Bamidbar: To Teach Torah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Bamidbar / Shavuot 

“These are the descendants of Moshe and Aharon on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:1)


This weekend we have the unusual circumstance of the holiday of Shavuot  falling immediately after Shabbat and falling over the two days of the Memorial Day long weekend. The theme of the Torah portion is counting and organizing the Jewish people for their long journey to the Land of Israel; there is a census and each tribe is set in a certain place in the camp. After a general census by tribe, and a reporting of the numbers, the descendants of Aharon are named as priests, and the tribe of Levi is set apart for religious service, and some of their duties are enumerated. 

Our friend Rashi points out a glaring problem in the verse above: the sons named were not, in fact, the descendants of Moshe and Aaron, but only of Aaron, the High Priest. Rashi then goes on to make a point which indirectly links our Torah portion to the upcoming holiday, the remembrance of the giving of the Torah: 

“But only the sons of Aharon were mentioned! They are called descendants of Moshe because he taught them Torah. This shows that whoever teaches another person’s child Torah, it’s just as if they were your own child.” 

On Shavuot, we recall the centrality of Torah, in all of its manifestations, to the life of the Jewish people, but here Rashi is saying something about the power of Torah for individuals. When we share the deepest principles of our life, we give birth to something real and important in the world. Who among us has not had a mentor, teacher or role model who has profoundly affected the course of our character development? We teach Torah by the way we live, as well as by sharing knowledge. I know in my own life, I would not be a deeply practicing Jew- and never mind a Conservative rabbi- were it not for the teachers of Torah who showed me the possibility of a joyful Jewish life. 

Torah is not a history book that recounts the past, nor is it esoteric knowledge reserved for a few. It’s a text which only matters when it becomes a conversation- a conversation between its students from across the ages as well as across a table today. That greater sense of Torah, rooted in the most basic questions of how we shall live and for what purpose, is what’s so precious and important to share. When we bring people into a Torah-rooted conversation about the very purpose of life itself, we change lives, and by changing lives, we change the world. That’s what Rashi means when he says that Aharon’s sons were like Moshe’s sons because he taught them Torah- it means that Moshe, through his example of a covenanted life, changed the lives of those around him. 

Such is the challenge before each of us- to become exemplars of a holy striving, to be teachers of Torah through all our ways. 

Shabbat Shalom, and a happy holiday to all, 


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