Skip to main content


Rav Nathaniel Helfgot
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

(Rabbi Helfgot, an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion, is Judaic Studies Curriculum Director at Maayanot Yeshiva High School, Teaneck, NJ and director of the Talmud/Tanakh program at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York City)



The title of Sefer Bamidbar, like other books of the Torah, is not translated into English literally as "In the Desert," but rather as "Numbers," a term borrowed from the Greek translation of the Bible, and one which reflects the Rabbinic name of our Sefer, "Chumash or Chomesh HaPikudim" (The Book of the Two Censuses). Both titles are very significant for understanding the thrust of this very rich Sefer.

It is important to note that in real geographical terms the Jewish people have NOT REALLY MOVED at all since arriving at Mount Sinai in the middle of the book of Shemot! The second half of Sefer Shemot and the entirety of Sefer Vayikra all take place on or around Har Sinai. This emerges clearly from the text of the Chumash and the exceedingly important comments of the Ramban at the beginning to his commentary to parashat Behar. The Har Sinai experience, including the debacle of the Golden Calf and the restoration of the covenant symbolized by the building of the Mishkan, take up the bulk of the second half of Shemot. No travels are recorded in that section at all. Sefer Vayikra opens with a subtle shift - God is no longer speaking from Har Sinai but from Ohel Mo'ed, down on earth, but still in close proximity to the mountain. No travels are recorded in Sefer Vayikra. Indeed, Sefer Vayikra contains a series of lengthy presentations by God to Moshe of the corpus of Torat Kohanim, and other series of laws and commands interrupted by a number of short narrative portions such as the dedication of the Mishkan and the story of the mekalel. All these sections are centered on Ohel Mo'ed which the Torah emphasizes is IN MIDBAR SINAI, just as the Torah emphasizes that Har Sinai is situated in Midbar Sinai. In relation to Matan Torah, this is made clear by the verses in Shemot 19:1-2: "In the third month ... they came to MIDBAR SINAI. And they came to MIDBAR SINAI and they camped in the DESERT; and Yisrael camped there opposite the mountain." By the beginning of Sefer Vayikra the Jewish people have not still moved one iota. The focus is now on Ohel Mo'ed as the center of God's revelation and consequently, the book of Vayikra begins with that term; though it also is clearly in Midbar Sinai.

As we open Sefer Bamidbar, we have another subtle shift in emphasis. After "Har Sinai" of Shemot, and "Ohel Mo'ed" of Vayikra, we now find God speaking "BE-MIDBAR SINAI BE-OHEL MO'ED." Once again, this is not a geographic change, but the Torah has subtly shifted the emphasis in order to focus our attention on the fact that the Jewish people are now about to enter into a new phase, in which they are traveling through the desert on their way to the promised land. Before this point they had also been in Midbar Sinai, but in the context, firstly, of Har Sinai, and then the creation and dedication of Ohel Mo'ed, as a "portable Sinai." The final and clearest proof of this is the verse in Parashat Masei which summarizes the route of the Jewish people: "They travelled from Refidim and camped at MIDBAR SINAI. They travelled from MIDBAR SINAI and camped at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava" (33:15-16). This, in effect, covers all the parshiot from Shemot 19 till Bamidbar 11 - including the entire book of Vayikra!

This idea also emerges from the comments of the Midrash Hagadol at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar: "The Torah was given in three places, in Egypt, at Har Sinai and at the Ohel Mo'ed: In Egypt, the laws of Korban Pesach, Firstborns and Tefillin; at Har Sinai the Ten Commandments and the laws of the Mishkan; at Ohel Mo'ed the laws of Korbanot and other mitzvot." This last stage, of course, includes Sefer Bamidbar which occurred "Bemidbar Sinai Be-Ohel mo'ed."


