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SALT - Parashat Bamidbar 5781 / 2021

Rav David Silverberg


          The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar begins its detailed description of how the various components of the Mishkan were transported when Benei Yisrael traveled in the wilderness.  They were all carried by the Leviyim, with the materials being distributed among the three families of the tribe of Levi – Gershon, Kehat and Merari.  In discussing the articles assigned to the family of Kehat, the Torah informs us that one distinguished member of this tribe – Elazar, the son of Aharon – was assigned the ketoret (incense), the oil used for kindling the menorah, the flour used for the daily mincha offerings, and the anointing oil (4:16).
          The Ramban cites the comment of the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 10:3) that Elazar was able to carry all these materials because he was blessed with unusual physical strength.  After all, the Ramban writes, Elazar carried with him a year’s worth of incense and a year’s worth of oil for the menorah, which was a considerable amount and thus very heavy.  The Ramban notes that a full year’s worth of oil amounted to 183 lug, as a half-lug was used each night, 365 nights a year.
          A number of later writers noted that the Ramban, curiously, includes only the oil used for just one of the seven lamps of the menorah.  A half-lug was needed each night not for the entire menorah, but rather for each lamp, and thus, seemingly, the quantity of oil carried by Elazar was actually seven times more than the 183 lug mentioned by the Ramban.

          Rav Meir Dan Platsky, in Keli Chemda, suggests that the Ramban worked off the assumption that indeed, Elazar carried only the oil needed for one of the seven candles.  The kindling of the menorah is valid even if only one lamp is lit – despite the fact that, quite obviously, they all optimally must be kindled – and so it sufficed for Elazar to carry only one candle’s worth of oil.
          Rav Moshe Sternbuch, in
Ta’am Va-da’at, offers a much different explanation of the Ramban’s comments.  In his view, when the Torah writes that the incense, oil and flour were “pekudat Elazar” – “the assignment of Elazar,” this does not mean that Elazar was required to personally carry all these materials.  Rather, these materials were placed under his charge, and he was required to see to it that they were transported.  In his great love for mitzvot, however, Elazar decided to carry a large amount of the materials, despite the difficulty this entailed.  And so, Elazar took the amount of oil needed to kindle one lamp throughout one year, and left the rest for other members of the family of Kehat to carry.
          Rav Sternbuch adds that Elazar’s decision serves as an example of taking personal action, rather than conveniently delegating responsibility to others.  While on the one hand, we cannot, of course, complete every task ourselves, and we must be prepared to share the burden with others when necessary, on the other hand, delegating more than we need to often reflects a degree of apathy and disinterest.  When it comes to mitzvot, our passionate commitment to serve God should lead us to enthusiastically “carry” as much as we reasonably can, rather than delegating our burden purely for the sake of convenience.  We should joyously bear the “weight” of mitzva observance, appreciating the great privilege we have to serve our Creator.. 

          In the final verses of Parashat Bamidbar, we read of God’s command to Moshe and Aharon to protect the members of the Kehat family of Leviyim, who were charged to carry the most sacred articles of the Mishkan when the nation traveled.  God instructed, “Do not allow the tribe of the families of Kehat to be annihilated… This is what you shall do so that they live and not die when they approach the holy of holies – Aharon and his sons shall come and place each one of them to his work and to his cargo…” 
          Different approaches have been taken in the Midrash and among the commentators in explaining what precisely the potential risk was, and how this risk was averted by assigning each Kehatite to his individual post.  Seforno writes: “Do not allow the transport responsibilities to be such that the first earns [the privilege of transporting the article he chooses], because in such a way, it will happen that they will shove each other and desecrate the sanctuary, and this will be a reason for their annihilation.”  According to Seforno, the concern was disorderliness.  The kohanim needed to implement a formal system whereby each Kehatite was assigned a particular article to transport, because otherwise, the Kehatites would push and shove their way in an effort to gain rights to carry the articles of their choice.  Seforno references the shocking incidents related by the Mishna and Gemara (Yoma 22a, 23a) of kohanim who resorted to violence as they raced up the ramp to the altar.  The original system was that the first kohen to reach the altar would earn the privilege of performing the terumat ha-deshen ritual (removing ashes from the altar), until one occasion when, as the Mishna tells, two kohanim were racing to the altar and one shoved the other off the ramp, breaking his leg.  Even more shockingly, the Gemara tells that once a kohen pulled out a knife and stabbed the other kohen to death as they raced up the ramp.  Seforno points to these unfortunate events as examples of how the absence of an orderly, organized system in the Mikdash could result in tragedy.
          It is noteworthy that Seforno speaks not only of the risk of injury, but of the desecration of the sanctuary – “
ve-yechalelu et ha-kodesh.”  The fear, according to Seforno, was that the Kehatites would act in an inappropriate, undignified manner, thereby defiling the Mishkan such that they would be deserving of death.  The Mikdash – and, more generally, all our religious institutions – should lead us to conduct ourselves more respectfully, more courteously, and with greater dignity and refinement.  If our sacred institutions lead us to act with less respect and dignity, then we are guilty of desecrating the Mikdash.  If God’s presence becomes a cause of unbecoming behavior, then we have transformed the sanctuary from a place that brings honor to God, into a place that brings Him dishonor. 

