By Rav Jesse Horn, Yeshivat Hakotel
The Rabbinic title for the book of Bamidbar is “Sefer HaPikudim” or “The Book of Numbers,” which may be counterintuitive because counting the Jewish people seems to be a peripheral and unimportant detail. Although they are counted twice in the book, it seems to be a technical way to know how many Jews there were, and not an event anything should be named for. Wouldn’t something more central be more appropriate? Is enumerating the Jews somehow representative of the book’s larger goals? Taking a look at Bamidbar as a whole and understanding its theme may help us understand why the Rabbis named the book as they did.
The Netziv (Introduction to Bamidbar) observes that the wars fought against Canaan and Sichon, found towards the end of Bamidbar, were fundamentally different in nature from previously wars. Until that point, the Jews won wars miraculously because Hashem fought for them, (Shemot 14:13) bringing ten plagues, splitting the sea and drowning the Egyptians in it afterwards. However, by contrast, the battles with Canaan and Sichon were fought naturally.
Additionally, the Netziv notes that towards the end of the book, Moshe stops using the staff that was previously instrumental in bringing miracles. Based on this observation and others, the Netziv concludes that Bamidbar illustrates the transformation the Jews undertook, progressing from a metaphysical existence into a mundane one. Bamidbar tells the story of how that metamorphosis took place, how the Jews developed from a supernatural post-Egypt nation into a normative pre-Israel one.
One may further suggest that Moshe’s mistake of hitting the rock stemmed from his use of the staff, an instrument designed for miracles, and an instrument of the past. As a result, he did not lead the Jews into Israel; instead, it was Yehoshua, a leader designed for the Jewish future.
Based upon this theory of the book of Bamidbar, he further explains that counting the Jews twice captures each of these two stages. Moreover, whereas in the first count Aharon assisted Moshe, on the second occasion it was Eleizar; perhaps on a deeper level this is because Eleizar was the Kohen designed to service the Jewish people in Israel. And if the original counting highlights their status post-Egypt, then understandably the next section recorded by the Torah is their travel plans, while immediately juxtaposed to the second count is the passage explaining how to divide and inhabit the land of Israel.
Reinforcing this point, the Netziv quotes two Midrashim. One which breaks Bamidbar into three smaller “books,” one before the two upside-down ‘nuns’ (Bamidbar 10:35-37) the two upside down ‘nuns’ themselves and one afterwards. The first “book” describes the post-Egypt stage, the third recounts the pre-Israel stage and the middle surrounded by divides them. The other Midrash the Netziv quotes contrasts the beginning of the book with its end, labeling the first half as light and the second as dark. The explanation of this otherwise puzzling Midrash lies along the same lines; in the beginning of the book the Jews’ existence is represented by light, for they lived a supernatural lifestyle, and at the end they live a mundane life deplete from miracles, represented by darkness.
However, this second Midrash may capture an additional element. The darkness of the second half of Bamidbar may reflect the nation’s sins, which led to their punishment of having to remain in the desert for forty years. While the first half of Bamidbar captures how the Jews lived supernaturally, as well as their planned start on a path towards Israel, the second half captures the national transformation into a mundane nation, as well as the fact that they are not yet ready for Israel and have to wait forty more years.
It is precisely why the second counting is introduced with “And it was after the plague” (Bamidbar 26:1). The second counting captures not only their shift to a new mundane existence but also the fact that they are still in the desert instead of Israel where they should have been. The original plan was to transfer from a post-Egyptian status into an Israeli one, not a pre-Israel one. It is precisely the sin leading to the plague, and other similar mistakes like it, that caused them to still be in the desert as opposed to Israel.
Perhaps the religious take-home message is twofold. Firstly, the ultimate religious dream is to cultivate a normal and non-miraculous society in the land of Israel. Hashem’s original plan was not just to deliver the Jews from the land of Egypt into Israel, but for them to create for themselves normal devout lives there. Committed religious behavior and observance is even better when done without miracles precipitating or inspiring it. In short, our national dream is not to live a miraculous or metaphysical spiritual lifestyle, but rather to create a normal society in Israel based upon Hashem and his will.
However, there is a second conclusion to draw. Along the path there are hurdles and challenges that cause a nation to take a step backwards before taking two steps forward. Although Bamidbar concludes with the ‘darkness’ of setback, Devorim is an inspiring speech for future success that comes to fruition in the Book of Yehoshua. Although the journey is long containing ups and downs, we should look forward with optimism and positivity knowing that its our destiny and that sooner or later, we will end up there.
Article originally appeared on Arutz Sheva