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Bamidbar / בְּמִדְבַּר Parsha Overview: Counting, Counting, then a Swap!

Welcome to a brand new Sefer of the Chumash!

Bamidbar means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” We were there for a long time: forty years. (we'll learn why in parshas Shelach!) Remember that Vayikra has another name, Toras Kohanim (Torah for the Kohanim)? Bamidbar also has one: Chumash HaPekudim, the Chumash for counting.

In English, it's called the Book of Numbers. Let's find out why!

Do you remember reading a few months ago about Hashem counting bnei Yisrael. Now, He counts them again! Why does Hashem count us so often in the Chumash? Well, what kinds of things do you count, and when? Maybe you want a lot of something – like strawberries or a collection of toys.

But sometimes, we count for a sad reason.

Imagine you had a bag of marbles – shiny and glittery and colourful – and they all spilled! You'd round them up, of course, and then probably count to make sure they were all there. You’d be sad if some were missing – rolled under the sofa, or maybe gone for good. Here, Hashem counts bnei Yisrael because many of them were lost – they died after the egel hazahav. This was very sad.

Do you remember who the Shevatim were?

The parsha lists the names of the shevatim (Can you sing them all?). These were families born from the sons of Yaakov - Avraham's great-grandsons! They died, but their shevatim had grown into big families with new leaders. The parsha lists the leaders’ names because even though so many were lost, Am Yisrael Chai – our tzaddikim help bnei Yisrael keep right on going - forever!

Some of the shevatim had MANY more people than others!

image Yehudah, the biggest, had 74,600 adult men. But listen: Dan only had one son, but his shevet has grown HUGE – 62,700 men. Binyamin, who had ten sons, is now one of the smallest: 35,400 men. This is very surprising! If you start with two rabbits, they have babies and in a few years, you have thousands of rabbits. The more rabbits you start with, the more rabbits you get! That's nature. But bnei Yisrael are NOT like rabbits.

Only Hashem, not nature, knows which shevatim deserve to grow.

image  There were so many of bnei Yisrael! But they would need to fight on their way to eretz Yisrael, and having many people doesn’t help you win unless you’re organized. Hashem arranged the shevatim with the Mishkan in the very middle so everybody could be close to it and remember why they were fighting.

But one shevet still hadn’t been counted: Shevet Levi.

Moshe counted them personally. Some people say that he stood outside their tents and a voice called out how many people lived in each tent. That way, their private life stayed private! There were 22,000 levi'im. We still know who their descendents are today – the Kohanim and Levi'im in our shul!

Now that Levi was counted, it was time for a gigantic swap!

Hashem originally wanted firstborn men to work in the Mishkan, but when they did the cheit ha'egel (remember that?), they lost their chance. The only ones who didn’t help make the egel were the Levi’im. So each firstborn had to pay 5 shekels to “trade” with a Levi, who would work in the Mishkan. We still do this today: we “redeem” a firstborn son at a Pidyon HaBen when he's 30 days old.

This week's parsha ends with an interesting problem:

When the Mishkan travelled, one group of Levi'im, bnei Kehas, had to carry the menorah, aron, and other important keilim. But only the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, could touch those things; anyone else would die! Luckily, Hashem told Moshe the solution: the Kohanim could go in first and wrap up the keilim very well. Once they were covered, bnei Kehas could take them away!

Bnei Yisrael travelled many times. We'll learn more about that as we read Sefer Bamidbar!