Bamidbar - the Power in Numbers

The Smallest Tribe
For most of the beginning of the parshah, the populations of the tribes of Israel are described in detail. The tribe of Judah numbers 74,600. The tribe of Zevulun numbers 57,400. And even the tribe of Binyamin numbers 35,400. Yet among all the tribes listed, one tribe stands out from the rest.

The sum of the male Levites according to their families, from the age of one month and upward, counted by Moses and Aaron according to the word of the Lord, was twenty two thousand.
Bamidbar 3:39 
In carrying out the reckoning of the current standing of the tribes, the tribe of Levi stands at a significantly lower amount than the rest of the tribes. Not by hundreds, but by as much as 13,400, when compared to the census of the tribe of Binyamin.

Not only is Levi the smallest of the tribes, but in this parshah, Levi is listed last among all the tribal countings.

Why is Levi so much smaller?
Why does Levi stand out so separately in the presentation of the tribes?

How Come the Tribe of Levi is So Small?
The Or HaChaim HaKadosh refers to the observations of the Ramban, who notes that of all the tribes, the tribe of Levi is considered to be close to G-d. They are the tribe that is dedicated to serving in the Mishkan and Temple. This is the tribe of Moshe Rabeinu and Aharon HaKohen. They are the tribe that was not involved in the sin of the golden calf. They were not afflicted by plagues.

So how come Levi is so much smaller than the other tribes? Why even the number that is designated in the counting of Levi - 22,000, this number is only reached by taking a counting from every soul that is at least 1 month old. The other tribes are counted from 20 years old.

The commentators raise a number of explanations for this situation.

Yaacov's Anger
One reason brought is based on the comments made by Yaacov in blessing all of the tribes. Towards Levi he expressed anger.
Simeon and Levi are brothers; stolen instruments are their weapons. Let my soul not enter their counsel; my honor, you shall not join their assembly, for in their wrath they killed a man, and with their will they hamstrung a bull.
Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel.
Breishit 49:5-7

Exempt from Work
Another reason given is that the tribe of Levi was not subject to the hardships and work in Egypt like the rest of the tribes. G-d made a special blessing in direct correlation to the hardships experienced, so the Jewish people should be blessed with fertility, as described in the verse:

The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them.
Shmot 1:7
Less of a Burden
The Kli Yakar also raises several explanations. One being that since the Levites would be supported by the rest of the Jewish people through tithes, that they were purposely made a small tribe to be less of a burden.

A Tribe of Tzadikim
Another explanation comes that G-d saw that not all of the Levites would be righteous, so this amount was taken from the world so that all that was left was the clean and upright group for carrying out the holy duties in the Mishkan and Temple.

The Deeper Source of the Levite's Numbers
Both the Or HaChaim HaKadosh and the Kli Yakar turn away from these other explanations and determine that another reason is clearer. Both commentators cite the narrative from Masechet Sotah.
 A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed 'Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river', he said: In vain do we labour. He arose and divorced his wife.  All [the Levites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives.
Sotah 12A
A Fateful Decision
How could such a great leader, a gadol hador, make such an extreme and fateful decision? What reasoning did he go through support this dire conclusion or was the pressure of the times clouding his thinking?

The Or HaChaim brings a support from Masechet Taanit.
Resh Lakish said: A man may not have marital relations during years of famine, as it is said, 'And unto Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came.'
Taanit 11A
Rashi adds in his commentary on this talmudic statement, "that in this time [of famine] a man must treat himself with hardship."

Really it would appear that Amram, a bold leader and scholar, followed talmudic reasoning and used didactic logic. Out of this cold, calculated process he reached his conclusion on how to act at that time in Egypt, no matter how difficult it seemed.

The narrative in Masechet Sotah continues, with the response to Amram's monumental decision.
His daughter [Miriam] said to him, 'Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh's. Pharaoh decreed only against the males while you decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh only decreed concerning this world while you decreed concerning this world and the World to Come.  In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, while in your case, you are a tzadik, and it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled, as it is said: Thou shalt also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto thee!' He arose and took his wife back; and they all arose and took their wives back.
Sotah 12A
Despite the calculated, logical reasoning backing up Amram's decision. His daughter succeeds in swaying him to abandon this direction and continue to embrace life, despite the seeming futility that the reality surrounds him.

Dry Logical Vs. Passion
The tribe of Levi was left reduced in numbers from the logic employed by Amram in deciding that the circumstances of their servitude in Egypt were like the suffering and a deadly famine. Yet why did only the tribe of Levi end up in this state, why there the other tribes even 3 to 4 times larger than Levi?
R. Avira expounded: For the merit of the righteous women who lived in that generation, the Israelites were delivered from Egypt. When they went to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged that small fishes should enter their pitchers, which they drew up half full of water and half full of fishes. They then set two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish, which they carried to their husbands in the field, and washed, anointed, fed, gave them to drink and had intercourse with them among the sheepfolds.
Sotah 11B
The women of this generation saw a different reality from Amram? Did they not see the vile decrees of Pharoh  dooming all males to be thrown into the Nile?


The women were not oblivious to the harsh reality of the time, but they had a different perspective. Rather than apply a calculating, dry analysis of the situation and out of that conclude how to act, they responded emotionally. They saw a snowball of events unfolding, leading from one tragedy to the next. Whereas Amram sought to halt the harsh wheels turning ever closer, the women responded by embracing life. This was not a time for rational decisions. The forces upon them were too big. So it was just this time to abandon rationale and let passion drive the future of the Jewish people.

Small Number, Big Reminder
In taking count of the tribes of Israel, Levi is presented last. The significance of this placement should be all too apparent. We first see the big impressive numbers of tribes like Judah and Zevulun, and finally to come and see the smallest tribe at the end.