          In the prophecy read as the haftara for Parashat Bamidbar, the prophet Hosheia pronounces in God’s Name, “The people of Yehuda and the people of Israel will be assembled together; they will appoint one leader and ascend from the land, for great is the Day of Jezreel” (Hosheia 2:2).  The prophet speaks of a day when the two kingdoms – Yehuda and Yisrael, which had been separate and waged war against one another on several occasions – will join together in unity under a single leader, and will “ascend from the land.”
          Ibn Ezra explains the phrase “ascend from the land” as a reference to exile, and that the prophet here predicts the time when the Assyrian Empire will drive the majority of the nation into exile.  The entire Kingdom of Israel, and a great deal of the Kingdom of Yehuda, were driven out of the land by the Assyrian emperor Sancheiriv, and, according to Ibn Ezra, he is the “one leader” mentioned here in this verse.  Ibn Ezra explains on this basis the final clause of the verse, “for great is the Day of Jezreel,” which, in his view, hearkens back to the prophet’s warning several verses earlier (1:4) that God would punish the Northern Kingdom for the blood spilled in Yizre’el (Jezreel).  The commentators explain that this refers to the violent rebellion mounted by Yeihu against Yehoram, king of the Northern Kingdom (Melakhim II, chapter 9).  Yehoram was the son of the sinful king Achav, and Yeihu was instructed by the prophet to kill the entire family of Achav and establish a new dynasty over the Kingdom of Israel.  Once the dynasty embraced idol worship, the war waged against the family of Achav retroactively became illegitimate, and they were thus punished for the blood they spilled (see, for example, Rashi to 1:4).  The battle against Yehoram was waged in the Jezreel Valley, and thus the prophet warned that God would punish the dynasty of Yeihu for “demei Yizre’el” – “the blood of Jezreel.”  According to Ibn Ezra, the proclamation “for great is the Day of Jezreel” warns of the exile to which the two kingdoms would be driven, as a punishment for the war waged in Jezreel.
          Most commentators, however, disagree with Ibn Ezra, and explain the prophecy, “The people of Yehuda and the people of Israel will be assembled together” as foreseeing not the departure into exile, but to the contrary, the return from exile.  The “one leader” whom the people will appoint, according to the conventional understanding, is the Mashiach.  The Radak, in refuting Ibn Ezra’s interpretation, contends that the phrase “they shall appoint one leader” cannot refer to the Assyrian king, whom the people did not appoint over themselves, but who rather violently conquered their territory and drove them from exile.  Moreover, the Radak writes, the word “ve-ala” (“shall ascend”) is generally used in reference to journeying towards the Land of Israel, not leaving the land.

