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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

BaMidbar – And now a word from our “host”

Posted by rabbiart on May 25, 2008

We begin with a tribal census of males over the age of twenty, organized by patrilineal line. It is taken on Iyar 1 in the second year of the wilderness wandering. A leader of each tribe makes the count along with Moshe. All those able to serve – כָּל-יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל (kol yotzei tzava b’Yisrael “all who go out in service among Israel”) – are counted.

The commentary Orech Hayim observes that the phrase כֹּל יֹצֵא צָבָא (kol yotzei tzava) is repeated after each tribe is counted, as if to say that all of the members of that tribe are fit to go out. This is miraculous, he says, because it is not possible, that out of all these people, there would be no one is unfit. (Of course the pshat reading of the text is that they only count those who are fit).

Although the service here is understood to be military, the word צָבָא simply means a large gathering or collection; often translated as “host” or “hosts”. As a verb it means to “join” or “follow along with.” A midrash suggests several different kinds of hosts. The creation story labels heaven and earth to be, collectively, hosts. וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-צְבָאָם Israelite males over twenty form a host, as do Levites.

The tribe of Levi is not counted in this particular census. They were taken by HaShem in exchange for all the dead first-born of Egypt, in the moment of the plague. They are assigned a different and special set of responsibilities.

The phrase יֹצֵא צָבָא (yotzei tzava) occurs in connection with each tribe. All of the tribes go out to serve except the Levites. In contrast, Levites go in to serve.

מִבֶּן שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, וְעַד בֶּן-חֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה–כָּל-בָּא, לַצָּבָא, לַעֲשׂוֹת מְלָאכָה, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

The tribes go out to serve at age twenty, but Levites serve only from age thirty (to age fifty). Only the twenty plus Israelites are counted, but the Levites are also counted from a month old (biblically, thirty days was the point a baby was considered viable, so this is tantamount to counting all the Levite males.)

We see in this parshah the outer world and the inner world, both in service and by implication, in our individual orientation.  The Israelites go out into the world in pursuit of Torah, and yes, sometimes this means conflict and self-defense.  The Levites go inward – in to the tabernacle – in pursuit of Torah.  The nation – and individuals Jews – are only complete when we serve both outwardly and inwardly, and the parts of our service are in harmony with each other.  When behavior and belief – na’aseh v’nishma – combine in us, then we are bringing the Torah to life.

Shabbat Shalom

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