Literary Corner

Extracts from "Journey of Faith"

by Rabbi Yonasan Arenias
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Ohr Somayach graduate Rabbi Yonasan Arenias has just published his first sefer: Journey of Faith – A Comprehensive Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar, available at Eichlers and other good Jewish book stores near you, or call 1-347-446-5884 to order a copy.

An Overview of Sefer Bamidbar

Sefer Bamidbar can be divided into four parts, each covering a distinct period of time: (1) the period the nation spent by Mount Sinai, from when they erected the Mishkan about a year after the exodus until their departure from the mountain seven weeks later; (2) their journey from Sinai to the border of Eretz Yisrael (known until then as the land of Canaan) and their subsequent thirty-eight-year sojourn in the desert; (3) their journey in the fortieth year from Kadeish to the plains of Moav, by the Jordan River; and (4) their preparations to enter Eretz Yisrael while they were encamped on the plains of Moav.

1. Their sojourn by the mountain. The sefer begins with the nation encamped by Mount Sinai, one month after they erected the Mishkan. To show His love for them, Hashem ordered a census of His precious people and commanded them to form four camps surrounding the Mishkan, the place where His Presence dwelled on earth with the greatest intensity. This arrangement paralleled the way Hashem is surrounded by heavenly legions of angels and demonstrated unequivocally that the Jewish people had become Hashem’s representatives on earth — His earthly legions charged with revealing His glory in this world. Here we have a picture of the ideal structure of the nation and its close relationship with Hashem

Every male from the age of twenty to sixty years old was counted and allocated a position in the camp, creating the impression of an army organized for military service. Although the nation was indeed readying itself for the conquest of Eretz Yisrael, they were not counted merely for military duty. They were counted in order to allocate to each person his special role in Hashem’s service and to form them into a community dedicated to performing Hashem’s will. Not only were the Kohanim and Levi’im to be dedicated to Hashem’s service, but the entire nation were expected to serve Him, each according to his assigned role. [1] Together they would fulfill the national mission of bringing Hashem’s Presence into the world. Each person was important and the entire camp was sanctified by His Presence. Naturally this demanded that the people make themselves worthy of His Presence and sanctify all aspects of their personal lives, and Hashem explained how they were to do this.

The first two parshiyos of Sefer Bamidbar, Bamidbar and Nasso, describe this restructuring of Bnei Yisrael and the formation of this dedicated, holy community. The beginning of Parashas Beha’aloscha goes on to describe how the people willingly accepted the new national structure and served Hashem with true dedication while encamped at Mount Sinai, most notably in the bringing of the pesach offering.

2. The journeys and trials of the dor hamidbar . When the people left Sinai and embarked on the journey to Eretz Yisrael, a series of tragic incidents took place. The difficulties and challenges of life in the desert exposed weaknesses in the people’s faith and revealed that the nation had not yet reached the high levels of devotion Hashem expected of them. This was confirmed in the incident of the spies described in Parashas Shelach. When the people finally arrived at the border of Eretz Yisrael, they sent spies to explore the land and to see if it could be conquered. This showed that they lacked faith in Hashem’s promises about the land and His ability to give it to them. Because of this lack of faith, the men between the ages of twenty and sixty — those counted in the census at Sinai — were subsequently denied entry into the land and condemned to die in the desert.

The people naturally felt discontented by the decree. In Parashas Korach, the Torah recounts how Korach exploited their bitter feelings to mount a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. The restructuring of the nation that took place at Mount Sinai depended on the willingness of the people to forgo their own interests in favor of the tribal and national interests. Instead, driven by a desire to be Kohen Gadol, Korach rallied the people and challenged the statuses of the national groups, in particular those of the Kohanim and Levi’im, and demanded a return to the old order. There followed a series of miracles affirming the divine origin of Moshe’s teachings and the rights and statuses of the Kohanim and Levi’im. The new national structure was consolidated.

