Bamidbar: The Presence of Absence

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

“These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadav, the first-born, and Avihu, Eleazar and Ithamar;  those were the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests who were ordained for priesthood. But Nadav and Avihu died. . . . . . ”  (Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:2-4)

Good afternoon!

This week we begin the book of Bamidbar, which opens up with the Israelites in the desert (“Bamidbar” literally means “in the wilderness”) organizing themselves by tribe and clan, in order to travel from Sinai to the Promised Land. Moshe and Aharon choose men from each tribe to take a head count, and then arrange the tribes in the camp, with the Mishkan [sanctuary] in the center.

The Levites are not counted and arranged in the same way, because they have the responsibility of setting up and maintaining the Mishkan, but right before these duties are enumerated, we are reminded that among the general duties of the Levites is assisting the priests, who were the direct descendants of Aharon. This passage begins with the verse above, which mentions not only the living sons of Aharon, Eleazar and Itamar, but also the ones who died, Nadav and Avihu. (Cf. Vayikra 10.)

It strikes me, on this Shabbat before Memorial Day, that sometimes absence is as present as presence. The whole Torah portion is all about acknowledging the living: what tribe, where they camp, who can serve in the army, who has which religious duties. Yet smack dab in the middle of all this arranging, we are reminded of Nadav and Avihu, whose absence looms large when the line of the priesthood is named. Like the empty chair at the family feast, we can’t help but notice who is there, and who is missed, among Aharon’s sons, designated for religious leadership. As the sons are named, it is an inescapable truth: Aharon had 4 sons, all of whose names are equal, all of whom are equally alive in the consciousness of those who knew them and hoped for their future.

The palpable, felt presence of those gone is hardly an ancient phenomenon. The United States has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years, and families all across the country are feeling the presence of their loved ones who will not return. In the larger Jewish community, the Jewish War Veterans has asked that synagogues read the names of the the Jewish soldiers who have died in those wars, on this Shabbat before Memorial Day. We’ll do that here in Poughkeepsie, but if you’d like to see the list, you can find it here.

For those of us living in the United States, this Memorial Day can be more than just a time for sales and barbeque. Our country has been at war for a long time, and more than six thousand men and women have died, along with coalition forces and civilian casualties. The absence of those lost is keenly felt by our neighbors and fellow citizens, friends, family and comrades of those who died. Shall we not try to remember their names, even for just a few moments this Memorial Day, just as the Israelites remembered the names of the sons of Aharon?

A good and reflective Memorial Day and a Shabbat Shalom to all,

Rabbi Neal


  1. Judy Young said

    I always enjoy your Torah commentary; however, I wonder if you could post it earlier in the week. I begin studying the week’s parashah on Sunday. I often miss your comments because by the time they show up in my mailbox I have turned off the computer to get ready for Shabbat. So, I just today (Sunday) picked up your comment on Bemidbar, but I’m getting ready to study Naso. Any possibility of posting earlier?

    • rabbineal said

      Hi Judy, your point is well taken. I try to get them done earlier but . . . something usually gets in the way on Friday morning or Thursday afternoon.

      It’s a goal of mine to work on these earlier in the week. Bli neder!

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