Parshat Parshat Bemidbar Sinai & Shavuot  Vol.10 No.33

Date of issue: 4-7 Sivan 5761 -- May 26-29, 2001

This week's issue of Kol Torah has been sponsored by 
George and Barbara Blumenthal 
in honor of their son Ezra's Bar Mitzvah.

How to sponsor

This week's featured writers:

Rabbi Rabbi Zvi Grumet
Ilan Tokayer
Rabbi Yosef Adler
Michael Goldsmith
Rabbi Howard Jachter
-Transliterating English Names for Ketubot
Halacha of the Week

The Ambiguous Levi
by Rabbi Zvi Grumet

A careful reading of the first Parsha of Sefer Bamidbar Sinai points to a bizarre, startling and disturbing conclusion - Shevet Levi is not included in Bnai Yisrael. Let us take a look. In the beginning of the Perek Hashem tells to count Kol Adat Binei Yisrael - "the entire congregation of Bnai Yisrael" (emphasis added), and appoints one leader from each tribe to assist Moshe in the task. Yet a careful look reveals that Levi is conspicuously absent from those twelve tribes. Lest someone think that we are jumping to conclusions, the summary at the end of the counting seems to confirm the observation. In Pasuk 45 we are given the total count, and that is introduced with the phrase Vayeheyu Kol Pekudei Binei Yisrael... - "And the count of the entire Bnai Yisrael was... "(emphasis added). When describing the total of Bnai Yisrael somehow Levi doesn't count. 

Again, some of you may be thinking that I am reading too much into too little. Let us continue toward the conclusion of the Perek. In Pasuk 49 Hashem explicitly instructs Moshe that Levi is not to be counted with the rest of Bnai Yisrael. And later, in Pasuk 52, the Torah describes where Bnai Yisrael, as opposed to Shevet Levi are to camp, - since Shevet Levi is to camp surrounding the Mishkan lest anything happen to Bnai Yisrael. The deliberate language in the Torah distinguishes between the Leviim and Bnai Yisrael and sends a clear message - Levi is not included in the discussion of Bnai Yisrael.
Truth be told, we probably suspected that something was different about them. After all, we now know that they were not included in the regular conscription of soldiers and were given no portion in the Land of Israel. The description offered at the opening of this Sefer as well as the language used throughout Sefer Devarim suggest that the tribe of Levi is an honored guest in our midstů (Vihalevi Asher Bikirbecha), but certainly not one of us.
The status of the Leviim is a particular obsession in the first part of this Sefer, and they are given special attention in each of the first four Perakim as well as numerous other times throughout. On the one hand they seem to be apart from Bnai Yisrael, while on the other they are very much a part of them. The ambiguity surrounding the Leviim heightens our awareness of them and the conspicuousness of their absence. Let us take a peek, both forward and backward, to shed just a bit of light on their unusual station.
Looking forward, we know that the Leviim play central roles as religious leaders and teachers. They are scattered throughout the countryside to ensure that Jewish education could penetrate far-flung villages. As Moshe blesses them at the end of his life, Yoro Mishpatecha Liyakov Vitoratecha Liyisrael, "let them instruct the laws to Yaakov and the teachings to Yisrael." Rambam echoes in a marvelous passage at the end of Hilchot Shmitah Viyovel: "And why did Levi not merit a portion in the Land of Israel? Because he was segregated to perform Hashem's service and to teach His straight paths and His just laws to the masses... they are Hashem's army..."

Looking backward, a pivotal part of the legacy of the ìåééí revolves around their involvement after Chate Haegel as they followed Moshe 's instructions and slew somewhere in the range of 3,000 Jews steeped in idolatrous worship. While they were following explicit instructions, and while their promotion to service in the Mishkan is just seen as reward for their heroic deeds, it is not hard to imagine that there were many individuals, perhaps relatives of the deceased, who harbored resentment toward the Leviim . It is even possible that there were many who resented the very fact the Leviim saw themselves as "holier than thou," refusing to partake in the celebration of the golden calf and exacting vengeance upon the nation afterward. On a purely social level, it is reasonable to suggest that Shevet Levi was shunned by the people long before the opening of this Sefer.

To be sure, both of the doors we opened need to be explored further. Whether God was creating reality by separating the Leviim or reflecting an existing reality by adopting them for special service, their status within Bnai Yisrael is by no means clear. The implications of this in the study of Tanach should be clear. The implications for us today are less so, and may extend to many individuals or groups whose motivations and ideals have led them to operate on the fringes of our self declared societal boundaries.

Name that Sefer
by Ilan Tokayer

This week we open a new Sefer, Sefer Bemidbar Sinai, the most ambiguous book of the Torah. What is the purpose of this Sefer? What are we to learn from it? At first glance, it would be very hard to pinpoint the answer to these questions. It was precisely these issues that triggered a substantial debate between the Ramban and the Netziv. Each offers an explanation of his own, according to which the entire Sefer will unravel. In order to back support their respective conclusions, each has his own reading of each and every Parsha throughout the Sefer.

