05/24/2012 07:46 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Parshat Bamidbar: Weekly Torah Portion Summary, Questions, Resources

Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week, which is found in the Book of Numbers 1:1-4:20, and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. Read the full text of Parshat Bamidbar interlinear Hebrew/English.

One year, one month and one day after the Exodus. God speaks to Moses in the Tent of Meeting in the desert at Sinai, telling him: Take a census of the Children of Israel. Count their names. All the men, 20 years of age or older. You, Aaron and a leader of each tribe should count.

Moses, Aaron and the tribal leaders gather the Children, organize them by tribe (following the lineage of the father) and count. And these are the numbers of army-ready men in each tribe:

From Reuben, Israel's firstborn, 46,500.
From Simeon, 59,300.
From Gad, 45,650.
From Judah, 74,600.
From Issachar, 54,400.
From Zebulun, 57,400.
From Joseph through Ephraim, 40,500.
From Joseph through Manasseh, 32,200.
From Benjamin, 35,400.
From Dan, 62,700.
From Asher, 41,500.
From Naphtali, 53,400.
Total: 603,550.

The Levites are counted separately. Appoint them, God says, to take care of the Tabernacle: all its utensils and everything inside it. Encamp them around the Tabernacle. They should take down and erect the structure when it travels and when it rests.

Any person who approaches the Tabernacle with no purpose will die.

The Children of Israel should encamp according to tribe. The Levites will guard the Tabernacle so that it and the Children remain safe.

The Children of Israel comply.

The Camp of Judah, which is the camp of Air, of the angel Uriel, of Man, of Harmony, encamps in the east. It consists of the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun -- 186,400 people. This camp travels first.

The Camp of Reuben, of Water, of Michael, of the Lion, of Kindness, in the south, consists of the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad -- 151,450 people. This camp travels second, followed by the Ten of Meeting and the Levites.

The Camp of Ephraim -- of Earth, Raphael, Eagle and Sensitivity -- in the west, is made of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin -- 108,100 people. They move third.

The Camp of Dan, which is the camp of Fire and Gabriel and the Ox and Severity, found in the south, is made of Dan, Asher and Naphtali -- 157,600 people. They move last.


The Levites are not counted. The Children travel and camp on command.

Questions: Why are only the men counted? Why are the Levites counted separately? Why are the tribes listed and grouped together in this way? Why is the total number repeated?

These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses on this day: Aaron's sons, the firstborn, Nadab and Abihu. His sons Elazar and Ithamar.

Nadab and Abihu bring a strange fire to God and die. Elazar and Ithamar are priests in the days of their father.

God tells Moses: The Levites should serve Aaron, the priests and the Tabernacle. Present them, present them to Aaron and the priests. They will safeguard their heritage. Any purposeless person who approaches will die. I have taken them in place of the firstborn, God says.

Count them, God says. Every male from one month old and up. Count them.

And each child of Levi belongs to a family. And each family of Levi is responsible for a particular piece of the Tabernacle puzzle. Setting up, taking down, guarding. God tells Moses the specifics.

And they are counted. The Levites number 22,000.

God tells Moses to count the number of firstborn of all the Children of Israel. There are 22,273 firstborn.

Since each Levite redeems one firstborn, God commands Moses to take 5 shekels for each extra firstborn and donate the total to Aaron and the priests. Moses does this.

God speaks to Moses and Aaron, telling them to take a census of the sons of Kohath, a Levite family, for they have a most holy work to perform. When Aaron and the priests dismantle, store and properly cover every part of the Tabernacle, the Kohath Levites must carry it all. They shall not touch it, or they will die.

Aaron's son Elazar is charged with carrying the oil and the incense.

God makes it clear to Moses and Aaron that they should not let the Kohathites be cut off from the rest of the Levites. They should perform their work, but they should not gaze upon the holy of holiest objects. Or they will die.

Questions: Why are Aaron's sons called the offspring of Moses, too? Why are Nadab and Abihu both called "firstborn"? Why does God take the Levites in place of the firstborn? Why are there so few Levites relative to the other tribes, considering that an even broader range of the Levite population was counted? Why is Elazar singled out and assigned such a specific task?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection:

  • The Earth Is the Lord's: Our Responsibility for God's Creation -- "Those of us whose faith demands that we protect all of God's Creation should be vocal in defending our holy texts from those whose shortsighted anthropocentrism causes them to deny the earth's fragility and human culpability." (ON Scripture - The Torah)
  • Haftorah Bamidbar -- In the supplemental haftorah, found in Hosea 2:1-22, God, the People of Israel and false idols are compared to a husband, wife and wife's lovers. There is sin, there is punishment, and there is redemption. (My Jewish Learning)
  • Rashi on Parshat Bamidbar -- The classic commentator in all his interpretive glory. (Chabad)
  • The Animated Parshat Bamidbar -- "Reporter Helen Chernikoff digs into the statistics of the Israelite census and tells us some interesting stories about the people who were wandering in the desert -- much more than just their ages and occupations." (G-dcast)
  • Spiritual Lessons of the Desert -- "Following in the footsteps of those redeemed from the bondage of Egypt, we must attempt to reconnect with the open spaces of the wilderness and seek in their natural fashioning a source of awakening to the Mastery of G-d, to access the free inspiration of the Divine therein and to become a little more "ownerless" in order that we can internalize lessons and truths that were previously beyond us." (Canfei Nesharim)
  • Raising Up The Individual -- "Much like a Torah scroll, each letter is integral, and the missing or even blurring of one letter renders the entire scroll unusable. This is true of souls as well. There is the totality of souls, the sum total, and yet, each soul is highly unique, with its own special name, description and soul-character. The totality is entirely dependent on the individuals within it." (IYYUN)