Friday, May 26, 2006

Bamidbar-Shabbat Kallah (Torah)

The Enigma of Bamidbar: An Overview

As we hinted at the end of last weeks’ sheet, The Book of Numbers is a problematic book; of all the five books of the Humash (Pentateuch), it is the one whose principle of internal organization is least obvious. The other four books each have a clear thrust: Genesis, following the “beginnings” of mankind in Chs. 1-11, tells the story of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the twelve sons; Exodus carries us from Israel’s oppression and redemption to the epiphany at Sinai and the construction of a home for the Divine indwelling in the Sanctuary; Leviticus is essentially a codex of laws, developing the theme of how one lives with the Divine presence in ones midst, beginning with sacrifices, through the demands of purity and holiness, and concluding with an admonition; Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address—containing historiography, exhortation, a review of the law, covenantal ratification ceremonies, and deathbed blessing.

But what is the unifying theme of Bamidbar, or Numbers, as it is called in English? It seems a hotchpotch of narratives, lists, and laws, thrown together in seemingly random order. Moreover, it includes several distinct units that seem to stand by themselves, such as the story of Balaam in Chs 22-24, and even one unit, set off by two inverted letter nuns, which is in one place described as an entire book in its own right, consisting of…. two verses! (a total of 85 Hebrew letters; I refer to 10:35-36)

In the other books of the Humash, one might say that the central figure is God as Creator and Covenant Maker; God the Redeemer; God the Holy One and Lawgiver; and Moses the Teacher. Here, the unifying theme seems to be the People of Israel itself, in all its diversity and almost manic shifts of mood and morale; the People Israel, newly redeemed from slavery and dwelling in the wilderness, a kind of “nowhere land,” thrust upon its own devices, so to speak, to maintain some kind of spiritual equilibrium and integrity—in brief, all the diverse elements needed for a people to become a people.

The book may be divided into three parts:

1) Chs. 1-10 show the people in a static situation, as yet encamped next to the mountain in the “wilderness of Sinai” (or Horeb). These chapters contain two central elements: the initial census, with the accompanying schematic portrait of the people itself; and certain miscellaneous laws, encompassing both immediate operative instructions about their life in the desert, and other rules about a variety of future life situations. This section is concluded by the two verses mentioned earlier.

2) Chapters 11-25 portray the people’s wanderings through the desert. Here we encounter a series of murmurings and rebellions over a variety of issues. Taken together, these chapters constitute a veritable catalogue of human weaknesses and failings—jealousy, hatred, the desire for power and honor, and raw appetite (for both food and sex)—and how they affect life in community. These are interspersed with a variety of laws, whose connection to the specific contexts is often unclear. This section also contains an interlude showing the people Israel as they appear from without, i.e., through the eyes of the non-Jewish nations as represented by Balaam. Here, too, are the accounts of the battles in the wilderness, with snatches of poetry from such archaic and otherwise unknown sources as “The Book of the Wars of the Lord” (21:14) and “the parable makers” (21:27-30). In these struggles with the Amorites and Bashanites, the new generation born in the desert prove their mettle by facing their enemies before entering the Land.

3) The third section (Chs. 26-36) starts with a second census, parallel to that with which the book opens. Here are described the events of the final year of the wandering, as well as a variety of instructions and commandments in preparation for taking possession of the Land of Canaan. As in the first section, the people are again depicted in a static situation, this time encamped at the steppes of Moab, on the eastern side of the Jordan opposite the Land.

Having established this theme, we may perhaps understand Leviticus 27, the law of “valuations,” as a kind of transitional chapter. The people Israel is not merely an ideal, ”Platonic” construct, but also consists of individuals. The idea of a person making a vow to give a gift to the Sanctuary based upon the statutory value of a given individual—be it himself or a member of his family—indirectly places emphasis on the people, through its basic building block, the individual. The name Numerii or Numbers is a translation of Humash Hapekudim, the Book of the Census or the Mustering. This title, too, emphasizes the people as a whole, gathered together, as a central theme.

The opening chapters, following the census of the people by tribes (and of the Levites by clans), presents a schematic arrangement of the people, encamped in four “flag camps,” each one consisting of three tribes, arranged on the four sides of the Sanctuary. This four-square, mandala-like formation is evocative of the “serried ranks” of an army on parade ground, each unit in its proper place. As this portion is always read the Shabbat before Shavuot, on which the opening chapter of Ezekiel is read as the haftarah, one feels that the four faces of the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot with its four faces of man, lion, ox, and eagle, is mirrored in the Israelite camp in the desert.

