Asher and Naftali to the north.

"It is not my wish that Yosef help carry the coffin.  He is a monarch and must be accorded the honor that belongs to a king.  Neither shall Levi help carry it, for in the future he will be the one to carry the Ark of G-d."

It follows that the specific positioning of the sons of Yaakov, and later of their descendants in the desert, corresponds to the lofty matters relating to transcendent aspects of reality.  In the language of everyday speech, this transcendent order is usually spoken of in the following manner.

On high, the angelic hosts are arranged three to every side - east, south, north and west.  The Archangel, Uri'el, with two companions, is positioned east of the Throne of Glory; the Archangel, Micha'el, with two companions, is positioned south; to the norht is the Archangel, Gavri'el, with two companions; and to the west is the Archangle, Rafa'el, with two angels at his side.

In accordance with this ordering, G-d commanded the Benei Yisrael to be arranged about the Mishkan, three to every side.

Yehudah, Issachar and Zevulun will be in the east, imaging the encampment of the Archangel Uriel and his companions, east of the Throne of Glory; Reuven, with Shimon and Gad at his side, to the south, imaging the encampment of Archangel Michael, south of the Throne of Glory; the tribe of Efrayim, with Menashe and Binyamin, to the west, imaging encampment of the Archangel Rafael and his companions, west of the Throne of Glory; and the tribes of Dan, Gad and asher to the north, imaging the encampment of Archangel Gavriel and his companions, north of the Throne of Glory.

Such was the grouping of the tribes about the Mishkan by banners, in accordance with the order of the angels about the Throne of Glory. (Zohar)

Moreover, the colors of the tribal banners correspond to the colors of the particular precious stones upon which the names of the respective tribes were inscribed.  The verse says, accordingly, "Each person near the banner having his paternal family's insignia."  That is, each tribe will be associated with a characteristic banner and an insignia, by means of which every man will recognize his own tribe.


Insignias and Colors


The tribe of Reuven had a red banner, since its name was etched on a ruby (odem).  Depicted upon it was a mandrake plant (dudaim) of the kind Reuven had brought to his mother.




The Tribe of Shimon, whose name was etched on a topaz (petedah), had a green banner, upon which was depicted the city of Shechem, recalling the crime that Shechem had perpetrated.





The tribe of Levi, whose name was etched on an emerald (bareket), which is a multi-colored crystal, had a banner of three colors: one-third red, one-third white, and one-third black.  It depicted the Urim and Thumim - the special garment worn by the Kohen Gadol, who was descended from the tribe of Levi.







The name of Yehudah was etched on a garnet (nofech) or carbuncle, and its sky-blue banner depicted a lion, reflecting the verse, "Young lion, Yehudah" (Bereshit 49:9).






The tribe of Yissachar, whose name was etched on a sapphire (sapir) and whose banner was therefore a darkish hue, depicted the sun and moon, since the descendants of Yissachar would be conversant with astronomy and the sciences of the calendar.  It is indicated in the verse, "And from the progeny of Yissachar who have understanding of the times" (1Divrei HaYamim 12:23).



The name of Zevulun was etched on a white-colored yahalom, which some identify as a diamond, and others, as a pearl.  Depicted upon it was a ship, since Zevulun would venture forth in ships in order to provide for Yissachar who would dedicate his time to the study of Torah.  As it is written, "Zevulun shall settle the seashores; he shall be a harbor for ships" (Bereishit 49:13).





The tribe of Dan, whose name was etched on an opal (leshem), had an opal-colored banner.  Upon it, a snake was depicted, Dan having been likened to a snake, "Let Dan be a snake on the road" (Bereishit 49:17).







The name of Gad was etched on an agate (shevo), also known as a turquoise, and his banner was partly white and partly pitch black.  It showed the outline of an encampment or troop of armed men, since the Torah said, "Raiders (gad) shall raid Gad, but he will raid at [their] heel" (Bereishit 49:19). The blessing conferred upon Gad was that he would be victorious whenever he ventured forth to wage war.


The name of Naftali was etched on an amethyst (ahelamah), and its color was that of off-red wine.  Depicted upon it was a deer, Naftali having been described as "a deer running free" (Bereishit 49:21).