Although He had condemned Bnei Yisrael to live for forty years in the desert, Hashem never abandoned His beloved people. They continued to eat the manna, drink from the rock’s water, and live under the protection of the Clouds of Glory. Isolated from the influences of all the other nations, they lived as a single community in close proximity to each other and the Mishkan and under the powerful influence of Moshe. It was a time of growth and preparation. Keenly aware that their entire existence depended on Hashem, they learned to trust in Him in every aspect of their lives. Hashem was readying them for life in Eretz Yisrael. [2]

3. The journeys and trials of the second generation . With the arrival of the fortieth year, the last members of the dor hamidbar died. It was now time for their children, the new generation of Jews, to begin their journey to Eretz Yisrael. They had learned to trust in Hashem while living isolated lives in the desert with all their needs provided for. Now they would have to solidify their trust on their journey to Eretz Yisrael.

Parashas Chukas describes how Hashem tested this generation on their journey: their water ran out in Kadeish; their leaders, Miriam and Aharon, died; Edom and Moav refused them passage, forcing them to take a long, circuitous route to Eretz Yisrael; they were attacked by Amalek and by snakes; and they had to fight major battles against the Amorites and their fearsome kings, Sichon and Og. They did not always pass the tests, but through their experiences they built up their faith and gradually learned to put their trust solely in Hashem.

Bnei Yisrael learned that if they would truly trust in Hashem, they had nothing to worry about; He would take care of all their needs. They discovered that Hashem had thwarted an attempt by the Amorite nation to ambush them. Later they heard about how Hashem prevented Balak and Bilam’s attempts to curse them, as recorded in Parashas Balak. However, though the people had finally reached the border of Eretz Yisrael with Hashem’s aid, their trials were not over.

When Balak and Bilam saw they could neither harm Bnei Yisrael through battle nor through curses, they sought to harm them in another way — by enticing them to sin and stray from the Torah so that Hashem Himself would punish them. There followed the tragic incident at Shittim in which the women of Moav and Midian successfully enticed the Jewish men to sin with them and even commit idolatry. Hashem’s anger was aroused, and a plague struck the people, threatening to destroy the entire nation at the border of Eretz Yisrael. The plague was brought to an end when Pinchas risked his life to kill the tribal head Zimri, one of the sinners, and sanctified Hashem’s Name. As we learn in Parashas Pinchas, Hashem rewarded him greatly for his selfless act.

Despite their having attained elevated levels of faith, Bnei Yisrael were clearly still vulnerable to the negative influences of the other nations. They needed to once more strengthen their commitment to Hashem, uproot any lingering improper desires from their hearts, and prove that they were worthy of being His chosen nation, His representatives on earth. This was achieved in the war against Midian. After taking another census of His precious people — of the new generation who would enter Eretz Yisrael and inherit a portion in the land, as also recorded in Parashas Pinchas — Hashem gave the order to wipe out the evil nation of Midian. Through the preparations for the battle, and the battle itself, in which the soldiers all acted with total righteousness — as described in Parashas Mattos — the nation showed that they were truly dedicated to performing Hashem’s will. The nation had come of age and was ready to enter Eretz Yisrael.

4. Preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael. The last parashah in Sefer Bamidbar, Parashas Masei, begins by recalling all the places in which Bnei Yisrael camped on their journey from Mitzrayim until the border of Eretz Yisrael. It was a recollection not just of the physical journey, but also of the people’s spiritual journey, their development into a nation devoted to Hashem. The parashah then looks forward to the conquest and settlement of the land. Hashem ordered the people to expel the land’s idolatrous inhabitants and taught them the laws related to the land’s division and inheritance.

The Themes of Sefer Bamidbar:

The power of speech

The name of this sefer, “Bamidbar” (במדבר), has the same linguistic root in Hebrew as the word dibbur (דבור), “speech.” [3] Interestingly, Chazal actually call this seferVayedaber” (וַיְדַבֵּר), which means, “He spoke,” after its first word. [4] Although this may be mere coincidence, many of the key events that make up Sefer Bamidbar do involve acts of speech — for better or worse. Of course the power of speech is man’s essential quality, distinguishing him from other creatures, [5] so it’s not surprising that it is a significant feature in the history of the nation. Nevertheless, the prevalence of key events that involve speech in Sefer Bamidbar is striking.