          As for the expression “Yom Yizre’el” used to describe the day foreseen by the prophet, the commentators associate the word “yizre’el” with the word “zera” – “seed.”  Rashi explains “Yom Yizre’el” as referring to the day when “their seeds are gathered,” meaning, when the Jews who had been scattered would again assemble in the Land of Israel.  This is based on Targum, which translates this expression as “yom kenishat’hon” – “the day of their gathering.”  The process of exile, during which Am Yisrael was scattered throughout many lands, is likened to the process of seeding a field, and thus the ingathering of the exiles is compared to the collection of scattered seeds.
          Malbim adds further insight into this metaphor.  When a seed is placed inside the ground and decomposes, it seems as though it is lost forever, and will never amount to anything.  Eventually, however, it produces a large amount of precious food, and it is determined that the seed’s burial in the ground and subsequent decay served the purpose of producing nourishing grain.  Similarly, when Am Yisrael was driven into exile, “planted” in foreign lands and among foreign cultures, it seemed as though our nation was permanently lost.  In this prophecy, God promises that Am Yisrael will emerge from exile greater and more numerous than they were previously.  On “Yom Yizre’el,” it will be made clear that over the course of our exile, we were like a seed that gradually developed into something great and precious, that the hardships and challenges we endured led to our emergence as a proud, glorious nation renewing its sovereignty in its homeland.

           We read in the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar the names of the representatives of each tribe appointed by God to assist Moshe and Aharon in counting Benei Yisrael.  One of the appointed men is identified by the name “Elyasaf son of Deuel,” who represented the tribe of Gad (1:14).  Later in Parashat Bamidbar, when the Torah describes the arrangement of the tribes during travel and encampment, the Torah again mentions the names of the leaders of the tribes, and in this context, the leader of Gad is called Elyasaf son of Reuel – with the letter dalet of “Deuel” replaced by the letter reish, forming the name “Reuel.”

           The Chida, in his Chomat Anakh commentary, cites the Imrei Noam (Parashat Vayetze) as claiming that Elyasaf’s father was actually named “Deuel,” and the name was changed to “Reuel” as an allusion to “rei’a Kel” – “the friend of God,” meaning, Moshe.  The tribe of Gad was granted the special privilege of being the tribe in whose territory Moshe was buried (as Moshe himself mentions before his death – Devarim 33:21).  The tribe of Gad earned this privilege, the Imrei Noam explained, in the merit of its remaining silent instead of protesting when the arrangement of the Israelite camp was established.  The camp was divided into four sections, each consisting of three tribes, and one of the three tribes in each group was appointed leader of that group.  Three of the four tribes chosen as leaders – Reuven, Efrayim and Dan – were founded by a firstborn: Reuven was Leah’s firstborn; Efrayim was the son of Yosef, Rachel’s firstborn; and Dan was Bilha’s firstborn.  Gad was Zilpa’s firstborn, and yet, the tribe of Gad was denied the privilege of leadership, as its position was taken by Yehuda.  (Gad was assigned to the group led by Reuven – 2:10-16).  Despite being the only firstborn not to have received this distinction, the tribe of Gad accepted the arrangement without any protest.  In reward for not complaining, the tribe of Gad earned a special relationship with “Reuel” – Moshe, and he was buried in their territory.  And thus in the context of the camp’s arrangement, the Torah changed the name of Gad’s representative from “Elyasaf ben Deuel” to “Elyasaf ben Reuel,” signifying this tribe’s special relationship to Moshe by virtue of its peaceful acceptance of the arrangement of the camp.
           Rav Chaim Palagi, in his Nefesh Chaim (ma’arekhet gimmel), adds that this quality of Gad might also be alluded to in the name “Deuel,” which could be read as “de’u Kel” – “knowing God.”  Acquiring knowledge and wisdom, Rav Palagi writes, requires humility.  And thus the tribe of Gad, who humbly accepted their position without protest, is associated with the name “Deuel,” because the kind of humility they embodied is indispensable for attaining knowledge and understanding.
           Developing this point further, we cannot acquire knowledge if we are bogged down by pettiness and trivialities.  If we feel the need to protest against and complain about every minor grievance, technically legitimate as it may be, then we are likely failing to remain focused on what really matters.  In order to achieve “Deuel,” broad Torah knowledge and a deep connection to God, we need to keep our priorities straight and avoid getting distracted and feeling disturbed by petty problems.