To further explore this, let us spend a moment looking at the basic structure of Sefer Bamidbar. One obvious division of the Sefer would be to organize it into two basic units:

1. Chs. 1-19 - Narrative of the first generation in the desert
2. Chs. 20-36 - Narrative of the second generation as they prepare to conquer the Land of Israel

An alternative division would be to see the book as divided into three major units:

1. Chs. 1-10:28 - The organization and establishment of the camp around the Mishkan, preparing to travel in the desert and entering the land of Israel.
2. Chs. 10:29-19 - The narratives of the desert focusing on the murmurings of the Jewish People against God and Moshe, undermining the journey and mission to enter the promised land and leading to the wanderings of the forty years in the desert.
3. Chs. 20-36 - The narratives of the second generation in the fortieth year, on the very cusp of entry into the land of Israel, including the arrival at Arvot Mo'av, on the east bank of the Jordan River.

While both of these divisions are certainly viable conceptual frameworks for dividing the Sefer, it does appear that the Torah views the first 10 chapters of the Sefer as a separate unit. Firstly, these 10 chapters are virtually bereft of dramatic narrative, in sharp contrast to the second portion of the book, which includes the sections of the Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, the Spies, and the rebellion of Korach. Moreover, there is a very interesting literary parallel between the opening and closing of the first section as well as echoes to the last part of the Sefer.

Ch.1 begins with a place and specific date -

2. This is followed by the list of the Nesi'im, by name.
3. The census of the tribes followed by the organization of the tribes as DEGALIM - with the various groupings; e.g., degel Machaneh Yehuda etc.

In an act of literary enveloping, the last sections of Ch.10 parallel this opening, bookending the first ten chapters and emphasizing its structure as one lengthy portion:

1. Ch.10, verse 11: "In the SECOND YEAR IN THE SECOND MONTH ON THE TWENTIETH OF THE MONTH ... Benei yisrael travelled from MIDBAR SINAI ...."
2. This is then followed by the term "Va-yisa DEGEL MACHANEH Yehuda."
3. Each of the Nesi'im is once again presented with his tribe.

In effect, then, we have a structure in which the entire first section (which though consisting of 10 lengthy chapters transpires over the course of less than three weeks) is enveloped between the preparations to move from midbar Sinai and the actual first movement from Sinai. In a startling DOUBLE chiastic literary move the following structure emerges:

A. Ch.1:2 - Place: BE-MIDBAR SINAI / Date: The first of the second month. Ch.10:11-12 - Date: In the second year in the second month / Place: MI-MIDBAR SINAI.

B. Ch.1 - List of Nesi'im / Ch.2 - first use of term "degel machaneh" in Sefer Bamidbar. Ch.10 - last uses of term "degel machaneh" in Sefer Bamidbar / listing of the Nesi'im.

The preparations then, for moving from Sinai to Paran, up towards the Land of Israel, the theme of these first 10 chapters, are encased in a similar thematic and literary pattern.

Furthermore, in many ways it would appear that Ch.10 could have functioned as the conclusion of Sefer Bamidbar, if not for the unraveling of Jewish history that occurred in the subsequent chapters of the Sefer. It is striking that just as parashat Masei, which concludes the Sefer by enumerating the travels of the Jewish people throughout the forty year period in the desert, opens with the phrase "EILEH MASEI BENEI YISRAEL" (33:1), so too our section here ends with its own verse, "EILEH MAS'EI BENEI YISRAEL" (10:28). In truth, the parallels between the two sections go even further, if we look at the entire section of Ch.10:12-28 and Ch.33:1-.

b. Vayis'u ba-rishona AL PI HASHEM BE-YAD MOSHE (10:12-13)

a. VAYIS'U mi-Ramseis ...


What emerges, then, is that theoretically Sefer Bamidbar could have and possibly should have concluded with Ch.10-11, with the Jewish people beginning the last leg of their journey northwards towards the promised land. Indeed, this is clearly indicated by Moshe's words to Chovav at the end of Ch.10: "We are travelling to the place about which Hashem said, I will give it to you" (10:29).

