The Book of Bamidbar is divided into two distinct parts and covers two separate periods in Israel’s journey in the wilderness. The first part, which consists of the first five Sidrot, describes the events which happened immediately after the Exodus. It begins on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Exodus. On the sixth day of the third month, which was the anniversary of the revelation, the twelve spies went out to inspect the land. They returned forty days later, on the 17th day of the fourth month. Ten of the spies gave an extremely negative report and caused a major rebellion in the camp. The Almighty punished the Israelites very severely and decreed that they would have to remain in the desert for a period of forty years. As a result of this decree, Korach and other groups took the opportunity to mount a revolt against Moses and Aaron. This too ended in disaster. The first part of the book concludes with the Sidra of Korach.
If the mission of the spies had finished on a positive note the journey in the desert would have been substantially shorter. The Exodus took place on the 15th of Nissan. The Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai on the 1st of Sivan, which was forty five days later. Moses ascended the Mountain on the 6th of Sivan and stayed on it for forty days. He came down on the 17th day of the fourth month and saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. Moses smashed the tablets and remained in the camp until the first day of the sixth month. On that day he went up on Mount Sinai for second time, in order to pray for the Israelites and to receive the second set of tablets. He came down forty days later, on the 10th day of the seventh month. On that day God forgave the people. This became the Day of Atonement. As soon as Moses came down from the mountain, the Israelites began their preparations for the building of the Tabernacle which is described in detail in the book of Exodus. The dedication of the Tabernacle is described in this week’s Sidra, in chapter 7, when the twelve Princes of the tribes, brought their individual gifts. The dedication started on the first day of the first month in the second year after the Exodus and ended twelve days later, on the twelfth of the first month.
Once the Tabernacle was in place, the Israelites were ready to travel. At the beginning of Deuteronomy, the Torah states that Moses expected the desert journey, from Mount Sinai to the land of Canaan, to take eleven days.
However, the Israelites remained in the desert for forty years. The book of Numbers is silent about what happened during the thirty eight years. When we reach chapter 19 of the book of Numbers, which is at the beginning of the Sidra of Chukkat, we find ourselves at the beginning of the 40th year in the desert.
The events of the 40th year begin with the giving of the commandment relating to the Red Heifer. The Red Heifer was burnt, its ashes were mixed with water and the resulting mixture was sprinkled upon people who had been in contact with the dead. The purpose of the sprinkling was to purify those who had been defiled through death. Rabbi Yo'el Bin Nun has pointed out that this unique law of purification was given at the beginning of the fortieth year in order to mark the conclusion of this traumatic period in the desert, when an entire generation died tragically and prematurely as a result of the sin of the spies. It seems that the Torah skipped thirty eight years in order to avoid dwelling upon the death of that first generation.
Nevertheless, it is still interesting to note that the Torah tells us almost nothing at all about such a long time in the formative period of Israel’s history. We do not even know how people of the second generation behaved. Some of our ancient rabbis contrasted them with the first generation and maintained that they were particularly righteous.
The most famous passage in the Sidra of Naso is the beautiful Priestly Blessing, which the priests were commanded to convey to the people on behalf the Almighty. The commandment was issued at the very beginning of the service in the Tabernacle. The priests blessed the people every single day, early in the morning. It is remarkable that this practice continued throughout the period of the two temples and has survived to this very day. It is the only Temple service that still exists. Its original purpose was to connect the whole nation with the divine worship that took place inside the Tabernacle every single day.
The structure of the blessing is remarkable. The first sentence contains three words. The second sentence consists of five words and that final sentence has seven words. Altogether it consists of fifteen words. According to many commentators it ascends from the earthly to the heavenly. The first sentence refers to material success. This interpretation is based on the fact that in many passages in the Bible, the term ‘Beracha’ means wealth. King Solomon says in the Book of Proverbs: BIRKAT HASHEM HEE TA’ASHIR. This means that wealth is a special divine blessing. In the Ethics of the Fathers, our rabbis state that we cannot grow spiritually without material blessing. IM EIN KEMACH EIN TORAH. Christianity developed a theology which praised poverty and preached that the poor may be more pious than the rich. But this is not a Jewish view. Some of the greatest rabbis in the Talmud were rich. Others began their life in great poverty but worked hard and became rich.
The Blessing continues: VEYISHMERECHA, ‘May God protect you’. May He give you a feeling of security. May you not be robbed or exploited. When we give presents to our friends, we cannot guarantee that those gifts will not be taken away from them or stolen or lost. However, God has the power to ensure that our possessions will remain in our hands.
The second clause in the blessing refers to spiritual growth. Moses declared in his final speech: ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’ We need more in our lives than money. Religious values are vital. “May the lord shine his face and be gracious to you”. The word YA’ER comes from the word ‘OR’ light, the light of the Torah. It means: “May God give you the capacity to understand his Torah and appreciate the commandments.” CHEN means favour. ‘May God grant that you shall find favour in the eyes of other people'.
The third part of the blessing refers to forgiveness for our sins. The entire blessing concludes with SHALOM which means perfection and harmony. It is the most famous word in the Hebrew language. Our Rabbis say that it is the vessel which contains all other blessings. Without peace, no blessing can endure. The most important prayers, the Amidah and the Kaddish conclude with the petition for peace.