Gathering Sources: Bamidbar

Thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, Bamidbar — sometimes: Bemidbar or B’midbar — Numbers 1:1-4:20. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book”:

A Path to Follow: From One Month

Something to Notice: God Grieves

Great Source: The Biography of Ancient Israel

See also: Bamidbar: Prayer Links

Note to those trying to follow the Gathering Sources series: Postings lagged following Shavuot. Sorry. Catching up.

Bamidbar: Prayer Links

In Numbers/Bamidbar 2:1, Moses and Aaron are addressed equally by God: “va-y’daber HASHEM el-moshe v’el-aharon….” They are so addressed 18 times in the Torah. Israel would not have been redeemed without the prayers of both — according to Numbers Rabbah* — which is why the Amidah [standing prayer] (AKA Shemoneh Esrei [“the Eighteen”]) contains 18 blessings. (It’s actually 19 now, with the 19th added later than this commentary.)

There are other explanations for the Eighteen: 18 times in the Torah something is done “as HASHEM has commanded Moses.” God’s name — YHVH — appears 18 times total in the three paragraphs of the Shema. The Rabbis counted 18 vertebrae (all of which should be bent in bowing in the Amidah, BTW). But I’m partial to the “Moses and Aaron addressed equally” explanation.

I believe both personal prayer/meditation and communal prayer are crucial. The Amidah often includes both a silent/private prayer and some portion repeated aloud as a group. (This is less common in Reform congregations.) Most interesting and ultimately most powerful for me is the “hybrid” experience of the (often mumbled) “silent” prayer…

…each person focused on her/his own individual prayer but surrounded by barely audible snatches of fellow pray-ers’ words, or maybe just by the prayer-vibes of others…

Alone/Together in prayer — not unlike Aaron with Moses, I imagine — equally in God’s presence but individuals nonetheless.
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Bamidbar: Language and Translation

Genealogy/Affiliation/Birth

This portion contains a word unique in the Bible: va-yityaledu. [root letters: yod-lamed-dalet]. Numbers 1:18

Everett Fox’s translation,* which uses inventive compounds to convey Hebrew meanings into English, renders this” declared-their-lineage” (The Five Books of Moses, Schocken).

The Stone (Artscroll) Chumash* says, “established their genealogies.”

Robert Alter* notes: “The unusual Hebrew verb, a reflexive form of the root that means ‘to give birth,’ is interpreted by Rashi, and confirmed by modern scholarship to have the sense of sorting out birth lines or pedigrees.”  (page 685)

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary* says, “The self-reflexive nature of the verb here almost suggests that this army gave birth to itself.” (page 793)

Counting Skulls

When the census is taken, Israelites are told to count “le-gulgelotam” — by their skulls. My concordance* lists 12 citations for “gulgulet” [gimmel-lamed-gimmel-tav], four of which are in the book of Numbers, three in Chronicles I, two in Exodus and one in Kings I. Several of the usages refer to the body part that would ordinarily be rendered “skull” in English; most, however, have this census-related meaning of counting persons.
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