Asher, whose name was etched on a beryl (tarshish), had an emerald-colored banner. It depicted a tree, as it is written, "From Asher shall come the richest foods" (Bereishit 49:20).






Since Yosef's name was etched on an onyx (shoham), his banner was a very deep black - the color of onyx. It depicted the two princes, Efrayim and Menashe, as well as the capital city of Egypt.  The latter was an allusion to their having been born in Egypt.  The ox was depicted on the banner of Efrayim, for Yehoshua came from this tribe, and about Yehoshua the Scripture has said, "His glory is like a first-born ox" (Devarim 33:17).  The banner of Menashe showed the form of aurochs (re'em); this is an allusion to Gideon who came from this tribe, and about whom it is written [prophectically], "and his horns are the norns of an aurochs" (Devarim 33:17).

Binyamin, whose name was etched on a jasper (yeshefeh), had a multicolored banner.  Since Binyamin had been likened to a wolf - "Benyamin is a vicious wolf" (Bereishit 49:27) - his banner depicted a wolf.





Lettering Inscriptions

In addition to the above depictions, every banner had inscribed upon it one letter of G-d's hallowed Name, YKVK.

Yehudah's banner bore the letter י (yod); Reuven's had a ה (heh); Efrayim's a ו (vav); Dan's banner carried the second ה (heh) of G-d's Name. (Sifetei Kohen)

These letters were specifically inscribed on these four banners, because they were the banners of the leader tribes. (Abarbanel)

Take together, the banners spanned the Name of G-d; as it is written, "And in the Name of G-d we shall make banners (nidgol)" (Tehillim 20:6).

According to another view, the banners had inscribed upon them the following letters:

The banner of Yehudah bore the letters איי (alef yod yod) - the alef of Avraham's name, the yod of Yitzchak's name, and the yod of Yaakov's name.

Reuven's banner carried the letters בצﬠ (bet tzade ayin) - the second letters, respectively, of the names of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The banner of Efrayim had upon it the letters רחכ (resh chet kof) - the third letters, respectively, of the above names, and the banner of Dan had inscribed upon it the letters מכב (mem kof bet) - the last letters, respectively, of their names.

A light cloud was divinely set over the banners, and upon it was inscribed the letters corresponding to the splendor of the Divine Presence.  That cloud rested atop the sword-shaped letter ו (vav) which had been inscribed in gold on every banner.

The letter י (yod), of the hallowed Name of G-d, was inscribed on the cloud that advanced ahead of the Benei Yisrael.  Joined to the letter ה (heh) of the name of Avraham - it will be noted that in the foregoing, no use was made of that letter heh - the sacred Name of Y-h was formed.

Whenever this cloud set forth, the four banners would set forth as well.

The meaning of "each person near the banner having his paternal family's insignia (אֹתֹת)," is thus clarified.  For אֹתֹת read otiot (אוֹתִיוֹת) "letters"; whereupon this part of the verse becomes, "each person near his banner, and inscribed upon them were the (letters of the) names of the paternal family."

Torah tradition also teaches us that those two letters יה (yod heh) would blaze during the day with the brightness of a thousand suns, and at night they would shine like the moon. (Tzeror HaMor; Sifetei Kohen; Yalkut Reuveni)


Positioning of the Banners

The Torah describes how the banners were positioned in relation to one another and to the Mishkan, both when the Benei Yisrael were encamped and when traveling.

The Tribe of Yehudah, its divisions numbering 74,600 men, led by Nachshon son of Aminadav, was directed to pitch camp to the east.

Alongside Yehudah would camp the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun, each with its own leader and troop of men.  The captain of Yissachar was Netanel son of Tzuar, and his men numbered 54,400.  The captain of Zevulun was Eliav son of Chelon, and his division numbered 57,400 men.

Thus, the total number of men arranged as the camp of Yehudah, and positioned on the east side, was 186,400.

Pitched on the south side and led by Elitzur son of Shedei'ur, was the division of Reuven, numbering 46,500 men.

Camped alongside the tribe of Reuven, were the two tribes of Shimon and Gad, each with its own leader and troop.  The captain of Shimon was Shelumiel son of Tzuri-shaddai, and his men numbered 59,300.  The captain of Gad was Elyasaf son of Reuel, his division numbering 45,650 men.

