Yom Chamishi, 20 AdarI 5781
Thursday, 4 March 2021
Parashat B'midbar 2015

B'midbar 5775
19th May 2015 - Rabbi Lea Mühlstein

A New Sefer

This Shabbat we begin reading the 4th book of the Torah. Just like the other books of the Torah, the standard Hebrew name for each of the books of the Torah is derived from the name of the first parashah of each. These names are B’reishit, Sh’mot, Vayikra, B’midbar and Devarim. There is another set of names that we find in the rabbinic literature and more famously in the King James version as well as in other Christian translations of the Bible.

The medieval commentators find meaning in this second set of names. B’reishit is Sefer Hayetzira or Genesis, Sh’mot is Sefer Hageulah or Exodus, Vayikra is Torat Kohanim or Leviticus, Devarim is Mishna Torah or Deuteronomy. Those names are really obvious choices for the stories that they tell.

The fourth book, B’midbar is called Chumash Hapekudim or Numbers. It seems strange to call a book by an event that happens in the book only twice; especially when that event, the census of the Israelites, seems to be very administrative in nature.

What then could be the meaning behind calling the 4th book, the Book of Numbers? In his introduction to Sefer B’midbar, the Lithuanian 19th century commentator Reb Hirsch Leib Berlin, supplies us with a clue as to what the message of Sefer B’midbar could be. He says that the book is a book of transition. It begins with the Jewish people who left Egypt and would never see the land of Israel and concludes with a new crop of Jews who would enter the land of Israel.

In fact, there is actually a section of B’midbar that the Talmudic rabbis called a book unto itself. Two verses in Parashat Bahaalotecha (Num 10:35-6) are bracketed in the Torah by upside down nuns, so the letter nun is actually written upside down. These verses are traditionally recited when the ark is opened and the scroll is taken out:

Va-yehi binsoa ha-aron – and when the ark travelled, Moshe said: “Arise God and disperse Your enemies and those that hate You shall flee from before You.” And when it came to rest he would say: “Return God, the myriads of the thousands of Yisrael.”

This short section becomes its “own book,” splitting B’midbar and effectively turning it into 3 books. The first part of the book is when the Jewish people are counted in reference to their flags and their place in the camp. This counting was of the Jews living in the desert and their way of serving God.

In contrast, the second counting in Pinchas follows the death and plagues that struck the Jewish people for their participation in the sin of the scouts and the division of Korach. This was a new generation who would enter the land of Israel and the second census was to determine the division of the Land of Israel.

Viewed in this light, B’midbar is a book that tells the story from one counting to the next. The book is thus truly a Book of Numbers that begins and ends with countings that are representative of a sweeping change within the Jewish people. B’midbar tells the story of how we changed as a people.

In life we pass milestones and go through transitional periods. If we pay attention to these times, focusing not just on our physical but also on our spiritual existence, these moments can be great opportunities to make changes or grow as a person or community.

My community, Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, marked an important milestone last Sunday. Together as a community, we finished the writing of a newly commissioned light-weight Torah scroll and celebrated welcoming this scroll into our community. It was a truly momentous moment: as each of us - the young, the old, men and women - was given the opportunity to guide the scribe's hand in writing the final letters of the Torah, we were stirred by emotions. It was not simply the physical act of writing but the spiritual dimension of what it means to complete a Torah that made this moment so special and emotional.

Commissioning a new Torah scroll is truly a commitment to the future of Jewish life and expresses confidence in Jewish continuity: for we sincerely hope that this scroll will still be used in the future when all of us who were there on Sunday will long have departed from this world.

We welcomed this new scroll into the ark and the company of our existing Czech scrolls - scrolls which are in many ways the only living remnant of the Jewish communities of Kolin, Pilsen, Spiska Nova Ves and Trebon. The new scroll will neither replace nor diminish the importance of our Czech scrolls but because it is significantly lighter than our other scrolls it will allow many more members to accept the mitzvah of hagbah, of lifting the scroll, so that our Torah service will become fully accessible to all.

Just as the two verses in Parashat Bahaalotecha, which are bracketed in the Torah by upside down nuns, marks a turning point for the Israelites, so too does the welcoming of a new Torah scroll mark a turning point in the history of NPLS. Of course, we will remain committed to preserving our heritage, which has been the source of our strength in the first 50 years of our community, but as we embark on the next 50 years we also look to the future: that we may play an active role in developing a Judaism that strives to be forward-looking, inclusive, accessible and most importantly joyous and filled with meaning.