When the nation left Mount Sinai, there was a preponderance of events that involved improper speech. The people complained about the journey in Taveirah and about the manna and the lack of meat in Kivros HaTa’avah and were punished severely in both cases (Parashas Beha’aloscha). Then Miriam spoke derogatorily about Moshe and was punished with tzara’as (Parashas Beha’aloscha), and soon after the spies slandered the land and were killed in a plague (Parashas Shelach). Later came the accusations of Korach, Dasan, and Aviram and their unusual deaths. When the people subsequent complained about the deaths of Korach’s followers, they were struck with a plague (Parashas Korach).

In the fortieth year, the people quarreled over the lack of water in Kadeish. Moshe was commanded to bring water from the rock by speaking to it, but the people angered him and he struck it instead (Parashas Chukas). Soon after, the people beseeched Edom to cross their land a second time, though they should not have done so, and they were punished with the death of Aharon and Amalek’s attack (Parashas Chukas). Later they complained about the manna and the difficulties of the journey that they had to take around Edom and Moav, and Hashem sent poisonous snakes to punish them (Parashas Chukas).

But counter to all these negative uses of speech were also examples of positive acts of speech, especially by the people’s leaders. Aharon and his sons would bless the people daily (Parashas Nasso), and Moshe prayed for the nation whenever they broke camp and when they were about to stop journeying (Parashas Beha’aloscha). Moshe also prayed for the people’s lives in Taveirah, for Miriam’s recovery from tzara’as ( Parashas Beha’aloscha), and for Yehoshua before the spying mission, that he have the strength to resist the enticements of the other spies (Parashas Shelach). After hearing the spies’ slander, Kalev and Yehoshua encouraged the people to trust in Hashem. When the people didn’t listen, and Hashem’s anger was aroused, Moshe prayed for the people, seeking Hashem’s forgiveness. Moshe also tried to appease Korach, Dasan, and Aviram. Although he failed, he did succeed in preventing other Levi’im from joining Korach’s revolt. He then prayed that Hashem would not have mercy on Korach and his followers, to prevent a desecration of the Torah (Parashas Korach).

In the fortieth year we also see the people using speech in a positive way. In the war against Amalek, the people prayed to Hashem and took a vow promising to consecrate to Him the spoils of war (Parashas Chukas). They properly confessed their sins when attacked by the snakes (Parashas Chukas), and the commentators [6] note that later, in the war with Midian, the people won in part due to their prayers (Parashas Mattos). It can be assumed that the people also prayed intensely during the wars with Sichon and Og. In addition, Bnei Yisrael sang a divinely inspired song of praise on becoming aware of the failed Amorite ambush in the Arnon Valley (Parashas Chukas).

Parashas Balak is almost entirely devoted to the power of speech. When Moav found out that Moshe and Bnei Yisrael’s power was “in their mouths” [7] — through prayer — they hired Bilam, whose power was also “in his mouth,” to curse Bnei Yisrael. In the end, Hashem made him bless them instead. The concepts of cursing and blessing actually appear earlier in Sefer Bamidbar, in Parashas Nasso, with regard to the sotah’s curse and the blessings of the Kohanim.

Finally, the power of speech is highlighted in the passages discussing vows and oaths. In Parashas Nasso, the Torah explains that when a person vows to be a nazir, his very essence becomes transformed. He becomes “holy to Hashem” (6:8) and is henceforth prohibited from certain actions. Similarly, in Parashas Mattos the Torah decrees that when a person utters a vow or oath of prohibition, he literally changes the status of the object in question, making it forbidden to him, or he changes his own status, by forbidding himself from doing something that was otherwise permitted. Vows can also be used to obligate oneself to do something. The parashah ends with the incident describing how the tribes of Reuven and Gad agreed to fight with their brethren for Eretz Yisrael, making a vow to remain there until it would be divided up.

