A Book of People
The Chumash of Bamidbar is devoted to the narrative of the experiences of
the people of Israel during their forty-year sojourn in the desert of
Sinai. However, the Torah’s narrative of any event or historical happening
is never restricted to dry facts alone. In its nuanced phrasing the Torah
comes to reveal to us the human factors and the psychological and
spiritual import of these events.
The Torah is not intended to be a history book and to view it as such will
only raise problems of text and misunderstanding of message. It is rather
the book of humankind, of its achievements and foibles, its grandeur and
pettiness, its great capacity to do good and to be evil. Thus the entire
narrative here in Bamidbar has to be seen in this light. The Torah is
going to tell us the story of people and not just of events.
Therefore the book of Bamidbar is full of character sketches and
descriptions of people who by their actions changed the course of Jewish
history, not only in the desert of Sinai but for all times as well. Those
who complained about the manna, the overriding ambition of Korach, the
selfishness and timidity of the ten spies who were sent by Moshe and the
contradistinction in attitude with their colleagues, Yehoshua and Calev,
the love of the Land of Israel exhibited by the five daughters of
Zlafachad, all of these - the analyses of people and their attitudes and
motivations - are on display here in this book of Bamidbar. It is
therefore no exaggeration to state that the book of Bamidbar ranks with
the Chumash Bereshith in describing and teaching us about human beings and
their individual but somehow common natures.
I think that this insight into the Chumash Bamidbar explains the often
discussed issue of why this Chumash should begin with names of people and
of the count of the tribes and the general population of Israel. The
Torah, so to speak, is preparing us for the analysis of people and human
characteristics that make up the bulk of this book. People have names, are
part of a larger society and are distinct individuals. Not to recognize
this basic fact of human existence will prevent anyone from having any
meaningful understanding of the narrative of Chumash Bamidbar.
The commentators to Chumash point out that some of the tragedies of
Chumash Bamidbar were indirectly caused by Moshe’s overoptimistic
assessment of human beings and their behavior. The great men named in this
week’s parsha – the beginning of the book of Bamidbar – are in the main no
longer there at the end of the book. Positions of power take their toll on
The names therefore are recorded for us as an example of the pitfalls of
power and office. By expecting people to be people and not saints and
angels, great errors of judgment and policy can be avoided or at least
mitigated. The desert was a harsh learning place for the Jewish people. If
its lessons were truly absorbed and translated into Jewish individual and
public life, then the experience will have proven to be of eternal value.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Berel Wein and Torah.org
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