Bamidbarmain postsNumbers - BamidbarParsha

From the Parashah: Bamidbar


וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר י־הוה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י (במדבר א, א)

“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1)

First Reading: Torah from the Wilderness

The Torah portion of Bamidbar is always read before the holiday of Shavu’ot, the time of the giving of our Torah. It is fitting that the Torah was given in the wilderness.

The Midrash compares the decision to give the Torah in the wilderness to a king who entered a city; the locals saw him and fled. He entered a second city and they also fled from him. He entered a destroyed city, and there they praised him. The king said, “This city is better than all the countries; here I will build my palace and reside here.”

Similarly, when God approached the sea to give the Torah there, the sea fled from Him. When He revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, the mountains trembled as stated “the mountains danced like rams.” When He came to the desolate desert, it welcomed Him and celebrated Him as it is written, “Let the desert and its dwellings cry aloud.”[1] Thus, God said, "This desert is better than all the lands; here I will build my dwelling.”

Flight is a reaction of fear (even when a person freezes in place out of sheer fear, the internal movement is still one of recoil and flight). All places flee from God, but the wilderness welcomes Him, since the desert is not a settled place of the physical world. According to the Alter Rebbe, the desert/wilderness represents nullification, “for the main toil of learning Torah is to be in a state of complete nullification before the blessed light of the Infinite.” God is willing to build a dwelling place, a place that will contain His revelation (i.e., His light) in a place that is nullified before Him requiring a person to be like the desert.

Rebbe Simchah Bunim of Peshischa explains this same midrash somewhat differently:

This midrash is wondrous. Indeed, its interpretation seems to be that all the miracles performed by God were meant so that everyone would recognize and know that He is the Creator of everything, and oversees all beings, both celestial and terrestrial, to act upon them according to His will. This belief was to be firmly established in their hearts. That was the purpose of the miracles. However, this recognition was fleeting, because as time passed since the miracle, they did not possess it as active knowledge, only as a memory. As the Bible says, “He has made a memorial for His wondrous works.”[2]

However, with the Torah God has given us, we can perceive His Divinity and His unity, and how He oversees all beings. This is the meaning of the words, “the writing was the writing of God,”[3] which implies that God wrote Himself into the Torah, and through engaging in Torah study, one can grasp His actions.

This is what the midrash means when it says, "When He came to the sea, it fled," meaning, the effect of that miracle was only fleeting. That is why it is described as “fleeing.” Only when He came to a deserted wilderness, it accepted Him and honored Him, etc., referring to the Torah that is called a wilderness.

God said, "This wilderness is better than all other lands; here I will build my dwelling." Meaning, that God dwells in the Torah, and through the Torah, one can grasp His actions, at all times and in every era. Additionally, all the miracles are found in the Torah, and through the Torah, one can grasp the impact of the miracles as they were when God performed them. This is what it means to be referred to as God’s dwelling.

Faith derived from miracles may fade over time, leaving only a 'memory', especially in subsequent generations. This is the fleeing mentioned in the Midrash: something that gradually disperses from consciousness.

But the wilderness is the king's dwelling, and allegorically, the wilderness is the Torah itself! Torah reveals God’s oneness, His providence over creatures, and how He sustains and brings them into existence from nothingness.

In the Torah, we feel how God "looked into the Torah and created the world." The Torah is the King's lodging, "and the writing is the writing of God." God is inscribed within the Torah, as the sages said that the acronym of the exalted “I” (אָנֹכִי), with which the Ten Commandments open, is “I have written and given myself”[4] (אֲנָא נַפְשִׁי כְּתַבִית יְהַבִית). God dwells within the Torah, and thus, through engaging in Torah study, a person grasps the actions of God.

Speech in the Wilderness

In Hebrew, “wilderness” (מִדְבָּר) is linguistically related to “speech” (דִּבּוּר). God’s speech, the Torah, specifically occurs in the wilderness, as stated in the Midrash that the wilderness praises the King (praise in speech). This is beautifully illustrated in the gematria that the value of “God spoke” (וַיְדַבֵּר י-הוה) is the same as the name of our parashah and Chumash, “Bemidbar” (בְּמִדְבַּר), meaning “in the wilderness.” Both equal 248, which is also the number of organs in the human body—the revelation of God through the Torah’s 248 positive commandments, which in the Zohar are referred to as the “limbs of the King.”

Before the coming of Mashiach, the people of Israel will again go into the wilderness: “Behold, I will coax her, and lead her to the wilderness.”[5] Just as we received the Torah in the wilderness, so we shall merit to receive a “new Torah” from the mouth of the Mashiach from the power of the wilderness.

The wilderness is Mount Sinai. Indeed, the value of “the wilderness of Sinai” (מִדְבַּר סִינַי) is 376, the same as the value of “peace” (שָׁלוֹם). The backside value of the word “wilderness” (מ מד מדב מדבר) is also 376. Accordingly, we can interpret the verse, “Peace, peace, to those far and near,” as stating that initially, the wilderness is distant (i.e., it is far from civilization), but eventually, it becomes close, for the king establishes his dwelling place there.

The Wilderness in the Land of Israel

The Torah was indeed given in the wilderness, and we have seen that it is the wilderness itself. But it is meant to be kept and fulfilled in the Land of Israel, as the sages say, “There is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel.” Thus, "the Torah of the Land of Israel" is the aspect of the wilderness found in the Land of Israel (and specifically Mount Sinai). What does this mean?