This is further confirmed by the verse at the beginning of Sefer Devarim: "Hashem our God said to us at Chorev: You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and travel, and go to Har Ha-Emori and its environs ... the land of the Canaani. ... See, I have placed the land before you, come and inherit the land" (1: 6-8).

The Jewish people were ready to enter straight into the land of Israel on a direct northward path leading from Sinai through Kadesh and up the Negev to the mountainous region of Harei Yehuda. This, however was not to be. At the very brink of the final stage, the entire enterprise began to unravel, beginning with the complaints at Kivrot Hata'ava and culminating with the episode of the Spies and the rebellion of Korach. The "Masa'ot" could have ended with a slightly expanded Ch.10 that included the final stations and the various mitzvot that were to be given to the Jewish people before entry into the land. There would have been no need for the bulk of Sefer Bamidbar and its narratives, including the encounter with Moav and Sichon and the sorcerer Balak. Sefer Devarim also would have been largely unnecessary. There would have been no need to repeatedly remind the new generation of the history of the desert and the covenant, as there would not have arisen a new generation at this point and much of that history would never have occurred. The covenant at Arvot Moav is ultimately a "bedi'eved" situation, which in the original scheme of things should never have been necessary. In effect, then, most of the rest of Bamidbar (except for some of the laws) and a large chunk of Sefer Devarim would either not have occurred or would have been unnecessary.

In this way Sefer Bamidbar is in many ways parallel to its counterpart of Sefer Shemot. The second book of the Torah also contains within it this reality of "lekhatchila" and "bedieved." The sin of the golden calf in parashat Ki Tisa upset the process of relevation and progress of Jewish history to the point where the entire enterprise was in jeopardy. Much effort and space is then devoted to reestablishing the covenant, with new structures and strictures in the relationship between God and the Jewish people. As the Ramban at the outset of Behar forcefully notes, one must read the second half of Shemot together with Sefer Vayikra as one unit. After Moshe's entreaties, Hashem granted the Jewish people forgiveness. He restablished the covenant; however, there was a new aspect to the relationship. At this point, the covenant would be framed in the context of SANCTIONS, i.e., the Tokhacha. Thus, at the end of the reproof section at the close of Sefer Vayikra the Torah emphasizes: "These are the laws and statutes and teachings which Hashem gave, between Him and Benei Yisrael, BE-HAR SINAI BE-YAD MOSHE" (26:46). The Tokhacha section is the seal to the covenant at Sinai that was repeated at Ohel Mo'ed.

Similarly, the second half of Sefer Bamidbar must be read together with Sefer Devarim. The Jewish people should have ideally entered the land of Israel by the middle of Sefer Bamidbar. It is possible that many of the mitzvot relating to Eretz Yisrael would then have been presented to the people as part of the covenant of Bemidbar Sinai, the continuation of Ohel Mo'ed. There would never have been the arrival at Arvot Moav after the 40-year circuitious journey to the east and the north and finally west again. Instead, the Jewish people spend forty years in the desert and a new generation arises. The covenant at Arvot Moav is thus a necessity, and it too must be followed by the sanction of the Tokhacha at the end of Sefer Devarim, in parashat Ki Tavo.


Thus what should have remained Sefer Bamidbar, representing the experience at Midbar Sinai, is transformed by the historical events into something else. It truly does become the book of Numbers, of the census. The two censuses, as the Netziv so eloquently points out in his introduction to the book, represent the transition from the generation that left Egypt to the new generation forty years later that was to enter the land of Israel. In the Netziv's very powerful language, the first part of the book can be viewed as a "Sefer bifnei atzmo," its own book. Indeed, there could have only been one census and the title would have remained Bemidbar Sinai. However, history and Divine Providence shifted that possibility and the book now reflected two different censuses. It is now Chomesh HaPikudim, the book of Numbers, with the Jews not simply traveling from "Midbar Sinai," but wandering in the desert, "Bamidbar" for forty long years.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!