Basic Training by the (Book of) Numbers

Basic Training by the (Book of) Numbers

By: William Jackson

This week we are in Torah portion 34 which is called Bemidbar (in the wilderness). This also marks the start of a new book, the Book of Numbers. In this book the people are numbered and preparations are made for resuming their march. Although Exodus and Leviticus cover a period of only one year, Numbers cover a span of thirty eight year (1). So why so much time in the desert? We will attempt to answer that here.

Our History and Israel’s History:

We can draw from our own history as Americans to understand the Book of Numbers. About 75 years ago, when we entered Word War II, our ranking as a military power was about 17 (2). Our enemy, a more seasoned German Army, was number 1. So we recruited an army and filled it with country boys and “City Slickers” then homogenized them into a fighting force. This did not happen overnight. It took at least 2 ½ years of training and failures until we became capable enough to invade Fortress Europe (D-Day). Within a year after storming Normandy Beach, our newly established Army, along with the allied forces, defeated Germany on her own playing ground. The ancient lessons taught in Numbers replicate not only part of our own history but it portrays are own personal “life lessons” when pursuing a relationship with HaShem.

The people were not ready:

When Pharaoh released the Israelites and the mixed multitudes from Egypt they were destined for Mount Sinai. Why not take the coastal route? It was not only faster, it was scenic (3). No, instead HaShem took the Israelites the long way. Adonai’s reasoning was that the Philistines would be on the coastal route. He felt that “…the people (Israelites), upon seeing war, might change their minds and return to Egypt.”, (Exodus 13:17). You see, these newly freed slaves were certainly not of warrior stock, well at least not yet. Exodus teaches us about the beginning of Israel’s freedom and the receiving of the Commandments. The next book, the book of Leviticus, gives us finite detail on HaShem’s Festivals, Temple Services and Laws (4). Now with the Jews set free and being issued HaShem’s decrees they were ready to be organized and enter into the Promise Land. Thus we have the book of Numbers.

Life Lesson: In our own lives sometimes we are not ready for the easy road. The beginning of our journey towards HaShem is usually marked by our struggle to break away from the world. In our early stages, we start to learn His expectations for us and begin to try to understand His law.

The people needed to get organized:

In basic training they teach you attention to detail, marching and knowing the maximum range of an excuse…“Zero Meters, Drill Sergeant!” but none of these tasks directly teach us how to win on the battlefield. What they actually do is establish within ourselves a certain mindset that will help secure victory. Numbers 1:1-10:10 is all about establishing a winning attitude and getting organized:

  • Inventorying Personnel for Military Service
  • Organizing and purifying the Camps
  • Establishing Duties and Responsibilities
  • Communications(Fiery Cloud and Silver Trumpets)

Life Lessons: When your new in your faith you can blame a lot on ignorance, but there is that point you know you need to step up your walk. We begin to do things that grow us closer to Him (studying, worshiping, praying…) and we commit to making life style changes to be set apart. None of this happens overnight. It doesn’t just take years, it takes a lifetime.

An Attitude Problem:

The peopled grumbled against Moses, (Exodus 15:24, 16:2, 17:3), but, as Moses puts it, their complaints were not against him they were against HaShem (Exodus 16:7-9, 12). HaShem acknowledges this in Numbers 14:26-27. Some of the things that the Israelites suffered a poor attitude over were,

As we study these events, the issue wasn’t the complaining specifically. It was the lack of appreciation for Hashem. It would be like letting somebody borrow money again and again, and that person never appreciating it. You see, it’s not really about griping, it’s about narcissism or being so self-centered you cannot get outside of yourself. Many times when we see HaShem help out the Israelites it comes with a conditional punishment (Numbers 11:33 and 20:12). If we study out these events, it’s pretty clear that these complaints came with a lack of gratitude towards Hashem.

Life Lesson: In our prayer and in our walk we always need to make our gratitude towards HaShem more prevalent than our wants from Him. If we are a “complainer” or possess a negative attitude this gives a stronger testimony as to where we are at verses what we say.

A Renewed Generation takes the Promise Land:

Our Army that was defeated at Pearl Harbor was not exactly the same Army that secured victory in Europe 3 ½ years later. As with the Israelites there was a lot of growth and purging from their ranks. HaShem even tells the Israelites that everybody older than 20 (accept Caleb and Joshua, Numbers 14:30) would not make it into the Promise Land (Numbers 14:26-35). This was because of their defiance, and that included Moses (Numbers 20:12).

Life Lesson: Look where your at now on your journey and where you were at before. It is good to acknowledge our progress but once we think we have arrived we have really just chosen a new place to get stuck. The two methods for success are an active relationship with HaShem (prayer, worship, study…etc) and true humility.


Numbers ends with Moses handing his reigns of command over to Joshua, this is all orchestrated by HaShem (Numbers 34:16-17). It does seem heartless to see this “out with the old and in with the new” mentality, but for every time there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1 – 3:22). So metaphorically, shouldn’t we be asking for a “changing of the guard” when it comes to our hearts? Actually the answer is in Ezekiel 11:19-20, 36:26, and Psalm 51:12 where we are to pray for a new spirit and a new heart.


(1) By Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Book of Numbers, My Jewish Learning

(2) By COL John T Nelson II, (February 1993), General George C. Marshall: Strategic Leadership and the Challenges of Reconstituting the Army, 1939-41

(3) B.1.a, David Guzik’s Commentaries on the Bible

(4) By Rabbi Mordechai Becher, Overview of the Entire Torah,