First we must take a look at the first series of topics and sequence of events in the Sefer. Sefer Bemidbar Sinai begins with the counting of Bnai Yisrael. The Torah then proceeds recount Bnai Yisrael, only this time it adds their camping arrangements. Only after these two countings does the Torah deal with Shevet Levi, who has been left out of the events to this point. This is where Parshat Bemidbar ends. Sefer Bemidbar Sinai, however, goes on with a series of five Halachot, namely, Shiluach Temeim Min Hamachaneh (sending those who are Tamei from the camp), Gezel Hager (stealing from a convert), Sotah, Nazir, and Birkat Kohanim.

The Ramban states that Sefer Bemidbar Sinai is really a continuation of Sefer Vayikra. It is a book focused on the Mishkan and the generation of the Mishkan. The book contains only a few commandments and unless they are otherwise specified, they pertain and are based only on the generation of the Midbar. The Netziv, however, disagrees with the Ramban. He says that Sefer Bemidbar Sinai is the "book of the people." It focuses around Bnai Yisrael and their development from the generation that came out of Mitzrayim (which Hashem dealt with in a way that was Lemaalah Mehalichot Hateva about natural laws) into the generation that entered Eretz Yisrael (that Hashem dealt with Biderech Halichot Hateva).

The Sefer starts off with a detailed counting of Bnai Yisrael. According to the Ramban, this was simply referring to the people in the Midbar. It was a one-time affair that affected only that generation. The Netziv, however, sees the counting as being about the people. By the counting, we see the partition between the Shevatim. We see who was larger and smaller, the names of the Nesiim of all of the Shevatim, and all we need to know about the people of Bnai Yisrael.

The Torah proceeds to recount the people, only this time it mentions camping arrangements. According to the Ramban, this is again a one-time event. It applied only to the generation of the Midbar and revolved around the Mishkan. After all, both when Bnai Yisrael camped and traveled the Mishkan was physically in the middle. The Netziv feels that the camping tells us more about the people. It shows us more about the Shevatim, where their loyalties lay, who each Shevet could camp with and the division of Bnai Yisrael at that point in history.

The Torah finally deals with the Leviim, who have been omitted this entire time. All of the counting and redeeming of Shevet Levi, for the sake of this Machloket, can be condensed into one topic. According to the Ramban, the subject of Levi in the Torah was a continuation of Sefer Vayikra. We talk about Levi's jobs in the Mishkan, about assembling and dismantling it, and the camping of Levi. These are all events that pertain only to Shevet Levi in the Midbar. The Netziv, however, believes that this demonstrates the separation of Shevet Levi from Am Yisrael and how they are a nation within a nation, elevated in Kedusha. This is exemplified in the parallel structure of the second counting and the counting of Levi. 

The Torah then introduces a series of five Halachot: Shiluach Temeim Min Hamachaneh, Gezel Hager, Sotah, Nazir, and Birkat Kohanim. The Ramban applies this group of Mitzvot to his theory not as five single Mitzvot but rather as a series. He says that we just listed the camping of the nation in the previous few Perakim. Now that we have a Machaneh revolved around the Mishkan, we need laws in order for the Shechina to be able to dwell amongst the people via Birchat Kohanim. The Netziv also takes these Halachot as a group. His reasoning for them however differs completely. The Netziv believes that now that we have a nation, we need laws in order to make the new society work. Shiluach Temeim Min Hamachaneh is designed to prevent the causes of Tumah. Then the Torah presents the law of Gezel Hager. The purpose of this Mitzva is to ensure the security of a Ger. Since they have no place in the Machaneh, they might seem to be of subordinate rank to the rest of the nation, but here the Torah specifically reminds us that they are not. The Torah moves on to the topic of an Isha Sotah. In order to have a peaceful society and improve the outside, we must first take care of Shalom Bayit issues like simple trust between husband and wife. The Torah proceeds to discuss the topic of Nazir. It will happen in a society that someone will want to do Teshuva, and like the Rambam writes in Hilchot De'ot, sometimes the best way to do so is by what Rabbi Zvi Grumet coined the "rubber-band effect," i.e. if someone is at one extreme, you "stretch" him out to the other and he ends up somewhere in the middle. The Torah here gives the people a way to do Teshuva. We conclude with the subject of Birkat Kohanim. Now that we have a functioning civilization, we need a way for Hashem to be involved, and that is the purpose of Birkat Kohanim. 

As we celebrate Chag Hashavuot in this difficult year, we must look for the flaws in our society so that we can resolve them. Only through this process of a self-improvement as a nation can we achieve our ultimate goal of an ideal Am Yisrael with the Shechina residing within us. May we ultimately, with Hashem within us, achieve the supreme Beracha of Birkat Kohanim "Viyasem Lecha Shalom."
I would like to thank Rabbi Grumet for teaching me the content of this article.

