The Holy Numbers Game
The Netziv has a masterful commentary at the start of Sefer Bamidbar:
According to Rabbi Chanina Ben Gamliel (Sotah 36a-36b), the more accurate title for Sefer Bamidbar is not the literal translation, “in the wilderness” but rather, “The Book of Numbers.” This is also the view of the Ba’al Halachot Gedolot. These so-called “Numbers” refer to the census of the people in Chapter 1 and the parallel count taken towards the end of the sefer.
However, both the choice of the name and the rationale behind it seem strange to say the least. There are so many significant events in Bamidbar – the spies, Korach’s rebellion, Bilaam’s attempted curses, etc. Why would Chazal prefer to name the sefer after two very similar events that appear to be a matter of sheer mundane bureaucracy?
A record of the population is obviously necessary at the beginning of the sefer with the establishment of Machane Yisrael and towards the end when the Land is about to be divided proportionately. But surely this is not the essence of the book of Bamidbar?
So why did our holy scholars adopt this title?
In order to answer our question we must first understand the significance of the two counts.
We could suggest the most distinctive aspect of Bamidbar deals with the developing relationship between Am Yisrael and the Almighty. As we know, there was initially one type of relationship in the wilderness. As time passed, this reality altered considerably, and we experience a very different sort of affiliation as the people enter Eretz Yisrael.
Life in the desert was a miraculous experience. The staple diet was manna from Heaven; the people were led by a Cloud of Glory and they drank from a limitless well. In stark contrast, when Am Yisrael eventually entered the Promised Land, they encountered a reality completely unlike anything they had experienced over the last 40 years. They certainly benefited from Divine Providence, but it was the Almighty acting through Nature, as opposed to the overt supernatural revelation of those glorious wilderness years.
This change already began while the people were still in the midbar, in the 40th year, during Parashat Chukat. Hence, the wars with the Canaanites and with Sichon the Emorite King were naturally fought; they were devoid of any obvious miraculous intervention. The ever-present “staff” was no longer there to save the day.
The Midrash comments on this transforming relationship between the Almighty and Am Yisrael:
“And God divided the light from the darkness” (Bereishit, 1:4). This refers to the book of Bamidbar where there is a clear distinction between the relationship between God and those who initially left Egypt in contrast to the bond with the people who were about to enter Eretz Yisrael. The former connection was an association reflecting clear revelation – aptly denoted as light – whereas the latter affiliation reflects a less overt and more subtle bond signified by the notion of darkness.”
Bamidbar is called the “Book of Numbers” because it is the two population counts that most suitably mirror this emphatic change in Am Yisrael’s daily reality and their eternal relationship with the Almighty.
When the people were initially counted, they were divided into four groups of three surrounding the Tabernacle, symbolizing ‘Ministering Angels’ accompanying the Chariot of God. Indeed, as the people journey through the wilderness they are almost ‘physically’ attached to the Almighty, enjoying unfiltered holiness emanating from the original source. However, the reality is quite different when the people are counted towards the end of the sefer. They are no longer going to be attached to the Mishkan. They are to enter Israel as a conquering army, albeit behind the Holy Ark, but nonetheless with their feet very much on the ground.
Chazal wanted to emphasize this significant transformation and they chose to do so by accentuating these two censuses.
It is important to note that this change was not idyllic. Neither did the Almighty necessarily encourage it.
The Gemara explains that Sefer Bamidbar is divided into three distinct parts:
(1) Bamidbar, 1:1 –10:34 – Final preparations for Machane Yisrael, its structure, and travel instructions.
(2) Chapter 10: 35-36 – “And it came to pass when the Ark set forward…”
(3) Chapters 11-36 – Details of the 40 years in the wilderness.
As we mentioned in our introduction, we are still preparing to move during the initial chapters of the sefer. The two-verse middle section denotes the initial moving and the third larger section – 25 chapters – describes the reality.
Indeed, matters begin to seriously deteriorate in the third section.
As the people set off together with the Mishkan on their final stage of their journey to Eretz Yisrael, they were comparable to Ministering Angels accompanying the Almighty in His Chariot. The advantages of such closeness are clear but there are severe risks involved as well.
The nearer one is to the ultimate source of holiness the greater the expectation, and the more severe the punishment if and when you fail. Hence, immediately upon entering the third section, the people are relentlessly punished for not succeeding in upholding the religious standards of those so close to the King.
