Bamidbar is often associated with “numbers” since this Parsha requires the Jewish people to take a census, to count the people. But, Bamidbar means “in the wilderness” and goes beyond counting with its lessons and messages.
First, of course, Moses is commanded to count the Jewish people. Of particular interest, is that the census was to take place “Bamidbar”, in the wilderness. In the desert, there is not a lot of opportunity to mix with others outside of your community, for it is desolate and empty in the desert. In the desert, you have no luxuries – just the basics. This lends itself to the establishment of a cohesive and unified group. We will see in a moment how - within unity - there is much variation.
In addition to where the census should take place, we are also given explicit directions on how to count. Each person over 20 gives half of a shekel. It is not an exorbitant amount, and everyone is capable of giving half of a shekel. The people are then counted through their giving, and giving – Tzedakah – is one of the elements that bind a community together. Furthermore, two half shekels make a whole – symbolizing our need for others. We become whole through community and being a part of a community.
So, while the census is a concrete and specific action commanded of Moses, there are many underlying symbols and deeper meaning to G-d’s plan (as always).
Second, within this Parsha, we must take note that the Levites were not counted in the census. Per G-d, the Levites were put in charge of the Tabernacle. Their special role is the care of the Tabernacle and everything in it. The Levites put it together and take it apart as the Jewish people continue to travel through the desert. When they camped, the Levites tents were situated around the Tabernacle.
The other tribes camped in specific formation as well. The remaining twelve were divided into four groups and situated in the four directions. Notice that there were twelve more groups after the Levites. This is because the Tribe of Joseph was divided into two tribes – one for each of his sons, Ephraim and Menashe (the inspiration for the blessing given to our sons each Shabbat).
Commentaries and mystical teachings tell us that the specific placement of the Tribes in the encampment also carries deeper meaning and intention. The Levites, for example, placed at the center of the camp to care for the Tabernacle are the heart of the camp. The Chofetz Chaim likened the Torah to a human heart, indicating that Torah should be at the center of our lives.
What I find of particular interest with this week’s Parsha is the multiplicity within oneness – a concept I feel is inherent in Jewish tradition. In Parsha Bamidbar, it is a living paradoxical truth where we find different tribes with various responsibilities and roles coming together to exist as one. I think the realm of Jewish denominations can find strength and meaning in this week’s Parsha that we can apply to living side by side with each other.