The Middle Man

by Rabbi Yosef Adler

The conclusion of the Beracha of Kedushat Hayom for the Chagim which require Aliah Liregel is Mikadesh Yisrael Vihazmanim. The Torah Temimah suggested that the word "Vihazmanim" is not really part of the text of the Beracha. It simply means that for each Chag we should insert the proper description for that holiday. On Pesach we would recite Mikadesh Yisrael Vichag Hamatzot, on Shavuot Mikadesh Yisrael Vichag Hashavuot and on Sukkot Mikadesh Yisrael Vichag Hasukot. We have not accepted his suggestion and recite Mikadesh Yisrael Vihazmanim on all of the festivals. Rav Soloveitchik Zichrono Tzadik Livracha even felt that the selection of one common phrase indicates that all three of the Chagim possess one Kidoshet Hayom and to the some extent they are all related to one another.

Let us operate on this assumption that all the Chagim are somehow related to one another. Can we possibly identify which of the three is most significant? The Gemara (Yuma 37a) states Slosha Shehayu Mehalchin Baderech Harav Baemtza Gadol Biyiminan Vikatan Mismolo. When three people travel together, the Rav walks in the center, his most outstanding student travels to his right and the other accompanies him on his left. Similarly when the angels visit Avraham, it is Michael, the acknowledged greatest angel who travels in the center with Gavriel to his right and Rifael to his left. In the cycle of Chagim, our festival of Shavuot acquires the designation of Harav Baemtza, the more significant that occupies center stage, but why?

There are three types of freedom that we highlight. Pesach granted us potential freedom. Avadim Hayinu Liparoh Bimitzrayim Viyotzianu Hashem Elokaynu Misham, "we were slaves unto Pharaoh until Hakadosh Baruch Hu delivered us from bondage." Sukkot provides us with economic freedomBiasapecha Migarnecha Umikvecha as we experience a successful harvest and are not economically dependent upon any other nation. The Yom Tov of Shavuot represents spiritual freedom. The Mishna in Avot states Ain Licha Ben Chorin Ela Mi Sheosek Batorah.

We define a freed person only as one who has accepted and mastered a Torah way of life. When one understands the significance of the holiday of Shavuot as it occupies center stage of the Chagim, the other two festivals highlighting economic and political freedom become meaningful as well. As such, we will chant Mikadesh Yisrael Vihazmanim and welcome Shavuot, the Harav Baemtza, the most prominent of the Chagim. 

Dairy Food

by Michael Goldsmith

The Rama rewards the Minhag to eat dairy on Shavuot. Five reasons that are commonly given for this Minhag can be found in Tami Minhagim. The first explanation discussed is that eating dairy reminds us of the Shtei Halechem that were brought on Shavuot. Hence, we wash, eat and recite Birchat Hamazon over a dairy meal, and subsequently we wash and eat a flieshig meal and recite Birkat Hamazon. The two meals represent the Shtei Halechem. Another reason is that we should eat honey and milk, as Shir Hashirim describes, Davash Vichalav Tachat Lishonecha "we had milk and honey under our tongues" when we received the Torah. A third reason is that until Matan Torah Jews were permitted to eat meat that was not slaughtered according to Jewish law and animals that were unfit by Jewish law. However, when they received the laws of Shechita and forbidden foods, they did not have the opportunity to slaughter and prepare Kosher meat so they had to eat dairy. Thus, we eat dairy to remind us of that first Shavuot. Another reason mentioned is that one of the names given to Har Sinai was Minahon Givnumim, clean as cheese. Because Minahon Givnumim was where we received the Torah we eat cheese on Shavuot. A fifth reason mentioned is the fact that the Torah tells us to be humble and eating dairy is a modest meal, whereas eating meat is not as modest.

Halacha of the Week

Common practice is to perform Kriah when seeing the Bait Hamikdash in ruins. However, the common practice is not to perform Kriah upon seeing the city of Yerushalayim and other Judean cities under Israeli control. Rabbeim debate whether Kriah should be performed upon seeing Judean cities under Palestinian control. (This is a clarification from last week's Halacha article.)

Staff at time of publication:
Editors-in-Chief: Josh Dubin, David Gertler 
Managing Editors: Yair Manas, Uri Schechter
Publishing Manager: Zev Feigenbaum
Publication Editor: Ilan Tokayer
Business Managers: Yehuda Goldin, Sam Wiseman
Staff: Noam Block, Ami Friedman, Shuky Gross, Simcha Haber, Michael Humphrey, Oren Levy, Ari Michael, Effie Richmond, Dani Shaffren
Webmaster: Yisroel Ellman
Faculty Advisor: Rabbi Howard Jachter

Subscription information

Report an error

Back to the home page

This publication contains Torah matter and should be treated accordingly.