What is the symbolism of the square, of fourness? Many parallels come to mind: the Sanctuary itself; the tefillin; the altar; the four points of the compass. The ideal ancient city was conceived as a square, often bisected into four quarters by two main thoroughfares running from one end of the city to another, beginning at gates on each of the four sides of the city (like the walled city of Jerusalem itself). There is something very solid, complete, and whole about the square—but without the flowing, more undefined quality of the circle (viz. the intertwining circle imagery of the Yin-Yang?). It is appropriate to an approach that emphasizes clear divisions and distinction, such as those mentioned earlier in connection with kashrut and other aspects of Jewish law; there is always a clear division between the permitted and the forbidden, pure and impure: issur va-heter, tamei ve-tahor. Four is also a mystical number, symbolizing a certain wholeness of multiplicity: two, plurality, raised by one power. Thus, the picture of the tribes of Israel arranged symmetrically around the holy ark evokes completeness and peace.

Thoughts for Shabbat Kallah: Shavuot as Feast of Mystical Revelation

The most striking custom connected with Shavuot—a holiday that otherwise often pales compared with the drama and ceremony of the Passover Seder, the high solemnity of Rosh Hashanah, or the verdant freshness of Sukkot—is doubtless Tikkun Leil Shavuot: the all-night vigil of Torah study performed on this holiday. In recent years this custom has enjoyed a significant revival, with every center of Jewish study worth its salt (including such secular ones as the Meretz branch in Tel-Aviv!) holding its own late night study sessions. Indeed, in a place such as Jerusalem, one finds a panoply of Tikkunim, with each institution vying to provide a better and more interesting roster of speakers for the occasion.

What are the origins and inner meaning of this custom? The most frequently offered explanation is that on the very first Shavuot, while waiting for morning when God would give them the Torah, the children of Israel fell asleep. When dawn arrived, Moses had to go about waking them up, and they staggered out to the foot of Mount Sinai, embarrassingly late and bleary eyed. As a Tikkun—a correction for this mishap—Jews stay up all night on Shavuot, engaging in the study of Torah, and ready at daybreak to worship and listen to the reading from the Torah of the account of the Sinaitic epiphany.

But this vigil has a very different connotation in the Jewish mystical tradition: parallel to the celebration of the revelation to the entire nation, long ago, we find hints that Shavuot is regarded as a time uniquely suited for personal, mystical revelations for those who have attained a high level of spiritual purity and holiness. Thus, the Zohar (I: 8a) sees Shavuot as a kind of mystical wedding between Knesset Yisrael, the Congregation of Israel, as bride, and the Holy One blessed be He, as groom (hence the title Shabbat Kallah, “The Sabbath of the Bride,” sometimes given to the Sabbath preceding Shavuot). The members of the Holy Fraternity, the mystical adepts, rejoice her during the night before the wedding with the voice of their Torah, out of which they weave a kind of bridal garland; in the morning, they escort her to the Huppah, and God blesses them.

(Earlier, in connection with Lag ba-Omer, we mentioned the mystical gathering described in the Zohar—the “Idra”— held shortly before Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s death. Although generally associated with Lag ba-Omer, there is strong support for the view of many academic Kabbbalah scholars that this gathering is in fact identified with Shavuot).

The earliest historical record of a Tikkun Leil Shavuot appears in a letter from Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz to his cohorts in Salonica, printed in Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz’s mystical compendium, Shnei Luhot ha-Berit. Alkabetz describes there a Tikkun held in the home of Rabbi Joseph Caro, later author of the Shulhan Arukh, in the city of Nikopol, Bulgaria, sometime in the early 1530’s, before his aliyah to the Land of Israel. A small group of devotees gathered after the Shavuot night festive meal, first reading various passages from the Bible, and then proceeding to study Mishnah, learning the entire order of Zeraim (“Seeds”). In the midst of their studies, they heard a Divine Voice speaking to them, telling them how greatly the Shekhinah was pleased with their efforts, praising their devotion, albeit expressing disappointment that they had been unable to study with a minyan of ten. The following night (which was of course observed outside of Israel as a festival day) some of the other Sages joined them, a full minyan participated in the study vigil, and their joy knew no bounds.

Some thirty years ago, this author witnessed a dramatic, living embodiment of this aspect of Shavuot, when I had the opportunity to spend the holiday in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, within the community of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Following the Yom Tov meal, the Hasidim returned to the Study House and sat down to read the Tikkun—the special book containing a series of texts appropriate for study on this night—or to learn Torah. At precisely 3:15 AM, the Rebbe entered the hall to deliver a ma’amar—a discourse on Hasidic thought, distinguished from the more usual sihah (an informal table talk) by its deeper, more mystical content. Both before the Rebbe began his discourse, and at its conclusion, the entire assembly sang a niggun devekut—a slow, meditative melody, expressive of yearning for union with the Divine. Throughout the talk itself, which lasted about half an hour, the entire congregation—including the elderly men among them—remained standing on their feet. The Rebbe himself spoke with his eyes closed, in a special chant totally different from the discursive, almost conversational tone used in his regular table talks. Although my Yiddish was woefully inadequate to understanding the words said, there was a powerful sense of the sacred, of wondrous, deep secrets of Torah being revealed, as befitting this night of preparation for revelation. We thus find that, throughout the generations, Shavuot is seen as a time set aside for reaching out for some sort of personal experience of God’s imminent presence, as a reliving of the great moment at Sinai.


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