Light from the Sidra


Numbers 8:1-12:16.Haftarah:Zechariah 2:14 (10)-4:7

The Parasha this week signals the beginning of a dramatic change in Israel’s fortunes. There were problems when the people came out of Egypt. They murmured about the lack of food and water but God provided daily manna, and freshened the water at Marah by means of a tree. At Sinai, after the people committed themselves to obey all that Yahweh had said, Aaron fashioned a graven image which the people worshipped in contravention of Yahweh’s second commandment.

What strikes us when we read the early chapters of Numbers is the people's obedience to the words of Yahweh. The priests, the Levites and the people really do seem to be obedient to every mitzvot.

The camp of Israel has been at Sinai for a year, and they are approaching the first anniversary of the exodus from Egypt. Pesach is coming and the people appear enthusiastic about keeping the festival, so much so that some who have been rendered ceremonially unclean want some arrangement by which they may keep it without violating the words of Yahweh, and God allows them to observe the festival one month later, after they have been cleansed of defilement.  

The people need further instruction in the meaning of the Torah. If, as the Rabbis claim, Moses received the Oral Torah at Sinai, Israel would have had no need of extra revelation and instruction.

According to Pirke Avot, God committed to Moses the contents of the entire Talmud, which he passed on to Joshua, and so on. If that was the case, why did Moses have to seek further instruction on the observance of Pesach? Why did he, in chapter 27, have to receive clarification on inheritance laws on behalf of the daughters of Zelophehad? The faintest ink is better than the best memory and so God’s Torah – his instruction – was delivered in written form.

Israel was God’s new humanity. When God created man, he placed him in a garden and met with him there. His instruction to Adam to subdue the earth suggests that the world outside Gan Eden an uncultivated wilderness, which Adam had to tame. Adam received God’s torah in the Garden and, in the heart of the garden, was the Tree of Life.  

The camp of Israel, with the tabernacle in the midst, was like the Garden of Eden in the midst of a wilderness, and the Menorah was like the tree of Life. The tabernacle was where God met with man and man met with God. So far, so good. However, chapter 11 starts with a complaint that centres around food. God provided manna for the people every day. If they followed his instruction, they would have enough food to satisfy them.  

In Eden, Adam and Eve were not satisfied with the fruit of the trees of the garden; they wanted to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the wilderness, Israel wants cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic, all of them tasty but none of them substantial enough to satisfy a hunger! They are heading for a fall. Just as there were consequences for eating from the forbidden tree in Eden, there were consequences for complaining against God. A plague (a reminder of what happened to the Egyptians) comes upon the people. They are out of Egypt but Egypt is not out of them.

Like the first humans, the new humanity has fallen. As in Eden, the consequence of Israel’s fall is plague and division: Miriam and Aaron suddenly reveal that they have issues with the authority bestowed on their kid brother Moses.

From this point, it’s downhill all the way. But even though the people are unfaithful to their God and suffer serious consequences, their God will remain faithful to his people and to his promises to bless the nations through them.

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