As each episode develops, Am Yisrael slowly but surely arrive at the conclusion that they are simply unable to behave accordingly, however wonderful it is to be so close to the Almighty. So they progressively decide to move further away from the direct influence of the Shechina in order to succeed in their mission. As they move away from this status of immediacy they also move away from the supernatural form of life towards a more natural routine.
The Netziv is consistent with this thesis throughout Sefer Bamidbar and refers us to this phenomenon on a number of occasions when explaining particular episodes.
For example, at the start of Parashat Shelach, he indicates that had the people chosen to remain on the supernatural path they would have never contemplated sending spies. However, by deciding to send this scouting party, Am Yisrael were indicating they had now decided to opt for a more distant relationship. They knew such a decision would remove them from their supernatural existence and they accordingly prepared themselves for entry by sending spies.
Similarly, the Netziv explains the extreme reaction of the people in the aftermath of Miriam’s passing. They suddenly found themselves in the desert without water and so they turn on Moshe in rebellion. One would have expected them to have at least minimal trust in their leader and in God after 40 years in the wilderness, so what prompted their severe reaction?
He explains the Almighty had already begun to acclimatize the people to their new reality in the last year in the desert. Supernatural occurrences were becoming few and far between, and so when water was lacking the people had to get used to the fact it would not just appear. And hence the panic.
And when the Almighty tells Moshe to gather the people and “speak to the rock,” He is explaining to Moshe and Aharon how to educate the people for the future. When there is drought, the people must be taught to ‘speak;’ to pray, to turn to the Almighty. If they are sincere, He will answer and bring them rain. This rock would once again produce water just as it had done for the last 40 years, but only after prayer and repentance.
Despite this, Moshe is still told to take his staff, because Am Yisrael stand precariously between the two realities. If their tefillot are unsuccessful, he could always fall back on the miraculous option. However, in contrast to God’s instruction, Moshe and Aharon do not initially attempt to educate the people to pray. They opt for the miraculous path straight away by hitting the rock. And by doing so, they disqualify themselves from the leadership of the people in Eretz Yisrael. The people had chosen to live naturally under Divine Providence in the Land of Israel. They needed leaders who would help them attain that goal, not leaders who would revert to the miraculous option in a natural reality.
We could perhaps confirm this enthralling thesis even earlier in the relationship between the Almighty and Am Yisrael, from both sides of the connection:
At Har Sinai, the people are in total awe of the Almighty and request that Moshe Rabbeinu acts as mediator. They were simply too frightened to continue Kabbalat HaTorah directly.
Interestingly enough, this also seems to be the Almighty’s suggestion after the Golden Calf, where it becomes very obvious the people are not ready for a direct relationship with Hashem. God consequently suggests to Moshe that He will send an Angel as a go-between. In this instance, the people are shocked and saddened by such a suggestion. But Hashem explains to Moshe that if they insist on such a close relationship whilst continuing to sin they will end up being destroyed. Nevertheless, Hashem relents at the joint request of Moshe and the people.
In conclusion, we see our relationship with the Almighty can work on two very different plains. The highest, almost angelic level will provide us with as close an affiliation as possible with Him. However, one would need to be almost perfect to endure such a reality. Which gives us another insight into the greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu, who lived at least 40 years of his life in this manner.
On the other hand, for those of us who cannot emulate Moshe Rabbeinu, there is an option of being slightly more detached from the source, whilst still being close to the Almighty through Divine Providence in the natural world.
As a people entering Eretz Yisrael, we wholly adopted the second and perhaps more plausible option. Maybe this is the only option for a people en masse to succeed in the spiritual realm over a long period of time.
As individuals, we are inspired by the knowledge that Hashem, the ultimate educator, will affiliate with Am Yisrael on a number of levels, depending on what is good for the people at any given time. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties involved, we are still required to constantly aim for that ultimate holiness, so that once again we may become an integral part of the Almighty’s Chariot.
 What follows is more an explanation rather than a literal translation.
 Bamidbar, 26.
 Bamidbar, 21:1-3.
 Ibid, 21-35.
 Bereishit Rabba, Parsha 3:5.
 Shabbat 116a.
 Bamidbar, 13:2.
 Even though the opening words to Parashat Shelach seemingly imply the spies were sent on Moshe Rabbeinu’s initiative, it becomes clear that Moshe’s instruction was in fact in response to an earlier approach from the people – see Devarim, 1:22.
 Bamidbar, 20:5-12.
 See Shemot, 20: 14-17.
 See Shemot, 33.