In the Book of Numbers, a Prototype for the Two Sides of Jewish Peoplehood

This Sabbath’s Torah reading of Bamidbar consists of the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, which begins and ends with God commanding Moses to take a census of the Jewish people. To the great 11th-century commentator Rashi, the repeated counting of the Israelites is an expression of God’s love; to his more literal-minded grandson Shmuel ben Meir (known as the Rashbam), it is a practical measure for a people readying to go into battle. Lawrence Kaplan argues that these two approaches are complementary:

Rashi and Rashbam . . . are focusing on different aspects of Jewish peoplehood. For the nature of Jewish existence is twofold. On the one hand, as Rashi notes, the Jewish people is an am s’gulah [“a treasured nation”] with a unique spiritual relationship with God; on the other hand, as Rashbam notes, the Jewish people is a concrete people, living in time, space, and history, and, as such it has to take into account realistic political and military considerations.

This Friday we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, [the anniversary of Israel’s liberation of Jerusalem from Jordanian rule]. If there is anything which embodies these two aspects of Jewish peoplehood, it is Jerusalem. On the one hand, as is very well known, Jerusalem is ir ha-kodesh, the Holy City—or, perhaps better, the city of the holy sanctuary. On the other hand, as is perhaps less well known, Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

Throughout our history both these aspects of Jewish peoplehood have coexisted together in an indissoluble unity, but at times the sacral-spiritual aspect came to the fore, at times the political-national aspect.

[In the book of Numbers, which tells the story of] the Israelites wandering in the desert, . . . subsisting on manna from heaven and watched over in a supernatural way by God’s divine providence, the purely religious aspect of Jewish peoplehood was dominant, in accordance with Rashi’s emphasis. [But] when they entered into the Land of Israel, where God’s divine providence watched over them in a natural way, perhaps then the political-national aspect became dominant, in accordance with the emphasis of the Rashbam.

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem, Judaism, Numbers


Why Egypt Fears an Israeli Victory in Gaza

While the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has never been friendly to Hamas, his government has objected strenuously to the Israeli campaign in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Haisam Hassanein explains why:

Cairo has long been playing a double game, holding Hamas terrorists near while simultaneously trying to appear helpful to the United States and Israel. Israel taking control of Rafah threatens Egypt’s ability to exploit the chaos in Gaza, both to generate profits for regime insiders and so Cairo can pose as an indispensable mediator and preserve access to U.S. money and arms.

Egyptian security officials have looked the other way while Hamas and other Palestinian militants dug tunnels on the Egyptian-Gaza border. That gave Cairo the ability to use the situation in Gaza as a tool for regional influence and to ensure Egypt’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be eclipsed by regional competitors such as Qatar and Turkey.

Some elements close to the Sisi regime have benefited from Hamas control over Gaza and the Rafah crossing. Media reports indicate an Egyptian company run by one of Sisi’s close allies is making hundreds of millions of dollars by taxing Gazans fleeing the current conflict.

Moreover, writes Judith Miller, the Gaza war has been a godsend to the entire Egyptian economy, which was in dire straits last fall. Since October 7, the International Monetary Fund has given the country a much-needed injection of cash, since the U.S. and other Western countries believe it is a necessary intermediary and stabilizing force. Cairo therefore sees the continuation of the war, rather than an Israeli victory, as most desirable. Hassanein concludes:

Adding to its financial incentive, the Sisi regime views the Rafah crossing as a crucial card in preserving Cairo’s regional standing. Holding it increases Egypt’s relevance to countries that want to send aid to the Palestinians and ensures Washington stays quiet about Egypt’s gross human-rights violations so it can maintain a stable flow of U.S. assistance and weaponry. . . . No serious effort to turn the page on Hamas will yield the desired results without cutting this umbilical cord between the Sisi regime and Hamas.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza War 2023, U.S. Foreign policy