          Toward the end of Parashat Bamidbar, the Torah outlines the procedure that was followed to prepare the sacred articles of the Mishkan for transport when Benei Yisrael needed to travel.  We read that the kohanim would wrap each article in an especially designated garment.  As a general rule, each article’s accessories were also placed in that garment.  For example, the Torah instructs that the bowls, ladles and jars used in conjunction with the shulchan (table) were placed in a sky-blue garment together with the shulchan (4:7), and the oil lamps and tongs used with the menorah were stored with the menorah in its special bag (4:9).  A glaring exception is the incense altar, which was placed in one garment while its utensils were placed in a separate garment (4:11-12).  The question arises as to why these utensils were not kept together with the altar, just as the utensils of the other sacred articles were kept together with the article with which they were used.
          Some suggested answering this question based on the Gemara’s ruling in Masekhet Zevachim (59a) that the incense may be offered even in the absence of the incense altar.  Although the incense is generally offered on the altar, nevertheless, if, for whatever reason, the altar was removed from the Beit Ha-mikdash, the incense is offered at the site of the altar.  This ruling is codified by the Rambam, in Hilkhot Temidin U-musafin (3:2).  Accordingly, it could be suggested that the utensils used in offering the incense – specifically, the spoon used to place the incense on the coals, and the pan which held the coals – are not integrally linked to the altar.  Since they can be used even in the altar’s absence, they should be seen as separate and apart from the altar, and they were thus kept in their own bag, and not together with the incense altar.
          This answer was suggested by Rav David Soloveitchik (
Shiurei Rabbeinu Meshulam David Ha-levi, Parashat Bamidbar, p. 197), who then refuted this explanation.  Tosafot in Masekhet Zevachim (60b) write that this is true also of the other altar – the mizbach ha-ola, upon which the animal sacrifices were offered.  If this altar was removed from the Temple courtyard, then the eimurin – the portions of sacrifices which are to be placed on the altar – are placed on the site of the altar.  Accordingly, the utensils used with the mizbach ha-ola, too, should perhaps be regarded as separate from the altar itself.  And yet, the Torah states explicitly that all these utensils were placed together with the mizbach ha-ola in a special purple garment (4:14).
          Rav Yitzchak Zev Diskin, in his Zivchei Tzedek, suggests a different explanation.  In Sefer Shemot (27:3), the Torah mentions the machtot (firepans) used with the mizbach ha-ola, and Rashi explains that these pans were used to take coals from the mizbach ha-ola and bring them to the incense altar.  The coals upon which the incense was placed were taken from the mizbach ha-ola, and the firepans used for this purpose are included among the utensils of the mizbach ha-ola.  It emerges, then, that the utensils used for offering incense are included as part of the “equipment” of the mizbach ha-ola, and not of the incense altar.  Rav Diskin supports this theory from the comments of the Ramban later in Sefer Bamidbar (7:1) regarding the special offerings brought by the twelve tribal leaders on the day of the Mishkan’s consecration.  The Ramban explained that the nesi’im (tribal leaders) offered every type of sacrifice in order to inaugurate the mizbach ha-ola.  Now the nesi’im’s offerings included incense, which is offered on the incense altar – and yet, the nesi’im brought incense as part of the consecration of the mizbach ha-ola.  Apparently, the Ramban understood that since the coals for the incense are taken from the mizbach ha-ola, the incense offering is associated with that altar, even though the incense is actually placed on the incense altar.
          As such, the utensils used with the incense are associated not with the incense altar, but rather with the mizbach ha-ola.  In theory, then, they should have been placed together with the mizbach ha-ola in its special garment.  However, since these utensils are used inside the Mikdash, where the incense altar is situated, whereas the mizbach ha-ola is situated outside, in the Temple courtyard, these utensils have a higher level of sanctity than the mizbach ha-ola, and so they were placed in their own bag, separate from the mizbach ha-ola.

