Bamidbarmain postsNumbers - Bamidbar

Parashat Bamidbar: Servicemen

Torah soldiers and Mishkan soldiers

The Torah portion of Bamidbar is the first portion in the Book of Numbers. This book relates the long journey of the Jewish People through the wilderness, from Mt. Sinai to the gates of the Promised Land. After receiving the Torah and constructing the Mishkan (Tabernacle), Parashat Bamidbar begins with the rigorous preparations for the journey ahead, conducted with a military spirit. A census is taken of all the Children of Israel and the camp is organized according to their ensigns. The Jewish People become God’s Army.

The Zohar[1] teaches us that,

The world was not complete until the Jewish People received the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the Mishkan was built. Then the worlds were solidified and completed, and the upper [worlds] and the lower [worlds] were bathed in a glorious fragrance. Once the Torah and the Mishkan were established, the Almighty desired to take a census of the Torah’s soldiers: How many soldiers of Torah, how many soldiers of the Mishkan?

At this point in history, the entire Jewish People enlisted for life in God’s army. The Zohar reveals that the census was twofold, enumerating how many “Torah soldiers” and how many “Mishkan soldiers” there were among the people. The Vilna Gaon explains that the distinction is based on the two times that the number of the Children of Israel is mentioned in this census, at the beginning of the parashah (the Torah soldiers), and when the tribes are enumerated later with reference to the organization of the camps and the flags (the Mishkan soldiers). What is the significance of this distinction?

Two Types of Servicemen

Being a soldier means being prepared for self-sacrifice. The Zohar alludes to a profound level where the soul roots of the Jewish People are divided into two principal functions: those devoted to Torah and those devoted to the Mishkan. This division may not be readily observable on most Jews. Religious devotion makes them willingly volunteer for any holy cause that may be asked of them, for God, for the Torah, for the Mishkan, or for the Jewish People in general. Nonetheless, in the high-ranking officers in God’s army, one can generally identify two types: those essentially devoted to serving God through the study of Torah, and those dedicated to serving God, particularly in prayer.

The sages tell us that, “The world stands on three pillars: on the Torah, on Divine service and on acts of loving-kindness.” The Torah soldier dedicates himself to the pillar of Torah and the Mishkan soldier dedicates himself to Divine service. Both are indispensable, and the one cannot exist without the other. Is one more dominant than the other? The Torah is our life, and everything revolves around it, yet, there are people who are motivated and energized by heartfelt prayer.

The Chabad tradition illustrates the difference between the two. Every Chabad chasid strives to be a faithful and dedicated soldier, and each knows that he must dedicate himself to both the intellect (through in-depth study of Chassidic teachings) and to Divine service (particularly through prayer). Nonetheless, each individual is characterized as either a maskil (one who is intellectually inclined) or an oived (one inclined towards service, particularly prayer). The maskil is the Torah soldier; his main occupation is studying and knowing Torah (including both its concealed and revealed dimensions). He follows the directive to “Know your father’s God,”[2] until he reaches an in-depth understanding. He invests his life and energy to study Torah. In contrast, the oived is the Mishkan soldier. He devotes his life to achieving union with the Almighty, adopting the conclusion of the same verse as his motto, “You shall serve Him wholeheartedly.”

Another way to state the difference between these two types of devotion is that the maskil [the intellectual] focuses on how the mind controls the emotions, while the oived nurtures the attributes of his heart, beginning with love and fear. The oived agrees that the mind controls the revealed emotions of the heart. However, he claims that the deeper essence of the heart controls the mind. In response, the maskil claims that the inner essence of the mind controls the inner essence of the heart. The debate continues back and forth, ad infinitum.

In the history of Chabad, the two most prominent chasidim were Rebbe Isaac of Homil and Rebbe Hillel of Paritch. Rebbe Isaac was known as the maskil, and Rebbe Hillel, the oived. Nevertheless, for all his intellectual genius, Rebbe Isaac was a great man of prayer, and for all his depth in Divine service, Rebbe Hillel's writings reveal that he was also a remarkable intellectual.

Torah for Everyone

The Torah is the eternal truth that never changes. From the moment we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, it has accompanied us through all our wanderings. The Torah is above time and space. While the Jewish people journeyed through the wilderness, and today as we continue to wander through the wilderness of exile, the Torah remains consummately whole. The Torah soldier is not perturbed by changes in reality or circumstance. From his perspective, nothing has changed since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. He focuses on his mission to reveal and disseminate the eternal light of the Torah.

The Torah soldier studies in order to teach and to bring others closer to the Torah. He approaches everyone equally. No matter how he identifies himself, every Jew is welcome to join a Torah class. The Torah belongs to every Jew. It makes no prejudice because of their pedigree or standing in life. As the sages state, “The crown of Torah lies in its place, anyone wishing to claim it may come and claim it.”[3]

The Mobility of the Mishkan and its Uniqueness

The Mishkan is where the Divine Presence resides. Ultimately, when the future Temple is built, this will be a permanent residence. In the meantime, there are many ups and downs. This is apparent throughout the Book of Numbers. At the outset of every stage of their journey the Jewish People would dismantle the Mishkan. When they reached the next destination, they reconstructed it. The journeys of the Mishkan were akin to a battle march. When the Holy Ark began moving, Moses would say, “Rise Havayah, and Your enemies will disperse.”[4] The Zohar explains that the purpose of their journeys was to overcome the kelipot (the forces of evil) that inhabit the wilderness, “The serpent, viper and scorpion.”[5]

When it comes to the Mishkan, not everyone is of equal status. Only Aaron and his sons were granted the crown of priesthood. Similarly, the Levites guarded the Mishkan to ensure that no foreigner would approach, “And the foreigner who approaches, shall be put to death.” The encampment in the wilderness was structured with the Mishkan at the center, surrounded first by the Levites and then the other tribes according to their ensigns. The unique character of each tribe is related to its location relative to the Mishkan.

Like the emotional heart with its ebb and flow, the Mishkan soldier experiences similar ups and downs. He seeks to make a dwelling place for God in our mundane world, but when required, he may dismantle it and reconstruct it elsewhere later. He senses that his approach is not readily understood. Not everyone shares his devotion to constructing a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. He teams up with the inner circle of his own community, who share his convictions. They can appreciate his grand ideals.

We cannot do without the Torah soldiers, whose are concerned with disseminating the Torah to all Jews and bringing them closer to their Father in Heaven. Nor can we do without the Mishkan soldiers, who are devoted to the pillar of God’s service (in prayer) and diligently nurture a warmhearted community who advance the ultimate mission of the Jewish People. Together, both will bring the redemption.

Image by Brian Penny from Pixabay


Excerpted from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s farbrengen on Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar, 5766.

[1]. Zohar 2:117a.

[2]. 1 Chronicles 28:9.

[3]. See Yoma 72b.

[4]. Numbers 10:35.

[5]. Zohar 2:183b.

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