The name of the Book of Numbers in Hebrew is not Numbers but Bamidbar – also Bamidbar is the name of the first Torah reading of the Book of Bamidbar or Numbers. The English name Numbers is based upon the census taken of the Israelites, which is described at the beginning of the book. The word Bamidbar (במדבר) means “in the wilderness” and appears in the opening verse of the Book and weekly Torah reading Bamidbar – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…” (Numbers 1, 1). The Book of Bamidbar recounts events during the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness after Sinai until their arrival to the plains of Moab (to the east of Israel) prior to the Israelites entering the land of Israel. This history of the Israelites in the wilderness is an important aspect of Judaism as a religion – and, is the formative period of Judaism as a religion.
Traditional Judaism is a religion in a completely different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in the sense of a faith commitment – faith not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers, and one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents. That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular, non-believing Christian.
By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion not in the sense of a faith commitment but in the sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people – not faith in God nor any other faith commitment defines one as a Jew, and among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. What defines one as a Jew is not a faith commitment nor a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and what unites Jews is not a faith commitment nor a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but being part of a people with a shared history, language (Hebrew), national homeland (Israel) and culture or way of life (and in speaking of Judaism as a culture I am speaking not only of a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but also secular Jewish culture, such as Israeli folk dancing, which is not a part of traditional Jewish law or ritual but is an expression of a larger Jewish culture).
Thus, there are two elements of Judaism as a religion – Judaism as a way of life (religion-culture) and Jewish peoplehood. These two elements are reflected in the Biblical conception in two religious covenants between God and the Jewish people, according to the Biblical account. The first is the covenant between God and Abraham. There are two important features characteristic of the covenant with Abraham – Abraham is to be the spiritual father of the people Israel (the Jewish people), and the Jewish people are to inherit the land of Israel. The sign of the covenant of Abraham is circumcision – “And I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your seed after you…every male child among you shall be circumcised…and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17, 7-11).
The second is the covenant between God and Moses. The characteristic feature of the covenant with Moses is the receiving of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) on Mount Sinai representing the birth of Judaism as a religion. To be accurate, the Five Books of Moses do not describe the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as being given on Mount Sinai. Rather, according to the Torah, the tablets containing the so called ten commandments (the Torah and the Talmudic rabbis use the term ten statements) and other mitzvot (commandments) were given on Mount Sinai. Yet, nowhere in the Five Books of Moses is it written explicitly that the entire Torah as a written document came from Sinai. However, according to Jewish tradition, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is regarded as given on Sinai; and is the legal constitution, and a source of moral and spiritual guidance, of the Jewish people. The main sign of the covenant of Moses is the Sabbath – “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying speak to the children of Israel saying, you shall surely keep My Sabbaths for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31, 12-13).
The receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai does not represent the birth of the Jewish people, but the birth of the Jewish religion – and is celebrated on Shavuot. Although Abraham is the spiritual father of the Jewish people, the birth of the Jewish people occurs with the exodus of the people Israel from slavery in Egypt – and is celebrated on Passover. These two historical events, the exodus from slavery in Egypt and the receiving of the Torah (the tablets and other commandments) on Mount Sinai, are the two great and defining historical events of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the Jewish tradition in representing the birth of the Jewish people and the birth of the Jewish religion. Judaism as a religion then includes both of these elements of peoplehood and religion-culture.
The Book of Numbers then recounts earliest Israelite history following these two great and defining historical events of the exodus and Sinai leading up to the Israelites arriving to the land of Moab prior to entering the land of Israel. Most significant, the land of Israel is an integral part of the Jewish religion. The covenant of Abraham symbolizing that Judaism is belonging to a people also includes the land of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, as a nation cannot generally exist without a national homeland (the survival of the Jewish people for over two thousand years without our national homeland is an exception to the general laws of history). Judaism then is a religion in the sense of a way of life that is intended to be lived in the land of Israel. The Talmud makes a remarkable statement in regard to the importance of the land of Israel (Ketubot 110b):
Our rabbis taught: One should always live in the land of Israel, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are idolaters, but let no one live outside the land, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are Israelites; for whoever lives in the land of Israel may be considered to have a God, but whoever lives outside the land may be regarded as one who has no God. For it is said in Scripture, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. Has he, then, who does not live in the land, no God? But, to tell you, that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols.