We see that Sefer Bamidbar indeed contains a prevalence of passages that involve acts of speech. While many of the events at the beginning of the sefer describe the people using speech in a negative manner — complaining slandering, and accusing — the second half of Sefer Bamidbar generally portrays them using speech more positively, through prayers, vows to Hashem, and a divinely inspired song.

Hashem’s love for Bnei Yisrael.

Aside from the practical reasons for the census, Hashem counted Bnei Yisrael to express His love for them. Just as a person frequently counts his money because it is precious to him, so, too, by counting Bnei Yisrael for the third time, just seven months after the previous count, Hashem showed that He cherished every one of His people (Bereishis Rabbah 2:19; Rashi, according to Gur Aryeh and Maskil L’David).

The timing of the count was particularly significant. Although Hashem had rested His Presence upon the Mishkan when it was erected on the first of Nissan (Shemos 40:1, 34), He did not count them then. Rather, He waited thirty days, until the “first day of the second month [Iyar]” (1:1). Thirty days is the time that it takes (according to halachah) for a dwelling place to acquire the status of a permanent residence. Thus, only at this point, when the people saw that Hashem had come to dwell among them on a permanent basis, did it become clear how much He loved them, and He marked the happy occasion by counting them (Kli Yakar; Rashi, according to Maskil L'David).

Bnei Yisrael’s “marriage” to Hashem.

Hashem commanded Moshe, שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ, “take a head count” of Bnei Yisrael. The expression literally means, “Lift up the head.” It communicated Hashem’s special love for His people by alluding to His desire to elevate them above the other nations of the world and bestow upon them greatness (Tanchuma 1, 5, 8). He accomplished this by resting His Presence exclusively among them, on the Mishkan and, as we will see in Parashas Nasso, throughout the entire camp (see Rashi, Shemos 33:16–17).

The series of events that led to this momentous occasion began on the day Hashem gave the Torah to Bnei Yisrael. Chazal compare that event to a marriage engagement — Hashem betrothed the Jewish people to Him by giving them the Torah in place of a ring. Then, on the day the Mishkan was set up, they were like a bride entering the bridal canopy. Finally, now, at the end of their first thirty days together, Hashem gave them a kesubah (marriage contract) ( Kli Yakar; see Rashi, 7:1).

This is why, explain Chazal, the Torah details the time and place of the census. It can be compared to a king who married a number of women only to end up divorcing them. When he finally found a suitable marriage partner, he wished to commemorate the happy occasion by giving a kesubah detailing the exact time and place of the marriage. Here, too, the Torah publicizes the exact time (“on the first day of the second month”) and place (“in the Sinai Desert”) that Hashem sealed His relationship with the Jewish people and elevated them above the nations of the world(Tanchuma5).

Parashas Beha’aloscha

The Heavenly Fire in Taveirah

As the nation journeyed toward Eretz Yisrael and entered the great and awesome desert of Paran — a desert filled with snakes, scorpions, and other wild animals — some of the people became frightened. A long way from Mount Sinai and any inhabited place, they began to worry about their plight. They complained bitterly, “How can we live in this desert? What will we eat and drink? How will we endure the difficulties?”(Ramban).

Due to their distress, the evildoers among the nation began to question Hashem’s ways. They turned their thoughts to sin and rebellion and began “looking for a pretext” (11:1) to break free from serving Hashem and return to the idolatrous life they had lived in Mitzrayim. Although they did not complain openly to Moshe — they were afraid to do so (R’ Bachya) — they did want Hashem to know about their complaints. “Woe to us!” they sighed [perhaps out loud, perhaps to each other]. “We have struggled so much on this journey. For three days we have suffered without rest!” ( Sifri, cited in Rashi; Malbim; Abarbanel).

Although the people wanted Hashem to hear their complaints, and even to anger Him, they foolishly believed that He was unaware of their thoughts of idolatry and rebellion. But“Hashem heard” (11:1) — All-knowing, He was aware of the evil, idolatrous desires that underlay their complaints, and thus His anger was aroused (Malbim). Hashem was particularly incensed by the people’s ingratitude. Here He was, hastening their journey so that they could enter the land quickly for their own good, while they were complaining about the “difficulties” of the journey(Rashi). Instead of following Him with joy, in appreciation of all the good He had bestowed on them, they were behaving like captives forced to act against their will (Ramban).

