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Parashat Ba-Midbar: Ramban’s Introduction to the Book of Numbers

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May 12, 2009

In his introduction to Sefer Ba-Midbar, Ramban develops the idea that the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Mo’ed) can be seen as a continuation of Mount Sinai. He writes:

Ba-Midbar Sinai (in the Wilderness of Sinai): After having explained the laws of the offerings in the third book, He [God] now began to set forth in this book the commandments which they [the children of Israel] were told with reference to the Tent of Meeting. Now, He had already given a warning for all times about [the prohibition of] impurity relating to the Sanctuary and its holy things. Here he defined the boundaries of the Tabernacle while it was in the wilderness, just as He had set bounds for Mount Sinai when the [Divine] Glory was there (Exodus 19:12), and He commanded that the common man that approaches shall be put to death (Numbers 1:51), just as He had said there no hand shall touch him [i.e., Mount Sinai], but he shall surely be stoned (Exodus 19:13). He also commanded [here], and they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die (Numbers 4:20), just as He warned there [at Sinai], lest they break through unto the Eternal to gaze, and many of them perish (Exodus 19:21). He commanded here And you shall keep the charge of the holy things and the charge of the altar [that there be wrath no more upon the children of Israel (Numbers 18:5), just as He said there, (Exodus 19:22) And let the priests also, that come near to the Eternal, sanctify themselves, lest the Eternal break forth upon them, and let not the priests and people break through to come up unto the Eternal, lest he break forth upon them. (Exodus 19:24). Thus He commanded [here] how the Tabernacle and its vessels are to be guarded, and how they [the people] are to pitch round about it and how the people are to stand afar off, and how the priests that come near the Eternal are to treat it [the Tabernacle] when it is resting and when it is being carried [during the journeying], and how they are to guard it. Now these are all signs of distinction and honor for the Sanctuary, just as the Rabbis of blessed memory have said (Sifre Zuta: Parashat Korah. 18:4): A kings palace that has guards over it cannot be compared to palace that has no such guards. [Elsewhere Ramban adds that it is known that the term palace is a reference to the Sanctuary.]

Ramban continues and concludes that the mitzvoth mentioned in Sefer Ba-Midbar are only to be observed for a short period of time:

Now this whole book deals only with those commandments which were meant only for a particular time, being the period when the Israelites stayed in the desert, and [it  deals also] with the miracles which were done for them, in order to tell all the wondrous deeds of the Eternal which He wrought for them. It tells how he began to destroy their enemies before them by the sword, and He also commanded how the Land should be divided up amongst them. There are no commandments in this book which are binding for all times except for some commandments about the offerings which he had begun in the Book of [the Law of]Priests [i.e., Leviticus], and whose explanation was not completed there, therefore he finished them in this book.

There is a musar haskel implied in this last statement of Ramban which is simple and profound. What if we knew that we only would have forty years to live and not a minute more? What if we knew that we would only have forty years to observe the commandments of God? Wouldn’t we be especially careful to observe them punctiliously? The children of Israel, that is, the generation of the desert, knew that collectively they would have no more (and often much less) than forty years to observe certain mitzvoth, and that afterwards they would all die. Their task was to face their “inevitable appointment” with equanimity and continue to observe these temporary commandments of the desert as best as they could.

None of us knows when our own inevitable appointment will occur. Taking are cue from this Ramban, we must also strive to be God-fearing Jews during our temporary sojourn on this earth as best as we can. The “temporary mitzvoth” of the desert have a message that pertains to us all.


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