The two Torah portions for this Shabbat are BaMidbar, meaning “In the Wilderness” and Naso meaning “Take Up” and these begin the book of Numbers. For those who are new to Shema, let me explain that the Hebrew names for the books of the Torah derive from the key word in the opening sentence of each book. This one is called BaMidbar because it begins with these words: Adonai spoke to Moshe in the wilderness…
So how did it get the English name Numbers? It’s because God commanded Moses to take a census of all Israel’s men, for both military and priestly purposes. The verb to ‘sum up/take up’ in Greek is αριθμεω – number. The tally was impressive – 603,550 men fit for war. We also learn that the Levites were exempted from military service, as God was setting them apart to serve in the Tabernacle and at the Tent of Meeting. In chapters 1-4, God decreed how the tribes were to be situated, north, south, east, and west, relative to the Tent of Meeting, which was to be at the center of the camp. He also apportioned out the responsibilities of the priesthood by the families Kohath, Merari and Gershon.
Numbers isn’t exactly cheerful reading. It narrates Israel’s repeated rebellions against God and Moses. We are shown at our worst. And yet, that very honesty is what separates history from mythology. Mythology almost always exaggerates the virtues and exploits of its hero, and the numbers.
Speaking of numbers, how tragic that out of those 603,550 men, only two, Joshua and Caleb, would live to enter the Promised Land! Adonai sentenced that entire generation to die in the wilderness on account of their unbelief and disobedience to His instructions. It was only 11 days’ journey from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea – the gateway to the Land of Israel. Yet forty years later we were still wandering bamidbar (in the wilderness).
The wilderness isn’t just a geographic location; it serves as a motif, a symbol of the consequences of rebellion against God. When we ignore or circumvent His instruction, that’s precisely where we’ll find ourselves: in a desolate place. But the midbar can also teach us something positive and essential – it serves as a picture of complete reliance upon God. We didn’t survive forty years in a scorching desert because of our ingenuity. Rather, it was God graciously meeting our needs, day by day: water from a rock, manna from heaven, and quail from… out of nowhere!
It also teaches us what it means to repent; to admit failure, to learn from it, and then to press on. The midbar teaches us about God’s forgiving nature, and His desire to reconcile us to Himself. The Haftarah reading which corresponds to BaMidbar is Hoshea, chapter 2. After indicting Israel for our disloyalty, God spoke tenderly to us, wooing us back to Himself in repentance, saying, Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her back into the wilderness, and speak kindly to her. Then I will give her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.
That may be the most important takeaway from the midbar: that God leaves wide open the doors to repentance. To you who are in a wildernesses of your own making, He beckons you to return to Him and be healed. For our Jewish people today, that repentance consists of recognizing that Messiah has come – Yeshua of Nazareth. Until that happens, my people will remain b’midbar – in a spiritually dry place; outside the blessings and outside the promise.
It’s always less painful to learn from others’ mistakes than to have to learn first-hand. We are expected to learn from Israel’s failures in the wilderness. This is why the Psalmist warned, Today if you would hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me … For forty years I loathed that generation and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know My ways. Therefore I swore in My anger, truly they shall not enter into My rest (Psalm 95:8-11).
Failure is an inevitable part of the human experience. But it’s made worse when we refuse to learn from it. Have you failed in some area of your life, spiritually or morally? Did you learn from it? If so, you will have been bettered by it. Thomas Edison failed literally thousands of times in his pursuit to develop the light bulb; He welcomed each failure as a means by which to refine the process and eventually arrive at success. The writer of Proverbs assures us …for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again (Proverbs 24:16). Don’t give up when you fail. With God’s help, get up, turn and press on.
The second parasha, Naso, takes us from the middle of chapter 4 to the end of chapter 7. Chapter four continues the census of the priestly families of Kohath, Merari and Gershon – set apart by Adonai to be responsible for the set up, tear down, and transport of the Tabernacle and all its materials – holy schleppers.
Chapter five includes the command that lepers, or anyone having had contact with a dead person, or in other ways ritually unclean dwell outside the camp until they were again clean; because an infinitely holy God dwelt within the camp. It also includes a description of the priestly test for a woman accused by her husband of adultery. Woven throughout parasha Naso is the theme of holiness – God-ordained separation. In Judaism, marriage is called kiddushin – from the word kadosh, meaning holy or set apart. The covenant of marriage mutually excludes the husband and wife from every other person on earth, setting them apart for each other only. This is why, historically, both Judaism and Christianity have regarded adultery as a heinous offense. This trial was highly unusual, but the benefit is that the matter was taken out of the hands of a jealous husband, and reserved for God to judge. Furthermore, a public trial served as a deterrent. Our sinful nature is kept in check, in part, through the threat of severe consequences for wrongdoing.
Chapter six describes another form of holiness – the separation of those who took a Nazirite vow. The word נָזִיר means consecrated, either in a religious or ceremonial sense, or marked out for high office. The Nazirite vow lasted a minimum of 30 days but could be much longer (even, in rare instances, for a lifetime), during which time wine, strong drink, grape juice, grapes, and even raisins were prohibited. The Nazirite was also required to let his hair grow until the completion of the vow, at which time it would be cut and burned on the altar. Once the vow was completed, he could again enjoy the fruit of the vine.
Chapter six also introduces us to the Aaronic benediction – the blessing God gave Aaron and his descendants, to pronounce over the sons of Israel, which today is still chanted in synagogues around the world, and occasionally here at Shema.
Chapter seven describes, in great detail, 12 days’ worth of lavish offerings presented to Adonai at the Tabernacle by leading families from each tribe. In ancient Israel and in our New Covenant community the principle remains that everyone has a role to fulfill. Not everyone can afford lavish offerings; not everyone was able to lift and carry heavy and precious items; not everyone was called to separation as a Nazirite. But each of us has something to offer to God and to this community. You are expected to identify that God-given ability or resource and employ it to His glory and to the benefit of His people.