          Yesterday, we noted the Torah’s description of how the kohanim prepared the sacred articles of the Mishkan for travel, wrapping each article in a special garment together with its accessories.  An exception is the mizbach ha-ketoret (incense altar), whose accessories were placed in a separate garment, rather than being placed together with the altar (4:11-12).  As we mentioned, some commentators suggested explaining that since the Gemara (Zevachim 59a) rules that the incense can be offered even in the absence of the incense altar, the accessories used to offer the incense are not integrally linked to the altar, as they can be used even without the altar.  Therefore, they are treated as separate entities, and were thus stored in a separate garment.  Some, however, questioned this explanation by noting that this should be true also of the second altar – the mizbach ha-ola, upon which sacrifices were offered.  Tosafot (Zevachim 60b) write that if this altar is not present in the Temple courtyard where it normally stood, sacrifices could be offered on the site of the altar – just as incense is offered on the site where the incense altar normally stood if, for whatever reason, the altar was not there.  And yet, the utensils used with the mizbach ha-ola were placed in the same bag as that altar (4:14).  Seemingly, then, the fact that the incense can be offered without the incense altar does not explain why its accessories were not stored together with the altar during travel.
          Rav Chaim Meir Steinberg, in his Mishnat Chaim, suggests refuting this challenge by proposing that although sacrifices could be offered even without the mizbach ha-ola, the utensils were needed only when the altar was present.  The Torah lists the various utensils associated with the mizbach ha-ola in Sefer Shemot (27:3), the first of which are the sirot (pails) and the ya’im (scoops) that, as Rashi explains, were used to remove the ashes which collected on the altar.  Clearly, Rav Steinberg notes, these were needed only when the mizbach ha-ola was present in the Beit Ha-mikdash, and were unnecessary when the altar was not present and the sacrifices were burned at the site where it normally stood.  The third set of utensils mentioned in the verse are the mizrekot – the basins in which the blood was collected after the animal was slaughtered, in preparation for sprinkling the blood on the altar.  These utensils, too, were not needed in the altar’s absence, as quite obviously, the blood was not sprinkled unless there was an altar.  Next, the verse mentions the mazleigot – the pitchforks used to turn over the meat on the altar in order to accelerate the burning of the meat on the altar.  Rav Steinberg proposes that hastening the burning process was necessary only on the altar, because of the obligation of terumat ha-deshen – the removal of ashes from the top of the altar each morning.  This obligation necessitated the swift burning of the meat in order to produce ashes for the terumat ha-deshen.  But if the altar was not present, and the sacrifices were burned on the site where the altar normally stood, there was no requirement to turn over the meat in order to hasten its consumption.  The final set of utensils associated with the mizbach ha-ola were the pans used to collect coals from the mizbach ha-ola for the purpose of offering incense on the incense altar.  Clearly, these pans were not used if the mizbach ha-ola was not present, and, in any event, they were more closely associated with the incense altar than with the mizbach ha-ola.
          It emerges, then, that all the utensils used with the mizbach ha-ola
were needed only with the altar, and were not used when the altar was not present and the sacrifices were burned on the ground at the site of the altar.  As such, they are considered integrally connected to the altar, and were thus stored with the altar during travel.  This is in contrast to the utensils needed for the offering of incense, which were used even when the incense altar was not present, and so they were stored separately, and not together with the incense altar. 

          The prophecy read as the haftara for Parashat Bamidbar begins by foreseeing the time when “the number of the Israelites shall be like [that of] the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor counted” (Hosheia 2:1).  The next verse tells of this large multitude being assembled and returning to the Land of Israel.  (As we discussed earlier this week, Ibn Ezra interprets this second verse differently, explaining that it actually refers to the nation’s departure into exile; the consensus among the commentators, however, is that the prophet here foresees the ingathering of the exiles at the time of the final redemption.)
          Malbim offers an insightful explanation of the analogy comparing Benei Yisrael’s large population at that time to “the sand of the sea.”  There are two reasons, Malbim writes, why it is impossible to count the sand on the beach – because of the astronomically high number of kernels, and because a great deal of sand is concealed beneath the water of the ocean.  Correspondingly, the Jewish Nation will not be able to be counted at the time of the final redemption not simply because of the large number of its members, but also because many Jews will be “concealed.”  Over the course of the turbulent years of exile, many members of our nation will end up in remote regions and be unknown to the rest of the nation.  Like the sand of the sea, our nation will be unable to be counted because many of us will be “hidden” in the “sea” of other peoples.
          The same can perhaps be said also about our personal “exiles,” the periods of hardship and struggle that we all occasionally experience.  During such periods, we should remember that we have strengths and abilities that cannot be “counted,” that lie beneath the surface, that we might be unaware of.  Just as large amounts of sand are hidden from our view, we need to recognize that we have “hidden” strengths, that we are capable of surmounting obstacles and overcoming adversity even when at first we feel helpless.  Hosheia’s prophecy reassures us not only that Benei Yisrael as a nation will emerge greater and more numerous than we thought possible, but also that each of us individually can, if we try hard enough, uncover hidden capabilities that will help us triumph over difficult challenges and achieve more than we thought we could.


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