By Israel Drazin
The following are some thoughts on the biblical portion Bemidbar, Numbers 1:1 to 4:20. Each shows problems with traditions.
This fourth biblical book is named after the first significant word in the first chapter, Bemidbar. However most people call the book Bamidbar, which is a corruption of the true name. The use of Bamidbar most likely began when rabbis who taught in yeshivot, higher schools of learning, used this incorrect name. This is not a unique situation, these rabbis also improperly called midrash “medrish.” They also incorrectly used the phrase “the medrish says” even though there is no single version of the midrash, there are many different midrashim, and usually every midrash differs with others even when they address the same law or story. Thus when a congregation hears its rabbi saying “the medrish says,” they should realize that the rabbi is focusing on only one of perhaps many different versions, and the other versions may not support his view.
Why were the Levites selected to serve in the tabernacle in place of first-born Israelites (3:41)? The traditional view, which is in the commentary of Rashi, is that originally first-born males represented the people and offered sacrifices. However, they were involved in worshiping the golden calf and were punished by losing their religious role, which was transferred to the Levites who didn’t participate in the worship. There are many problems with this answer. There is no indication in the Torah that first-borns ever had this role. It is inconceivable that every first-born worshipped the calf. It is equally inconceivable that no Levite joined the worship. Furthermore, assuming first-borns had the religious function, why should future first-borns be excluded from the service because first-born of a particular generation worshipped an idol? The book Judges (chapter 17) tells the tale of a Levite who worshipped an idol and this didn’t cause other Levites to lose the religious function.
Every letter of the Hebrew word for “and Aaron” in verse 3:39 has a dot placed over it by the Masorites who functioned during the second half of the first millennium CE. They commented on the Torah text by doing various things. Why did they place dots over the letters of “and Aaron”? There are two answers. Those who feel that the Torah was miraculously error free even though it had been copied by hand many times over a millennium feel that every letter in the Torah is exactly what God revealed to Moses. They say that the Masorites placed dots over words to highlight that the word contains an important lesson, but we no longer know what this lesson is. Others recognized that errors crept into the Torah because of human fallibility while scribes copied the text. They say Masorites placed dots over words when they felt there was a mistake. They did not want to tamper with Torah wording and correct it, but felt an obligation to indicate the error. In this case, God had instructed Moses, and only Moses to count the people, as indicated in 3:16. Thus when 3:39 states “whom Moses and Aaron numbered [the Israelites] at the command of the Lord,” it appears that “and Aaron” is a scribal error.