This week’s reading gives its name to the entire book which it opens. But the English name seems to bear no relationship to the Hebrew name of the same book. “Numbers” is not a translation of “Bamidbor,” which means “In the desert.” Actually, the Hebrew name sets the scene for the whole history described in this book, which follows the ancient Hebrew tribes through the desert, in their slow and perilous progress toward the Promised Land. The English name is appropriate to this week’s reading, however, since here we see the completion of the census Moses conducted just a couple of months earlier when the Tabernacle – the mishkan – was built. Then, every male Israelite of military age had to bring a contribution of half a shekel toward the construction of the first Jewish house of worship. By counting the coins, the people’s leaders knew the total number of potential fighters: 603,550.
Now Moses has to fill in the details. How many in each tribe, who will lead each tribe, where will each tribe camp, etc. The total here is identical with the total in the half-shekel count in Exodus 38:26. But the purpose of this census is different. Besides joining in a religious cause, the men of Israel are now accepting responsibility for the safety of their camp, and acknowledging the authority of their tribal chiefs. In effect, this census – this re-count if you will – marks another step in developing both civil and military structure. Ancient Israel is becoming a nation. Not without pain, to be sure. Further along in this book of Bamidbor we will see their trials, tragedies, triumphs – all the milestones and missteps on the way to nationhood – even before crossing the Jordan.
Each tribe is numbered here, from the largest, Judah at 74,600, to the smallest, Menasheh at 32,200. Only the tribe of Levi is not numbered since the men of Levi had military exemption; they did not serve in the army but were devoted to Tabernacle service. In fact they camped closest to the Tabernacle on three sides. And the families of Moses and Aaron camped on the east side. Rashi’s commentary points out that their neighbors on the east side of the camp were the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, and because of that proximity those tribes produced great Torah scholars! Thus we learn about the great value of a good neighbor. So observes the Lubavitcher Rebbe. So may it always be.