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Bemidbar begins Sefer Bemidbar (Numbers). If you think of the most hair-raising table plan for a huge wedding or the biggest accommodation logistical nightmare for a Limmud conference, you’re only beginning to understand the complexities described in this sidra. It describes the camp of Israel in great detail - how many people there were in each tribe and where they were positioned in the camp.

Another voice

Bemidbar by Charles Heller :: 5768

Charles Heller lives in Toronto. He is a composer and arranger, working with international artists in Jewish music. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Synagogue Music (Cantors Assembly, New York) and is the award-winning author of What To Listen For in Jewish Music.

Our parsha opens the fourth book of the Torah and gives it its name - Bamidbar, "in the desert". It describes the census of men of military age that took place in the desert in the second year of the Exodus, hence the alternative name for this book, the book of Numbers. After detailing the census results of each tribe, the parsha gives the names and duties of the families of priests and Levites (who were exempt from military service).

Chapter 3 begins: "These are the descendants of Aaron and Moses". Rashi asks: "But it only mentions the children of Aaron?!" and gives his answer, taken from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b): "They are called the descendants of Moses, because he taught them Torah; teaching us that one who teaches the child of their fellow is regarded as if they had begotten that child."

The Exodus from Egypt was not just a slave revolt but a revolution of ideas about our relationships to G-d and our fellow men. How do you keep a revolution going for 3000 years? As we have seen from the collapse of Communism in the USSR and China, it is not by coercion. We do it by educating our children, starting at the seder table where we use every trick to get our children to ask questions.

There are many wonderful Rabbinic statements about education: "One may not interrupt a lesson even for the coming of the Messiah"; "The world is maintained by the breathing of schoolchildren"; and so on. In Jewish tradition, it is the duty of parents to teach their children. Thus the formal way of addressing one's parents is avi mori, "my father my teacher" and imi morati, "my mother my teacher". If parents do not have the time or skill to teach their own children, as is usually the case, they hand them over to professional teachers, who are therefore also regarded in a sense as their parents.

Anyone working with children from needy families will feel this parental role very keenly. Parents who have two or three jobs in order to make ends meet rarely see their children, who are left on their own to get breakfast and get to school. For such children, the teacher is a parent - not just "teaching" but making sure they are fed, and helping them organize their day. It is a sad fact that for many children from disadvantaged families, their teachers in middle school will be the last caring adults they will ever meet.


More by Charles Heller

Another voice by Kevin Sefton

Kevin's professional life is a smorgasbord of ideas mixing technology, finance and education. He's also the trustee for Limmud International, and considers meeting groups worldwide to be like visiting family.

After struggling through a long sedra about the building of the mishkan a few weeks ago, I asked the Rabbi "wouldn't it have been easier and clearer if the Torah had been given with a few explanatory diagrams?" Were they missing because the law needed to be read out, was it because it's harder to reproduce diagrams faithfully, perhaps there have been diagrams lost along the way, or was it just because Ikea hadn't taught us how to follow pictures properly yet? Without an answer to satisfy me, he suggested I have another whisky and think about it.

This week we find another case where a picture might come in handy. After the children of Israel line up to be counted, they're sent around the camp in a defensive formation: some to the north, some next to them, some marching first, second third and so on. Please, someone, a little diagram to say who went where might be more straightforward than trying to work out who was next to whom (it reminded me of a Highgate street sign 'enter only from the East'). This was getting me frustrated, curious, and wanting to draw a little pencil diagram to accompany this email.

Then I saw my answer staring me in the face as I re-read the text. It's the power of the word. Bamidbar - 'In the wilderness' - a word that encapsulates so much of Jewish history, tradition, expectation and hope over many generations. A picture may be worth a thousand words; in Judaism, one word is worth a thousand pictures. Shabbat shalom.


More by Kevin Sefton

Other Divrei Torah on Bemidbar

  • 5766 (Greg Alexander)
  • 5766 (Amichai Lau-Lavie)
  • 5767 (Elaine Robinson)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Elaine Robinson)
  • 5769 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5770 (Kevin Sefton)
  • 5770 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5771 (Michael Shire)
  • 5771 (Helena Miller)
  • 5772 (Joel Levy)
  • 5772 (Taste of Chavruta)
  • 5773 (Bronwen Mullin)
  • 5774 (Eliyahu Yaakov)
  • 5774 (Limmud On One Leg Team)