Bamidbar - In the Desert. (Photo: ynefesh.com) (Photo: ynefesh.com)
bamidbar
Bamidbar

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

What can we learn from the Jewish People’s experience of wandering in the desert thousands of years ago, as told in the Torah reading Bamidbar?

This week’s Torah portion is ‘Bamidbar’ (Numbers 1:1 -4:20), meaning “in the desert,” and it is the first reading in the Book of Numbers. As its name implies, it is the reading of Bamidbar that begins to offer us a glimpse into the life of the Jewish people during their 40 years of wandering the desert.

So too, as the English name of this book implies, we read a lot about “numbers,” namely, the continued counting and census-taking of the Jewish people. Our sages teach us that when somebody loves something so much, he will often take it out, examine it and count it to ensure that it remains extant. So, too, God loves the Jewish people so much that He often counted them during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. This was especially true whenever a plague or another disaster struck the community and many had died.

Another item of interest is that Bamidbar relates the order in which the Jewish People would assemble while wandering in the desert. It was not a free-for-all or a mad rush. Rather, each tribe would travel together in a square-like formation, with Moses and the Tabernacle in the center.

Why Does Bamidbar Discuss the Deaths of Aaron’s Sons?

But here’s a question that has bothered the commentators: Right after the Torah discusses these tribal formations, it again reminds us of the death of Aaron’s sons (third time so far, for anyone who is counting!): “These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the firstborn was Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar…Nadav and Avihu died before God when they offered an unauthorized fire [offering] before God…”

What does this have to do with the details concerning the Jewish People wandering the desert? Why are these narratives adjacent to one another?

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Bamidbar illustration. (Courtesy artist Laya Crust)

One answer to this question is related to the fact that Bamidbar is always read during the period of Sefirat Ha’Omer, the verbal counting of each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost), when we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

As readers may recall from previous Torah columns, the Sefirat Homer period is somewhat mournful in order to recall the death of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva (50-135 AD) who perished during this time. They were killed by a Divine plague because they did not display proper respect to one another.

Aaron, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. We are told that Aaron displayed extraordinary love and concern for every single person. As the Mishna (redaction of Torah law) teaches: “Be of the disciples of Aaron: love peace, pursue peace, love the Jewish people and bring them closer to Torah.” Maybe this is why Aaron was appointed to be the High Priest of Israel! He was one who loved every person, and, therefore, was well qualified to represent everyone and their needs before God. He was the symbol of unity.

Ahhh. But unfortunately, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, were unlike their father. They were so eager to become the next leaders of the Jewish people that they would even pray for the death of Moses and Aaron so they could take over! Nadav and Avihu seemed not to have learned the lesson of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

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This mosaic in Or Torah synagogue in Akko shows the arrangement of the tribal camps as explained in the reading of Bamidbar.

Perhaps this is the connection between the order of encampments and the death of Nadav and Avihu. The Torah is telling us that every person and every tribe has its own unique role within the Jewish people. Not everyone can be the High Priest, but everyone can be a contributing member of the community.

So don’t feel badly if you’re not at the top of the totem pole! It does not matter! You definitely have what to contribute to your family, community, workplace, social group and elsewhere. Remember: the Torah says that when we were at Mount Sinai we were K’ish echad b’lev echad, like one person with one heart.

Let us learn from the mistakes of Aaron’s sons and Rabbi Akiva’s students, and let us look to show love, encouragement and support to others regardless of how prominent they may or may not be. By doing so, you will surely merit to have your own personal “receiving of the Torah” at Sinai when Shavuot comes around.