To punish them, fire descended from Heaven upon the camp. Although it blazed across the entire camp, it only consumed those “at the edge of the camp” (11:1) (Sifri; Malbim). This refers to the members of the eirev rav, the “mixed multitude” of converts from other nations who had followed the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim and now resided on the outskirts of the camp (Sifri, Rashi). They were the most sinful element among the people; as the incident with the golden calf demonstrated, they had not sincerely converted and had they never fully renounced their past (see Rashi, Shemos 32:4). Now many of them were wiped out.

Parashas Shelach

How the spies lost faith.

As explained earlier, the spies were all righteous leaders whom Moshe had specially chosen, with Hashem’s approval, to represent the nation on the spying mission. Yet they lost faith, sinned grievously, and, as we will see below (14:36–38), were punished by death. Several approaches explain how this happened:

1. They were terrified of the giants. When the spies saw the giants, they became overwhelmed with terror. This caused them to lose heart and conclude that it would be impossible to conquer the land (Ramban, 13:32; R’ Hirsch, 13:22; Tanchuma 7). They consequently believed that the only way to save themselves and the nation was to give up trying to conquer the land — even if that meant they might have to slander it. [8]

2. The people influenced them. In describing the spies’ return to the camp, the Torah states, “They went and came back to Moshe…” (13:26). By comparing their return to their setting off, the Torah implies that just as they came back with evil intentions, so, too, they went with evil intentions (Sotah 35a; Rashi, 13:26). [9]

This is difficult to understand since Hashem testified when they were chosen that they were all righteous men (see comm. on 13:3–15). Gur Aryeh (13:3) explains that they were indeed righteous when they were appointed. But as soon as they became Bnei Yisrael’s representatives, they were subject to the people’s influence. Since the people lacked faith that the land was really good (see comm. on 13:1–2), the spies also lost faith and set off on their mission with evil intentions.

3. They desired honor. Mesilas Yesharim (end of chap. 11, citing Zohar 3:158a) explains that the spies were affected by a desire for honor. They were worried that once the nation entered the land, they would no longer be counted among the leaders of the people (see comm. on 13:3–15). This [subconscious] desire to keep their positions caused them to slander the land to prevent the nation from entering it.

Parashas Shelach

Tzitzis — Remembering Hashem and His mitzvos

Hashem commanded Bnei Yisrael to attach fringes — strings known collectively as “tzitzis” [10] — to four corners of any garment that has at least four corners (Gur Aryeh, 15:41 citing Zevachim 18b). In addition, they had to wind a blue-colored (techeiles) thread around the top part of each set of fringes. The bottom part of the fringes — and the remaining thread of techeiles — were to be left to hang loosely (15:37–38; Devarim 22:12).

Hashem explained that this mitzvah of tzitzis would help the people fulfill all the mitzvos. By looking at them, they would “remember all of Hashem’s commandments and thereby be prompted to perform them” (15:39). This in turn would prevent them from straying “after [their] heart and eyes” (15:39).

Looking at tzitzis brings the wearer to remember and perform the mitzvos in several ways:

1. An emblem. It was customary in olden times for a master to place an emblem on his servant’s clothing as a sign that he belonged to him. Similarly, tzitzis are Hashem’s “emblem” that Bnei Yisrael are His servants. Indeed, He took them out of Mitzrayim on the condition that they would serve Him [and accept His decrees (Rashi, 15:41)] — and they agreed to this with a solemn oath. Thus, whenever Bnei Yisrael look at their tzitzis, they remind themselves that they are Hashem’s servants and cannot simply do as they wish. Rather, they must serve their Master by performing the mitzvos (Seforno and Ohr HaChaim, 15:39–41; see Derech Hashem, IV:6,6).

