Numbers 8:1 to 12:16, Zechariah 2:14 to 4:7
The menorah, the silver trumpets, and the kruvim were the three things that were fashioned from one piece. Why these three? How are they related?
Why were the Levites sprinkled with "water of purification"? Was this the same "water of purification" described in Numbers 19 to cleanse people who had touched a corpse? The Levites had killed people after the episode of the golden calf, but that was many months ago, and in that time there had been a Day of Atonement. Also, the Numbers 19 water was sprinkled twice, four days apart (Numbers 19:19), but the Levites were only sprinkled once.
One possible answer to the previous paragraph's question is that the Levites were being ceremonially reborn and needed the "water of purification" not for wielding swords but for taking the place of the first-born:
Rashi and R'Bechaye both write that the Levites shaved their hair because they were an atonement for the first-borns who had served the golden calf. One who serves idols is considered dead, as is a metzora. Since the hair of the metzora is shaved to cleanse him (Lev 14:9) the Levites' hair also had to be shaved.
If this reasoning is correct, then the first sprinkling of "water of purification" cleanses someone of the corpse's ritual impurity, and with the second sprinkling the person is cleansed of their own ritual impurity. The Levites only needed a "second" sprinkling. This answer also implies that the Day of Atonement doesn't atone for tzara'at or other "spiritual death".
The book of Numbers begins with a description of events in reverse chronological order.
Why would God start this book by "winding back the clock" during so many chapters? One answer is how the resulting ordering fits the steps of New Covenant salvation, using the imagery discussed above that relates the Levitical consecration with being ceremonially reborn:
Verse 10:29 reads either "Moshe said to Hovav, son of Ru'ayl the Midianite (Moshe's father-in-law)" or "Moshe said to Hovav son of Ru'ayl (the Midianite, Moshe's father-in-law)". We know Ru'ayl was another of Yitro's names from Exodus 218 (Yitro means "his excellence" and is more likely a priestly title than a proper name). So, was "Hovav" another of Yitro's names or was "Hovav" Moshe's brother-in-law? The first option requires Yitro to be named after his father and to have returned to the Israelites since he left them in Exodus 18:27 (awkward but possible); the second option requires a previously unmentioned brother-in-law for Moshe and the word chotayn translated "male in-law" instead of "father-in-law" in Judges 4:11 (also awkward but possible).
Notice that Moshe does not get reprimanded for his lack of trust in verse 10:31. If you are humble and obedient, faith will be increased as needed (Mark 9:23-27).
Verse 10:33 says they traveled (without finding a resting place) for three days. This is miraculous, that so many people of all ages could walk for three days straight!
In verse 11:16 the seventy leaders are required to be "elders of the people and ones leading them". Does this refer to the middle-management that Yitro set up?
Notice the irony in verse 12:5, where God visibly appears to Miryam and Aharon while scolding them for speaking ill of someone to whom God visibly appears. (The Talmud mentions a second irony, of Miryam's skin becoming sickly white after she disapproved of someone who had dark skin.)
This portion's Haftorah includes Zechariah 3, of which Zechariah 6:11-13 is related. These passages mention a Yehoshua, son of Y'hotzadak, who was the High Priest during the rebuilding of the Temple. Haggai calls him Yeshua (1:1, 1:12-14, 2:1-4), the shortened from of Yehoshua. Yehoshua and Zerubavel (of the kingly lineage, who governed Y'hudah) were the leaders of rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 5:1-2). There is no reason to think that Yehoshua prefigures the Messiah, for their shared name is a common one. But in these chapters Zechariah also sees visions that speak of a person named Tzemach (Branch), who is messianic. Nothing special in chapter 3, since many people are called "my servant" by God. But in verse 6:13 Tzemach is prophesied to rebuild the Temple, rule, and cooperate with a priest as he rules. The Messiah did the first metaphorically, and does the second, but has not done the third. Zerubavel, as a descendant of David and ancestor of the Messiah, did the first and third, but ruled as governor without "taking up royal splendor". So neither has completely fulfilled the prophecy, although they partially fulfilled it in complimentary ways. (Commentators that try to use the Messiah's dual role as our King and High Priest to explain Zech 6:13 miss the point, since they ignore "they will accept each other's advice in complete harmony". Saying the advice is between the Father and Son is even more of a stretch, since only the Son is our King and Priest.) We know that when the Messiah reigns there will be a Temple (see Ezekiel 43, among other places) and that during the great tribulation the Temple will be wrecked. So Zech 6:13 will some day be fulfilled, but as of yet has seen only the partial fulfillment common to many prophecies.
The sequence in chapters 8 and 9 show that the cohenim had special duties, the Levites had their duties, and all the Israelites had Pesach duties.
In Numbers 8, Aharon is instructed to offer the Levites as a wave/elevation offering. Some Rabbinical commentators conjectured that Aharon lifted each of the 22,000 Levites off the ground, all in that one day! To be true this would require Aharon to have been miraculously granted incredible strength; as far as timing, he would have to lift someone every 2.3 seconds for 14 hours: quite a day's work!
The people were exempt from a mitzvah, but then became concerned because they wanted to fulfill the mitzvah but couldn't—this showed inner virtue. Tradition sees a reward for this in their ability to do the sacrifices and ritual meal a month later (joyous things) without having to again do the laborious work of cleaning the home of leaven.
In verse 10:25, the tribe of Dan is called a m'asayf. This is sometimes translated "rearguard" but literally means "collector". This tribe traveled last, and would pick up what anyone dropped.
Verse 11:1 speaks of a fire from God to punish people at the "edge of the camp". After three days of walking the "mixed multitude" that was at the edge of camp became habitual complainers, and were punished. Those that survived had not learned their lesson, and in verse 11:4 begin the clamour for meat.
The Israelites had plenty of livestock—there was never a lack of livestock for offerings, and Numbers 32:1 attests to Reuben and Gad's wealth of livestock even after all forty years in the desert. The wailing for meat was wanting more divine provision, not simply wanting food besides the man as the people falsely claim in Numbers 11:6. Rashi and Devek Tov add that in verse 11:5 the people want to eat meat as they had "in Egypt for free"—by which they cannot mean that they were given meat for free but rather that they were free of the Siani covenant which includes its restriction on slaughtering livestock (Leviticus 17); thus the real issue is wanting meat they can eat without being troubled by commandments.
Chizkuni interprets verse 11:8 by writing that the righteous could eat man just as it came down from heaven, while the average person had to beat it before being able to eat it, and the wicked had to cook it in a pot before being able to eat it.
Rashi, R'Bechaye and Even Shoev agree that Eldad and Medad (verse 11:26) were the two "missing elders". That is, if each of the twelve tribes appointed six elders there would be 72 elders, whereas at Mount Sinai and elsewhere only 70 elders are mentioned. Eldad and Medad had voluntarily declined the honor of being an elder, but were now given their share of the Spirit of Prophecy regardless.
One story says that Eldad and Medad were even given a better kind of prophecy than the other elders: they received knowledge of the days of the messiah, and also that Moshe would die and Yehoshua would lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. It was hearing them say this last bit of prophecy that alarmed Yehoshua and cause him to ask Moshe to imprison Eldad and Medad (11:28).
In verse 11:34 the name of the place is Kivros ha'Ta'avah, which means "the burial of the desire". The Binah la'Itim asks, "Should not the place have been called Kivros ha'Mis'avim [the burial of those who desired] rather than Kivros ha'Ta'avah [the burial of the desire]?" He replies by saying that when the people saw what happened to the people who desired, they came to the conclusion that desire was not a good idea, so they threw out their urge to desire and buried it together with the people who were desirers.
Tzror HaMor writes that God appeared to Miryam and Aharon suddenly, to show that God's appearance was not due to Moshe having heard their gossip and asking God to get revenge.
The Tz'enah Ur'enah says that Moshe's prayer for Miryam was so short ("Ayl na, r'fa na lach."—"God, please, heal please her.") so the Israelites would not say Moshe prayed longer when it was family that needed prayer. Furthermore, just as Miryam waited to see that the infant Moshe was rescued, so she is repaid for this good deed by God waiting for her to be healed before Israel again travels.
The Mekhilta de'Rabbi Ishmael points out that the delay to move camp until Miryam is healed (verses 12:15-16) is not of the people, but of God who leads them (verses 9:17-23). God both punished and honored Miryam. Rabbi Ishmael adds that just as Miryam stood a little ways away to watch that the infant Moshe was sick, now it is as if God is watching over her from a little ways away.
In verse 11:18 the people need to consecrate themselves, but the text does not specify how to do this. The people's wining has desanctified their mouths, and the implication is that restoring purity is more of an internal (repentance) than external (ritual) process.
The verb kana in verse 11:29 is usually translated (in different places) either "zealous" or "jealous". Modern English has a more appropriate equivalent, "worked up". The verb last appears in the verses of chapter five when a husband is "worked up" over suspecting his wife of jealousy.