When we come to the tribe of Levi and are confronted with this number and the decisions that brought this situation about, then we can look back at all of the parshah up to this point. Consider if the dry, didactic logic of Amram had not only influenced the tribe of Levi but the entire Jewish people. Consider if the women wouldn't have been heeded under this strict decision. Then we would be looking at an entirely different counting, one where all the tribes' populations would be but a third what is recorded.

We see in this number a reminder to look beyond the cold, analytical facts but when the fate of the Jewish people is at stake we are in need of a vision that goes beyond our reasoning, but passion and a sheer raw desire to survive.

Emor - Guard Your Thoughts

This parshah has a very unusual and seemingly out of place episode, almost tacked on to the end of the parshah with the episode of the 'blasphemer'. Following a thorough review of all of the holidays, and a return to activity in the mishkan, the 'blasphemer' and his unusual personal history appears, where he is quickly aroused and curses in front of a large congregation.

Now, the son of an Israelite woman and he was the son of an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel, and they quarreled in the camp this son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man.
Vayikra 24:10
  • Why is this episode positioned directly after the description of the activities in the mishkan?
  • Why is this episode introduced with "and he went out..."
  • Why is 'the blasphemer' family background described so clearly?

The Blasphemer Episode
And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moshe. His mother's name was Shelomith the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan
Vayikra 24:11
Why mention his mother's name outright?

The Blasphemer and The Mishkan 
The positioning of the Blasphemer episode immediately following the description of important activities in the mishkan, like lighting the menorah and placing the showbread, is no accident. The Baal HaTurim explains that the Torah "positioned the blasphemer to the verse 'Each and every Sabbath day' (Vayikra 24:8) to say that the blasphemer and the wood collector (Bamidbar 15:32) were at the same period, and that is to say one who desecrates the Sabbath is a heretic (Mesechet Chullin 5A). That is to say that the episode of the Blasphemer took place on the Sabbath, as introduced by the previous verse, and that inherent in the Blasphemer's behavior was lack of respect for the Sabbath. This is the first insight into his way of thinking.

Is the Blasphemer Jewish?
The Blasphemer is introduced with a brief overview of his lineage, "the son of an Israelite woman and he was the son of an Egyptian man" (Vayikra 24:10). Why is this necessary? Furthermore  the verse describes that he  "went out among the children of Israel" - what does this refer too?

Don't we already know that any child of a Jewish mother is considered fully Jewish, a 'Kosher Yid'? The Ramban explains that yes this is true, the child would be a kosher Jew, but his background makes him unsuitable for the priesthood and leaves him without an inheritance of land in Eretz Yisrael. The Ramban elucidates further explaining that before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the practice was to set a child's religion according to the father. So he would have converted and followed his mother's way, hence the expression "went out among the children of Israel" - that he was not like a Jew from birth.

Who was the Blasphemer's Mother?
Further exploring the elements that formed this Blasphemer's psyche and way of thinking, the Torah is very clear and deliberate about showing who his mother is. The Torah says "His mother's name was Shelomith the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan."

Rashi explains on this verse that 'Shelomith' herself was considered promiscuous (zona). Furthermore Rashi elaborates and explains the meaning of her family name, Dibri. The root of Dibri is DBR or to talk. Rashi says that she was a gossip, asking about the welfare of everyone.

Here we get further insight into the values that were transferred to the Blasphemer from his mother, constantly collecting information and talking about people behind their back.

Who was the Blasphemer's Father?
Rashi notes quite succinctly that the Blasphemer's father was the Egyptian that Moshe had killed (Shmot 2:12). By looking at the episode that occurred then, we get more insight into this Egyptian.
Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers.  He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
Shmot 2:12-13
Rashi explains that the 'Egyptian man' was appointed as a watchman of the Israelites and he sent men to their labor. The 'Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man' was the husband of ... Shelomith Bat Dibri. Shelomith had caught the eye of the Egyptian, so at night, the Egyptian had her husband sent out to carry out work. Then the Egyptian came and was with her. According to Shelomith, she thought that this was her husband. Later that night, the husband returned and saw this situation. The Egyptian man realized that he had been seen with the Israelite woman, so he beat this man all day. And as the narrative continues Moshe saw this beating taking place and "he struck the Egyptian" - killing him.

This creates a fuller picture of this Blasphemer - a heretic, son of a whore and gossiper, illegitimate son of an Egyptian taskmaster who was murdered right after his conception.

Know Your Heart
The Kli Yakar comes to clarify further the details of this episode. The Blasphemer, son of an Israelite woman and the Egyptian that was killed by Moshe, had nurtured in his heart without telling anyone curses towards Moshe for killing his father.

The Kli Yakar brings the mishna in Pirkei Avot:
"Rabbi Yochanan ben (son of) Beroka said, whoever desecrates the Name of Heaven in secret will be paid back in public. Whether one acts unintentionally or intentionally, [both are accountable] regarding desecration of the Name."
Avot 2:5
Thus the verse of the Blasphemer is introduced with the expression "and he went out...", to show that he had finally come out of his inner world and was revealing to the outside world what his deep inner feelings really were. For in the confrontation he had with the Israelite man, the Blasphemer was provoked, angering him, and the natural reaction was letting loose his innermost, and truest feelings - curses and hate.

Lesson to All: Guard Your Thoughts
The life lesson from this episode is about perfecting our character traits. It is not enough to focus on how we present ourselves to others, behave in public situations like work, synagogue or on the street, but to focus on our inner most thoughts and what consumes our thinking. Is it anger, jealousy, spite, and frustration? or is it more about learning how to accept the bad with the good, going easy on ourselves without inflicting self-criticism, and learning to value and appreciate the positive traits we have. By guarding ourselves with positive thoughts we can influence how our outer behavior will turn out to be.