The combined total for these tribes, designated as the camp of Reuven, was thus 151,450 men.

The text then goes on to declare that "On the march, they shall go second."  That is, when the Benei Yisrael traveled the camp of Yehudah would lead, and after them would follow the camp of Reuven.

First would march the camps of Yehudah and Reuven, followed by the Mishkan, and then by the other two camps, Efrayim and Dan.

The Mishkan will thus be preceded and followed by two camps. (Rashi; Mizrachi)

The Torah also stresses that the formation which the camps maintained when stationary, did not change when they were moving. (Rashi)

On the west side was the banner of the camp of Efrayim, with its constituent individual divisions and their captains.  Their overall leader was Elishama son of Amihud, captain of the troop of the tribe of Efrayim.  There were 40,500 men in that troop.

Camped alongside the tribe of Efrayim, were the tribes of Menashe and Binyamin, led by their leaders.  The captain of Menashe was Gamliel son of Padah-tzur, his men numbering 32,200; and the captain of Binyamin was Avidan son of Gid'oni, his troop numbering 35,400 men.

The combined total for the three tribes was 108,100 men.

Here, too, the Scripture goes on to stress that "On the march, they shall third": the banner of Efrayim followed the banners of Yehudah and Reuven.

Stationed on the north side, with its array of tribally distinct troops and ccaptains, was the camp of Dan.  Its overall leader was Achiezer son of Ami-shaddai, the captain of the tribal troop of Dan.  This troop of the tribe of Dan numbered 62,700 men.

The tribes of Asher and Naftali, with their respective captains and men, were camped alongside the tribe of Dan. The captain of Asher was Pag'iel son of Achron, his men numbering 41,500. The tribe of Naftali was captained by Achira son of Einan, and his troop numbered 53,400 men.

Altogether, then, the three tribes numbered 157,600 men.

Again, the text goes on to emphasize that "On the march, they shall be the last of the banners."  They will travel after the other three camps.


The location of the Mishkan - "the camp of the Divine Presence" - was situated in the center, surrounded on all sides by the Levi'im and, beyond them, by the tribes of Yisrael.

The positioning of the Leviim was as follows:  Moshe, Aharon and Aharon's sons were on the east side of the Mishkan, where the entrance was; the sons of Gershon were on the west side; the sons of Kehat were on the south side; and the sons of Merari were on the norht side.  The area taken by the Leviim was called the Campe of the Leviim.

Beyond the Mishkan, a distance of 2000 cubits on all sides, the twelve tribes were camped, three tribes in each of the four directions. (Malkut Shimoni, Pekudei)

We have already observed that Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun were positioned to the east; this is because the light that illuminates the world comes from the east.

It was fitting that Yehudah, in whom royal dominion was vested, should camp in the direction of the light.  Yissachar, on account of his Torah scholarship, was worthy of being alongside Yehudah, since Torah is the mental and spiritual light of the world.

Zevulun belonged near Yissachar, since he, later, made it possible for Yissachar to devote himself to Torah, by supporting him with his wealth.

It can be noted that the positioning of these three tribes teaches us the advantages of choosing good neighbors.  This proves the adage, "What is beneficial for the righteous man is beneficial for his neighbor."  As a result of having been stationed near Moshe and Aharon, they, too, were found worthy of attaining greatness in Torah.

Reuven, Shimon and Gad were stationed to the south, because spiritual and physical blessings for the world emanate from this direction.

Being a penitent, Reuven was appropriately placed on this side, since remorse stirs G-d's compassion to affect the world.

Gad is associated with strength, even as a penitent exhibits strength of character.  Therefore, he, too, was worthy of being positioned in this direction, alongside Reuven.

Shimon was camped between Reuven and Gad, so that the sin of Zimri son of Salua, of the tribe of Shimon, would find expiation.

Another lesson is taught here - how evil is propagated by evil neighbors, as our Sages have written, "Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor."  Being stationed on the same side as the descendants of Kehat, and who came Korach and his band, these three tribes later suffered from the consequences of Korach's inssurection against Moshe, as explained in Parashat Korach.

