Torah Weekly

For the week ending 1 June 2019 / 27 Iyyar 5779

Parshat Bamidbar

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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The Book of Bamidbar — "In the Desert" — begins with G-d commanding Moshe to take a census of all men over age twenty — old enough for service. The count reveals just over 600,000. The levi'im are counted separately later because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings and assembling them when the nation encamps. The 12 Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: east, south, west and north. Since Levi is singled out, the tribe of Yosef is split into two tribes, Efraim and Menashe, so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp. A formal transfer is made between the first-born and the levi'im, whereby the levi'im take over the role the first-born would have had serving in the Mishkan if not for the sin of the golden calf. The transfer is made using all the 22,000 surveyed levi'im from one month old and up. Only levi'im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining first-born sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our first-born today. The sons of Levi are divided into three main families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the kohanim — the special division from Kehat's family). The family of Kehat carried the menorah, the table, the altar and the holy ark. Because of their utmost sanctity, the ark and the altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the levi'im prepare them for travel.

Nodules and Noodling

“In the desert” (1:1)

For years I’ve struggled with my voice. As a youngster I had no problem belting out a song or a speech. My voice seemed to me like titanium. I once toured the East Coast speaking for an hour up to three times a day without a microphone, sometimes in the open-air, with a presentation that included singing, shouting and weeping, and I was left with the barest touch of vocal gravel on arising in the morning. Those days are over. I’d been to three doctors who fed cameras down my nose and throat and they all told me that I didn’t have nodules, but that I should give up all coffee, hot drinks, spicy food, coffee again, all milk products, coke, fizzy drinks, get at least 9 hours sleep, use Guafanesin to loosen the mucus on the vocal chords – in other words, to give up life as it is known on planet Earth.

Well, I tried one more specialist and he had this new-fangled machine with special computer imaging that can slow down the rapid movement of the vocal chords so you can see them opening and closing in extremely slow motion. And lo-and-behold! Hiding behind the major folds of my vocal chords he found some quite obvious and nasty nodules.

Prognosis: Voice training to try and undo a life-time of bad habits. (That’s going to be fun…) possible surgery, and, of most importance, resting my voice by speaking only when absolutely necessary.

The masters of the Mussar (ethical excellence) movement teach that we are all born with a “word-meter.” Along with a decreed length of the days of our lives, the amount of words we can speak we are also allotted. When the meter runs out, we either die of have a stroke…

Like all plentiful resources, we can easily mistake plenty for infinity. Nothing brought home to me how the cost of each and every word like that that doctor’s lecture to me. “The more you use your voice, the more you will use it up. Like an athlete, you can’t run as fast when you’re sixty as when you were twenty, and you can’t run as far and you get tire quicker. Your vocal chords are muscles and you just don’t have the same resilience.”

So, now before I open my mouth, I think to myself, “Do I really need to say this?” It’s been a salutary lesson.

This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, “In the desert.” Midbar can also be understood as mi-dibur. Dibur means “speech.” The desert is the quietest place in the world. The words — the dibur — of the Torah, were given to us in a place whose silence demands of us to reflect on our Divine power of speech and use that power as much as we can only to learn, to teach, to encourage and to ennoble.

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