This is a truly remarkable Talmudic statement according to which it is preferable to live a secular lifestyle not observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice in the land of Israel than to live an observant lifestyle of law and traditional ritual practice outside the land of Israel – as, shockingly, one who lives outside the land of Israel is considered an idol worshipper clearly implying even if such a person lives an observant lifestyle (and believes in the existence of God). A traditional Jew observant of Jewish law and ritual practice who lives outside the land of Israel is living in two cultures with divided loyalties – by contrast, a secular Jew living in the land of Israel within a Jewish culture is not plagued by divided loyalties even if not observant of Jewish law and ritual practice.
There is also a midrash (commentary) of the Talmudic rabbis in which according to the midrash God says: “Even though I am about to exile you from the Land (of Israel) to a foreign land, you must continue to be marked there by the commandments, so that when you return they will not be new to you”. According to the midrash, the observance of commandments outside the land of Israel is not obligatory; and, is only for the sake of practice for when we return from exile to live as a nation in our homeland. I am reminded of a secular Israeli who I heard argue that living an observant lifestyle in Israel is unnecessary for her as her Jewish identity is expressed by living in the land of Israel where she is constantly aware of her Jewishness without the need to observe a traditional lifestyle – and that were she to live outside of Israel she would then perhaps feel a need to observe a traditional lifestyle as an expression of Jewish identity. The conception of the midrash is exactly the opposite – a traditional lifestyle is not obligatory outside the land of Israel and outside the land a traditional lifestyle is only a preparation for our returning to our homeland to establish our own Jewish culture and way of life in our homeland. Our Jewish identity in establishing our own Jewish culture as a nation in our homeland is most importantly expressed by our traditional lifestyle of law and ritual practice.
Judaism then cannot truly be practiced outside the land of Israel without distorting the very nature of Judaism – as the land of Israel is an integral part of Judaism as a culture and way of life of a particular people with a particular language, land and history. In the beginning of the 20th century when the Zionist movement had just arisen, which was in large part a secular movement, the British offered land in East Africa (the Uganda plan) as a refuge for the Jewish people from persecution and anti-Semitism. The offer was rejected even by secular Jews who understood that Judaism is a culture and way of life of the Jewish people. Could it really be imagined that there would be a Jewish state in East Africa? How could such a state function as a state of the Jewish people when the history and culture of the Jewish people has been so intimately linked to our ancestral homeland, the land of Israel (even when the great majority of the Jewish people were living in exile outside of our homeland following the Roman expulsion until the establishment of the modern state of Israel)? Christianity can be adopted as a religion outside the land of Israel, the birthplace of Christianity, without any problem because Christianity is a universal religion in the sense of a faith commitment, and such a faith commitment is not dependent in any way upon living in any particular land. However, Judaism is a religion in the sense of a way of life of the Jewish people and nation – a way of life that can truly only be lived in our ancestral and national homeland in which we speak our ancestral language.
Yet, shockingly, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) ends with the Israelites in the plains of Moab outside the land of Israel raising the question as to why the Torah should not have been six books including the Book of Joshua recounting the entering of the land of Israel by the Israelites – especially considering that the land of Israel is such an integral part of Judaism as a religion in the sense of a culture of the Jewish people. In my view, the reason that the Torah is composed of only five books and ends prior to the people Israel entering the land of Israel is to teach us that in spite of the great importance of the land of Israel as our national homeland, the Jewish religion is nevertheless not dependent upon our possessing our homeland as a people – and, indeed, we managed to survive as a people for some two thousand years after the Roman expulsion until the establishment of the modern state of Israel. This is clearly not an ideal situation to be without our national homeland – but, it is possible for us to survive without possessing our homeland.
Thus, even though Judaism is a religion in the sense of a way of life of the Jewish people and the land of Israel is an integral part of our religion, nevertheless the Jewish religion is independent of possessing our national homeland of the Jewish people. The birthplace of the Jewish people was outside the land of Israel in the land of Egypt, and the birthplace of our religion was outside the land of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai.