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Home » B'Midbar Parshah, Shavuot

Bamidbar: The Secret of Three

Submitted by on May 6, 2010 – 3:19 pmNo Comment | 2,755 views

Wherever You Look

As our ancestors journeyed across the desert they were arrayed in four equal groups, each composed of three tribes; the tabernacle at the center and the four groups positioned around it. The grouping of three tribes per group was practical as there were a total of twelve tribes, but we always seek the deeper meaning to Torah concepts that appear practical or literal at first blush.

As we explore the number three we note that it is a prominent number in our history. There were three patriarchs. The Jewish people are divided into three sub groups, Kohein, Levite and Israelite. The Torah is itself sub divided into three sections, Pentateuch, Prophets and Scriptures. On Passover night we eat three Matzot and Abraham was visited by three angels. The Torah was given in the third month of the year, by Moses the third child of his parents. We are clearly enamored with the number three. Let us then explore the number three on a deeper level.

One and Two

One is singularity. G-d is one. There is no room for parallel G-ds or for debate; there is only one G-d.

Two introduces distinction. You can only have two when one is different from the other. Differences introduce discord, which in turn gives rise to conflict. Two is the number of opposites. Two is also the number of finitude. One is global; it occupies all space because there is no second, whose space the one must vacate. Two are by definition finite; they are different from each other because there is a space or concept that fits one and not the other. This means that there is a point at which one ends and the other begins.

In this sense one represents G-d and two represents all else i.e. creation. Indeed, our sages taught that on the first day of creation G-d was alone in His world. On the second day, when the firmament was created to separate the upper waters from the lower, discord was introduced. (1)


Three introduces a new element; what was formerly perceived as conflict now emerges as harmonious. On the third day G-d pooled the lower waters and dry land appeared; separating water from dry land. This demonstrated that separation is not always negative; differences can also be catalysts for improvement. In this case, the separation of waters made dry land possible; a result that could not be achieved had land and water remained entwined.

On day two the differences introduced appeared to conflict with the uniformity of day one, but day InnerStream.ca Torah Insights into Life & Jewish Observancethree demonstrated that this is not always be the case. It is sometimes only through separation and distinction that the goals of uniformity are furthered. Three is thus the number of resolution and reconciliation. This then is the secret of three.


Let us take this to the next level. One represents G-d. Two represents conflict. Another way of describing two is to say that it represents creation itself. Whereas G-d was the only existence before creation He must now share space with the universe that He created, which detracts from His singularity. He is no longer completely alone; He is not longer the only play in town; there is now a universe to reckon with.

What resolves the conflict? The Torah. The Torah demonstrates that the world G-d created is not separate from its creator. All that G-d created, He created for His glory; to serve Him. (2) The universe was not intended to be apart from G-d it was intended to serve G-d’s purpose and is thus an extension of Himself. Once we note that the Torah plays the role of three by reconciling the apparent conflict, we are no longer surprised to learn that the Torah was given on the third month.

Resolving Internal Conflict

We now return to the arrangement of tribes in groups of three. The resolution between a singular G-d and a multifaceted creation applies on the macro level as well as the personal, individual level.

Among the things that G-d created some are permitted to us and some are not. To wit, some are healthy for us and some are not. In a perfect world, in a world dominated by the number one, we would behave according to ethical, ritual and health related norms and partake only of those things that are permitted by G-d and healthy for the human body. However, life is seldom perfect or simple.

We live in a convoluted world dominated by the number two, by the elements that draw us away from that which is healthy G-dly and right. Place a pacifier and a flame before an infant and she will reach for the fire. Place a carrot and a candy before a toddler and he will reach for the candy. Place a book and a game boy before a teenager and she will opt for the game boy. This does not change when we mature; place a treadmill and a TV before an adult and watch him reach for the remote. (3)

This is the one versus two or the singularity versus pluralism dilemma. In a perfect world, only permissible and healthy things exist. In an imperfect world, temptation also exists. Are the two in conflict?

Our ancestors were arrayed in groups of three to remind them that this apparent conflict can be resolved. G-d did not create the holy and unholy, the healthy and unhealthy, the permissible and forbidden so that they would conflict, but so that they would compliment each other.

His purpose in creating the forbidden, unG-dly and unhealthy was not so that we might indulge in it, but to give us an option that we could turn down. If only permissible and holy things existed, our worship would not be of our own volition; what choice would we have? Now that a dizzying array of choices exists, what’s more, the unhealthy and the forbidden is more appetizing than the healthy and permitted, we truly have a choice and can truly choose to do what is right.

What appeared to be a conflict between one and two or between holy and unholy is now resolved. The world was not filled with temptation to counter holiness, but to compliment it; under the treatment of this third idea, the one and the two serve a unified goal. Only this time it serves a goal that drives the point home on a personal level, bringing the power of three and the meaning of Shavuot to life.


  1. Bereishis Rabbah 4: 6. See there that for this
    reason the Torah does nto write that “G-d saw all He had done on the
    second day and it was good.” See also the opinion that purgatory was
    created on the second day.
  2. Mishnah Ethics of our Fathers, 6: 10.
  3. Healthy options don’t usually tempt us because they
    are not as stimulating as unhealthy ones. For some reason G-d ordained
    that those things that stimulate us in the short run should harm us in
    the long run and vice versa. Could an argument be made that G-d wanted
    us to opt for the unhealthy option which is why He placed it before us
    and made it so terribly tempting?
    Let us shift the discussion to the forbidden. If I am famished in a
    foreign city and pass a bakery filled with mouth watering non kosher
    delights can I argue that G-d placed the temptation before me because He
    intended that I partake? Would one make the same argument to his wife
    when she discovered his marital indiscretions? It would not work with
    the wife, why do we think it might work with G-d?
    Yet people make this argument all the time. It might be a young couple
    that uses it to justify their intermarriage. It might be a shop keeper
    who uses it to justify doing business on Shabbat. Rabbi, they say, I
    can’t imagine G-d is so cruel as to expect me to turn down opportunities
    that beckon and even delight.
    Essentially the argument says, if G-d created everything in order that
    it serve Him, there must be a way for me to indulge in the forbidden,
    unhealthy or even addictive so that it too can serve G-d. If it were
    left alone how might it ever serve G-d? The answer offered in our essay
    provides the avenue through which the forbidden can also serve