Rabbi Sacks essays on the Book of Numbers

Covenant & Conversation, Numbers: The Wilderness Years, A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Maggid Books and The Orthodox Union, Jerusalem, © 2017, ISBN 978-1-68025-294-1, p. 171, plus glossary, $14.95

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California –  World-renown rabbi and scholar Rabbi Jonathan Sacks begins with the assertion that the Book of Numbers, the fourth of the Five Books of Moses, is difficult and challenging because of its extraordinary range of genre and topics, including, narratives, laws, itineraries, and timelines. “At one moment, we are a little more than a year from Egypt. In the next we are in the fortieth year.” The stories found in the Book of Numbers seem to abruptly change their frame of reference from “Journey-from [Egypt]” to “Journey-to [the Promised Land],” and back again. Taken as a whole, Sacks perceives many of the accounts resting on the concept of freedom.

The Book of Numbers is traditionally divided into ten parashot, or weekly readings. One example is the weekly Torah reading Shelaḥ, Numbers 13:1 – 15:41. Parasha Shelaḥ tells the story of the twelve spies sent by Moses to scout the Land of Canaan and how ten of them return with a pessimistic report about the nation’s ability to conquer a land inhabited by giants living in impenetrable cities. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb convey confidence.  The Israelites, now fearful, demand a return to Egypt, and God threatens to destroy them all and start over with Moses. Moses intercedes and convinces God to avert any punishment. However, they will wander in the desert for forty years and never be permitted to enter the Promised Land.

For example, Sacks provides six essays on parasha Shelaḥ. In the first he focuses on the cause of the spies’ fearfulness. The second explores the role of time in transforming the twelve tribes into a body politic. In both of these compositions, Sacks sees the Israelites struggling with their newly won freedom. The third draws a connection between the story of the spies and the laws of tzitzit, the fringes required on the four corners of clothing. In the fourth, Sacks poses the question of what made Joshua and Caleb different from the other spies? The fifth examines Rashi’s commentary on the meaning of defensive walls in connection with Canaan’s inhabitants, and the last returns to the fulfillment of laws of tzitzit worn as inner and outer garments.

In parasha Koraḥ, Number 16:1-40, as another example, we are told the story of the rebellion against Moses by two-hundred fifty co-conspirators led by Koraḥ and their subsequent punishment by God. According to the rabbis, the cause of the rebellion was the selection of Elizaphan, son of Uzziel, as Kohen Gadol, over Koraḥ. Sacks, delving into leadership, an area of his expertise, notes in one article that in Judaism, leadership is not about ego, but service to the community, and in another he returns to the tzitzit, offering a fascinating composition in which he sets up a thought-provoking analogy between tzitzit and Koraḥ’s revolt.

Covenant & Conversation, Numbers: The Wilderness Years has a message to deliver: The Book of Numbers is saying that “time is an essential element in the long walk to freedom, and it may take more than one generation. The journey is not just a physical one. It is a psychological one.” Sacks clearly and masterfully makes his case; his exegeses and interpretations are timely, meaningful, and as always, illuminating.

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Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. His newest book is The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings. The author may be contacted via [email protected].

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