In the Land of Israel itself, there is an aspect of wilderness, which refers to nullification before God, so much so that one heads the word of God. This point of nullification is known as “the soul of the Land of Israel.” Another way the sages state this is that “the atmosphere of the Land of Israel makes one wise.” Wisdom is the sefirah whose inner experience is self-nullification. The Land of Israel is where wisdom shines and aids us in entering a state of consciousness, mentality, or cognitive life-force that leads to self-nullification before God. Wisdom is also associated with the Jerusalem Talmud (whereas understanding is associated with the Babylonian).

The entire Land of Israel was given to the Jewish People to dwell in it and turn it into an inhabited land. Settling the Land of Israel (with homes, fields, and vineyards) is the opposite of the wilderness. So where does the aspect of the wilderness lie?

Of the entire Land of Israel, the Temple Mount, the location of the Temple, is not a place for dwelling. It is forbidden to plant trees on the Temple Mount, and it is not a place for human habitation. It is the aspect of the wilderness found within the Land of Israel. It is the innermost point in the entire land.

For this reason, Jerusalem and the Temple are called Zion (צִיּוֹן), which stems from the verb meaning “dryness” or “desolation” (צִיָּה). This is where one experiences the verse “My soul thirsts for You; my flesh faints for You, in a dry and weary land without water… So I have looked upon You in the Sanctuary.”[6]  The experience of thirst and longing is maintained in the Temple. Mount Moriah is the Mount Sinai of the Land of Israel. "For out of Zion [ the aspect of wilderness] shall go forth Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem.”[7] This relationship between Jerusalem and the wilderness is captured in another beautiful gematria: the sum of “Jerusalem” (יְרוּשָׁלִַם) and “wilderness” (מִדְבָּר) equals the value of “Land of Israel” (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל)!



מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא (במדבר א, כ)

“from twenty years and over, all who go forth to the army.” (Numbers 1:20)

Second Reading: The Purpose of God’s Army

Twenty is the age when one’s stature as a human is complete. We learn this from Adam, the epitome of perfection, who was created "as a twenty-year-old."

The description, "who go forth to the army" also teaches about the purpose of the census, to count those fit for the King's (i.e., God’s) mission, which is as we shall shortly see, to bring peace to the world.

Regarding this age when one is ready to “go forth to the army,” we are reminded of the sages’ statement that, “at twenty years [one is ready] to pursue.” The straightforward meaning might be related to pursuit during war, but in the Torah context, it is more appropriate to link it with the verse: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”

The mission of the army of Israel is to bring peace to the world, to make peace through the power of the Torah between the heavenly hosts and the earthly hosts. Between the true and eternal existence and the created beings. Among all the elements of creation: between themselves, and between them and their Creator.

Not everyone can join the army. The word “army” (צבא) is an acronym for “goes out” (יוצא) and “comes in” (בא). The sages interpret the phrase, “Seek peace and pursue it” as “Seek peace—in your place and pursue it—elsewhere." Only those who have peace within themselves and within their home can go out and bring peace to the world.

This eligibility is the main concern of the age of twenty, the consummation of one’s sefirah of knowledge, which can also be described as one’s consciousness. Let us see how the previous stages of development mentioned in the mishnah regarding the age of 20 leads up to this state of consummate consciousness.

In the initial stages, one’s sefirah of knowledge is immature, and a person is primarily connected to himself and focused on his personal development. This pertains to the early stages of education, from age five which is designated as the time for Torah study, until fifteen, the time for studying the Talmud. These ages correspond to the beginning of the verse, “Turn from evil and do good.”

"Turn from evil" refers to the education of minors until the age of Bar Mitzvah, where the main focus is to steer them away from prohibitions and "to warn the adults to pay attention to the minors’ behavior.

Education for the second part of the verse, "and do good" truly begins after the age of Bar Mitzvah, when mature intellectual faculties begin to emerge. At this stage, the buds of true knowledge sprout within a person, enabling him to connect to what is above him and to genuinely fulfill God's will. The custom of the righteous in past generations was to marry immediately at this age, as they were already fully settled in their knowledge, i.e., their consciousness.

However, typically, the development and maturation of knowledge take several years, leading us to the next stage in the mishnah "eighteen years for the wedding canopy." At the age of eighteen, knowledge is mature enough for a person to genuinely and sincerely connect with his or her spouse, and to enter the second part of the verse: "Seek peace—in its place."

Once a person achieves peace in his home, he becomes fit to join the army and fulfill the directive "pursue it in another place." Now, he can engage with the pursuit of quantity. He can afford to halt his quest for personal quality that manifests uniquely in him according to the Torah and begins to understand the value of being just one more,; just another letter among the Torah’s 600,000 letters.

At this point, the person is no longer focused solely on peace between himself or between himself and his spouse. He turns to pursue peace in a completely different place, understanding that everything connected to the rectification of heaven and earth according to God's will is his concern.

This peace and goodness reflect that the young man has reached a complete stature, signifying a person who, like Adam, is the product of God’s hands (יְצִיר כַּפָּיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא), as it were; meaning that he is according to God’s will. The word for “hands” (כַּפָּיו) used in this verse, when written in the singular is “hand” (כָּף) which is actually just the name for the letter kaf (כ), whose numerical value is 20.

An interesting phenomenon is revealed in the letter kaf: On the one hand the value of the letter itself (כ) is 20, or 10 plus 10, but when we add the filling letter, pei (כָּף), its value becomes 100 or 10 times 10. This illustrates that all the mature life stages of a person, from the age of twenty until the age of one hundred,” which the mishnah says “is as if he has passed away and ceased from the world,” are all included and hidden within the consummate knowledge achieved at the age of twenty.

Image By Mohammed Moussa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

[1]. Isaiah 42:11.

[2]. Psalms 111:4.

[3]. Exodus 32:16.

[4]. Shabbat 105a.

[5]. Hosea 2:16.

[6]. Psalm 63:2.

[7]. Isaiah 2:3.

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