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

May 22, 2020 | Lawrence Kaplan
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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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