Parashat Bamidbar – Census and Separation

וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת


Sefer Bamidbar begins with a listing of all of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael and their count, followed immediately by the formation of the camp, which includes all of the counts all over again. In both these lists the absence of the Tribe of Levi is glaring. The reason for this is simple: the Levi’im do not go to war, so they get only a quick mention in each list. Thus, in these first two lists of Bnei Yisrael, the Tribe of Levi gets sidelined. After the listing of the war-camps however, the Torah returns to the Tribe of Levi in order to describe all of its families, along with their jobs and counts. In all of these lists, one element is strikingly out of place. The beginning of the listing of the Levi’im starts out with the Kohanim, Aharon and his sons, and it not only mentions Nadav and Avihu, but also their crime.

And Nadav and Avihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of Aaron their father (Bamidbar 3:4).[1]

In a list of all the Levi’im, it makes sense to include Nadav and Avihu, and to say that they died with no children to succeed them, but it is odd to include a mention of the crime for which they died. It seems a little out of place, and it certainly would not be missed if it was absent. However, looking at this line in the broader context of the first few chapters of Sefer Bamidar points out a theme not only in these chapters, but in Sefer Bamidbar as a whole.

The pasuk says that Nadav and Avihu died because they “offered strange fire before the Lord.” The word used here for “strange” is “זרה”. This word recalls to the reader the other times this word is used in this context:

“And when the tabernacle sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the common man (זר) that draws near shall be put to death.” (Bamidbar 1:51).

“And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, that they may keep their priesthood; and the common man (זר) that draws near shall be put to death.” (3:10).

“And those that were to pitch [their tents] before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, were Moses, and Aaron and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary, even the charge for the children of Israel; and the common man (זר) that drew near was to be put to death.” (3:38).

Beyond the connection in terms of word-choice, the parallel here is obvious. Just as Nadav and Avihu died because they came improperly before ‘א, so too if a commoner comes improperly before ‘א they shall die.

To the modern ear, the distinction between the Levi’im and the common Israelites seems at best arbitrary, at worst immoral. The idea of castes and classes seems like a problem in need of solving, the kind of thing civilized man left in the long-forgotten past. However, much of Sefer Bamidbar is a discussion of these kinds of issues. Is it really true that all men are created equal? And if that is true, does that mean that all people are meant to do exactly the same thing, or do some people perhaps have different jobs? What is the relationship between the function and value of an individual person or group? These are the kind of questions tackled by the various narratives of Sefer Bamidbar.

Perhaps the best example of this can be found by continuing to trace the appearances of the word “זר” to it’s appearances in Bamidbar 17 & 18. These chapters come on the heels of the rebellion of Korah, a Levi who decided that the nation shouldn’t be ruled by any one or two individuals. Korah’s perspective strikes a chord with modern democratic sensibilities, especially in his bold statement, “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them,” (16:3). However, he and his followers are rejected, and Moshe berates them for thinking that importance is determined by hierarchy (16:9). In the wake of this rebellion, not only are the laws of the Kohanim reiterated and the prohibition for a common Israelite to come improperly before ‘א reinforced (18:4, 7), but they take the consecration fire-pans of Korah’s rebellion and make them into a covering for the alter “to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no common man, that is not of the seed of Aaron, draw near to burn incense before the LORD; that he fare not as Korah, and as his company; as the LORD spoke unto him by the hand of Moses,” (17:5). In the wake of the rebellion of Korah, not only do the laws differentiating between the various groups of Israelites need to be reiterated, the nation needs a permanent memorial to remind them of this eternally.

A more in depth analysis of each of the issues mentioned above is beyond the scope of this paper, but perhaps a simple explanation of the issue of the classes can be found in looking back to the sin of Nadav and Avihu, not in it’s brief mention in Bamidbar, but in its original version in Sefer Vayikra. Vayikra 10:1 reads, “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.” While this is very similar to the quotation from Bamidbar 3:4, it adds one important detail: that ‘א had not commanded their offering. With this in mind, it is clear that what makes something “זר” is not some innate quality, but the word of ‘א. The differentiations between the Israelites, the Levi’im, and the Kohanim are not a function of innate differences between the groups, but rather of ‘א’s decision. And as can be seen from Moshe’s response to Korah (16:9), this differentiation is a matter of function only. It doesn’t make any one group better or more important than any other, and thinking that it does is a rejection of ‘א’s distinctions. It is this purpose, not an external signifier like serving in the Mishkan, that makes a person or group important. Perhaps this is why Sefer Bamidbar starts not with the census of the Levi’im, but with that of the rest of Bnei Yisrael. The census counted each individual person and family and tribe, for each of them had its own unique purpose, and was just as important as every other.[2] This is what is highlighted by the mentioning of the sin of Nadav and Avihu in Bamidbar 3:4, that the issue of the זר who approaches the Mishkan isn’t classes or castes, it’s about the unique purpose ‘א designates for each and every individual.

[1] Translations from, with minor emendations for clarity.

[2] Ramban, Bamidbar 1:45


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s