Efrayim, Menashe and Binyamin were stationed to the west.  From this direction come hail, clouds, cold and heat - phenomena associated with the attribute of G-d's strength - and about these tribes it is written, "Before Efrayim and Menashe and Binyamin stir Your mighty strength" (Tehillim 80:3).

 Another reason is that the Divine Presence was designated as dwelling in the land portion of Binyamin, which was located on the western side of the Land of Yisrael.  As it is written, "To Binyamin he said, "G-d's beloved one shall dwell securely beside HIm.  G-d protects him all day long and dwells among his slopes" (Devarim 33:12).

Dan, Asher, and Naftali were camped to the north.  Out of Dan issued Yerovo'am who darkened the world with the two calf-like idols, which he was to place in the land portion of Dan.  Since he was to darken the world, it was fitting that Dan should be positioned in the north - the direction from which darkness comes upon the world.

The tribe of Asher was to have an abundance of oil, as it is written, "He shall... dip his feet in oil" (Devarim 33:24).  It was thus fitting that he be stationed on this side, and with his oil dispel the darkness of Dan.

Naftali camped alongside him, for Naftali was invested with blessing. (Ramban; Bachya; Tzeror HaMor; Sifetei Kohen)



The Benei Yisrael at Rest

Seven Clouds of Glory enveloped the Benei Yisrael.  Four surrounded them on their sides, one was over them, and one beneath them. Hence they suffered from neither sun and the winds, nor the mist and rains.  One cloud advanced in front of them, flattening a path. (Yalkut Shimoni)

The mixed multitudes (erev rav) stayed beyond these clouds, for they were not on a sufficiently high spiritual plane to merit being enclosed by Clouds of Glory. They were located near the animal compound. (Zohar, Ki Tisa)

The total area taken up by the three camps - the Camp of the Divine Presence, the Camp of the Leviim, and the Camps of the Benei Yisrael - measured twelve miles by twelve miles (24,000 cubits by 24,000 cubits), and was partitioned as follows:

The Camp of the Divine Presence and the Camp of the Leviim, together, covered an area of four mil by four mil (8,000 cubits by 8,000 cubits), and the Camp of the Benei Yisrael covered an area of four mil by four mil on every side of the Mishkan.

The banner of Yehudah, covering the divisions of Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevulun, covered an area of four miles by four miles to the east.  The banner of Reuven, plus its two sister tribes, similarly used an area of four miles by four miles, to the south; and a like-sized area, to the west, was given to the standard of Efrayim and the other two tribes.  To the north, the standard of Dan and its two sister tribes also occupied an area of four miles by four miles.

Altogether, then, the Camp of the Benei Yisrael covered an area of four times sixteen, or sixty-four square miles.  If we include the camps of the Leviim and the Divine Presence, the total area actually occupied, was eighty square miles.  Also, the distance from one outer edge of the Yisraeli camp to the other, on the opposite side of the Mishkan, was twelve miles (4+4+4).

The east-west distance was thus twelve miles, as was the north-south distance.

The difference in area between the eighty square miles and the equivalent of twelve miles by twelve miles - 144 minus 80 = 64 square miles - is accounted for by the four outer corner areas of four miles by four miles each (4 x (4x4) = 64). These "empty" corners were reserved for livestock. (Yalkut Shimoni, end of Pekudei)

This is how the Benei Yisrael were arranged in the wilderness, when camped.


The Benei Yisrael When Traveling

This configuration remained unchanged when they were en route.  In other words, they traveled in a square formation, with the Mishkan and the Leviim who carried it in the middle, and the twelve tribes surrounding them, three tribes on each side.

Accordingly, the Torah says, "[The people] shall travel in the same manner as they camp": as they were positioned when camped, so were they positioned when moving. (Yerushalmi, Eruvin 5:1; Mizrachi)

The foregoing conclusion is based on one interpretation of the Torah text.  According to another opinion, the Benei Yisrael would travel as a single column.  The verse, "[The people] shall travel in the same manner as they camp," would then be understood as follows: Just as they camped by divine command, stopping at the site with G-d chose, and arranging themselves in accordance with His will, so would they set forth only by divine command and move along routes that He chose. (Yerushalmi, loc. cit.  Cf. Sifetei Chachamim, BeHaAlotecha)

When it was G-'d's will that the Benei Yisrael break camp and depart for another location, this would be conveyed to them by means of the covering cloud.  It would collapse and roll up into the shape of a giant pillar over the camp of the banner of Yehudah, then point in the direction they were to take.

