Torah Weekly

For the week ending 31 May 2003 / 29 Iyyar 5763

Parshat Bamidbar

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair - www.seasonsofthemoon.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

Overview

The Book of Bamidbar "In the desert" begins with G-d commanding Moshe to take a census of all men over age twenty old enough for service. The count reveals just over 600,000. The levi'im are counted separately later, because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings and assembling them when the nation encamps. The 12 Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: East, south, west and north. Since Levi is singled out, the tribe of Yosef is split into two tribes, Efraim and Menashe, so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp. A formal transfer is made between the first born and the levi'im, whereby the levi'im take over the role the firstborn would have had serving in the Mishkan if not for the sin of the golden calf. The transfer is made using all the 22,000 surveyed levi'im from one month old and up. Only levi'im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining firstborn sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our firstborn today. The sons of Levi are divided in three main families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the kohanim the special division from Kehat's family). The family of Kehat carried the menorah, the table, the altar and the holy ark. Because of their utmost sanctity, the ark and the altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the levi'im prepare them for travel.

Insights

Beyond The World

"and everyone contaminated by a human corpse." (5:2)

The idea of spiritual impurity is a difficult concept for the Western mind. There have been far too many Hollywood Biblical epics with flocks of extras littering the set intoning "Unclean! Unclean!" for us to approach the subject with anything like a "clean" slate.

Why does a human corpse contaminate a person? More, why is it the greatest source of contamination?

The Torah is not a medical handbook nor a guide to public hygiene. The contamination of which the Torah speaks is not a physical contagion, it is something much more subtle.

The word the Torah uses to express the contamination of death is tuma. Tuma is connected to the word satomb, which means "sealed" (from which derives the English world "tomb").

What is the connection between contamination and being sealed?

All impurity results from disconnection, from being sealed off: Lashon harah damaging speech that disconnects people is inherently impure, and during Biblical times produced visible leprous-like lesions requiring quarantine and ritual purification.

Whenever a male of female human seed is discharged separately, instead of coming together to form a new unity, there is tuma. And, when body and soul part, this disconnection causes tuma.

Death is the greatest source of tuma, of separation. When we look at someone who has passed away, we seem to be looking at The End. Our perceptions are sealed. We perceive no continuation, nothing beyond this apparent final point.

The terrifying and overpowering feeling that life has come to a full stop is the greatest source of spiritual impurity because it disconnects us from a belief in something beyond, from a belief in a merciful and omnipotent G-d.

A dead body seems such an undeniable statement. It seems like the ultimate wall beyond which there can be nothing.

We believe that there is a life beyond. We believe that this world is no more than a corridor, an antechamber in which we prepare to enter a great palace of light.

This is the reason why the word chaim "life" is a plural noun in Hebrew, to indicate that there are two lives: a life in this world, and beyond the tuma of death a life beyond.

Beyond the world.

Thanks to Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen

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