This also explains why Hashem specifically commanded us to attach tzitzis to our clothing. There is no better reminder than attaching an emblem to clothing, since it is in front of us the entire day (Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 386; see Menachos 43b). [11]

2. The techeiles thread. As explained above, the tzitzis are bound together with a techeiles thread. The dye used to produce the blue color comes from the blood of a rare sea creature called a “chilazon.” Its color is similar to the color of the sea, and the color of the sea is similar to that of the sky, which in turn is similar to the color of Hashem’s Throne of Glory (see Shemos 24:10). Thus, by looking at the blue thread, a person remembers He who sits upon the throne [which should awaken him to remember and fulfill all of His mitzvos] (Menachos 43b and Rashi there;Tanchuma 15; see also Ramban). [12]

3. A sign. Today we no longer know the identity of the chilazon with certainty, so the generally accepted practice is not to have any techeiles thread. Nevertheless, the mitzvah can still be performed with plain white (non-dyed) fringes (Menachos 38a). As Rashi explains (15:39, citing Tanchuma, Korach 12), even without the techeiles thread, there is an allusion to the 613 mitzvos in the tzitzis. The word tzitzis (spelled with two yuds) has a gematria (numerical value) of 600. [13] Add to this eight and five [since tzitzis have eight threads hanging loosely and five knots], and we have 613 (see Mizrachi). [14]

[1] R’ Hirsch , 1:1.

[2] See R’ Avigdor Miller, Sefer Dor De’ah, pp. 11, 29.

[3] R’ Avigdor Miller, Sefer Dor De’ah, p. 10. Also see The Unity of Torah, by R’ Yehoshua Honigwachs (Feldheim, 1991).

[4] See Bereishis Rabbah 64:8 and Rashi on Yoma 68b and Sotah 36b.

[5] See Targum Onkelus on Bereishis 2:7.

[6] Malbim , 31:26–27; Ralbag, 31:25.

[7] Rashi , 22:4.

[8] Although the spies’ experience was certainly an awesome test of faith, Hashem deemed that these exceptionally righteous men should have been able to pass the test (see Seforno, 13:2). Certainly they should not have stooped to slander the land. For this sin in particular they deserved a severe punishment (Ramban, 13:2).

[9] The previous verse (13:25) already stated, “They returned from exploring the land…” The word וַיֵּלְכוּ, “they went,” therefore seems superfluous. However, it is there to teach that just as the spies came back with evil intentions, so they “went” with evil intentions (SifseiChachomim).

[10] The word צִיצִת is derived from the word ציץ, which refers to something that hangs or protrudes from something else. In this case, the loose strings hang down from the section of tied fringes [or from the garment (R’Hirsch)]. Alternatively, the word is related to מציץ, “peering,” since the wearer is meant to look at his tzitzis (Rashi, 15:38, and on Yirmiyahu 48:9; Sefer HaZikaron).

[11] Moreover, since the tzitzis are on four corners of one’s garment, he will see them wherever he turns and remember Hashem (Ba’al HaTurim, 15:39). Hashem specifically commanded attaching tzitzis to four-cornered garments to allude to Him, the Creator and Ruler of the four corners of the world (OhrHaChaim, 15:39).

[12] Sefer Chareidim (“Introduction to the Mitzvos,” citing Zohar) explains that since Hashem’s throne symbolizes His power to judge life and death, by thinking about it a person is filled with fear and is thus aroused to perform all the mitzvos lest he be punished. He compares this to a child who is filled with fear whenever he sees the strap his father uses to punish him, and this stops him from sinning. Similarly, seeing the techeiles thread should evoke tremendous fear in its wearer.

[13] In the system of gematria, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is assigned a numerical value: צ=90, י=10, ת=400. Thus, the word ציצית (when spelled with two yud s, as it is sounded) equals 600.

[14] Gur Aryeh clarifies that it is only a custom to have eight threads and five knots. Nevertheless, he proposes that although the Torah does not require this amount of threads and knots, it does require that some sort of sign alluding to the number 613 be placed in the tzitzis. Indeed, in earlier times they arrived at 613 by winding the thread thirteen times.

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