This was the cue for two Kohanim to take up silver trumpets and blow four times, each successive blasts signaling a different banner to being making preparations for the journey.  Each blast would be characterized by one prolonged continuous sound (tekiyah), followed by a staccato (teruah), and then by another continuous sound (tekiyah).

Af the first blast, the camp of Yehudah would begin preparing, by placing their possessions and furnishings upon beasts of burden.  Whatever was not loaded on the animals would be picked up and borne away for them by a cloud.

At the same time the camp under the banner of Yehudah began making its preparations, Aharon and his sons would enter the Mishkan and remove the curtain that hung before the Aron (Ark).

When the second blast was sounded, the tribes under the banner of Reuven would begin to get ready, while the Gershoni and Merari began disassembling the Mishkan into the component parts and loading them on wagons.  They would then wait for the arrival of the Kehati, who carried the Aron Kodesh.

When the third blast sounded, the tribes included under the banner of Efrayim would commence their preparations for the journey.  Then, too, the descendants of Kehat would arrive, take hold of the Aron and place it on their shoulders.

Finally, at the sounding of the fourth blast, the tribes of the banner of Dan would begin to prepare themselves.

When all the banners stood in readiness, they would set forth - but not before the cloud which was positioned over the banner of Yehudah had begun to move.  That cloud, in turn, would not begin moving until Moshe cried out, "Arise, O HaShem, and scatter your enemies!  Let your foes flee before You" (BaMidbar 10:35). (Yalkut Shimoni, here and Pekudei; Tanchuma)

En route, the Benei Yisrael were positioned in the formation discussed earlier, according to the first interpretation, with the Mishkan and the Leviim in the center and the four banners on the four sides.

If we accept the second interpretation - that the Benei Yisrael traveled as a single column - the Mishkan was still in the middle, since that is indicated by, "On the march, the Tent of Meeting... shall be in the middle of the [other] camps."  It was preceded by the camps of Yehudah and Reuven, and followed by those of Efrayim and Dan. (Yerushalmi, loc. cit.; Yeffeh Toar ad loc.)

In any case, they would keep moving until signaled to halt - by means of the same cloud.  When the cloud unfolded, forming a kind of booth over the banner of Yehudah, this conveyed G-d's will that the Benei Yisrael pitch camp at that particular location.

This would take place only after Moshe exclaimed, "Return, O HaShem, [to] the myriads of Yisrael's thoudands" (BaMidbar 10:36).


The Well of Miriam

The well of Miriam, which accompanied the Benei Yisrael in their wanderings, served another function besides that of providing them with water.  In particular, it was by means of this well that the campsites of the different banners were identified and their individual boundaries outlined.

The well would halt at the site where the Mishkan was to repose, exactly at the entrance to the courtyard, near the tent of Moshe, so that when, subsequently, the twelve pillars of the Mishkan were set up, they would be situated around the well.

With the onset of the Song of the Leviim - as described in Parashat Chukat - the water in the well would begin to rise.  It then formed a number of streams.  One of these would branch off to flow inward to the four corners of the Mishkan enclosure, and outward to the terminal points of the entire camp.

On its passage outward, one of these streams traversed the Leviim camp, encompassing it, with its flux reaching every family individually.  Others branched off into the direction of the tribes of Yisrael, until a stream passed by every tribe, encircling it. As a result, each tribe knew the limits of its territory.

Also, a waterway linked one banner with another.  Hence, whenever a woman wished to pass from one banner to another, for example, when marrying a man who belonged to that other banner, she would go by boat.

Moreover, these streams did not contain only water.  They flourished with every delicacy of the World to Come.  It was as Scripture has written, "Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates... henna and nard; nard and saffron, calcmus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense..." (Shir HaShirim 4:13, 14). (Yalkut Shimoni, end of Pekudei)

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MeAm Lo'ez; Bachya; Ramban; Rashi

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