Friday, May 18, 2007

Bamidbar (Rashi)

For more teaching on this parsha and on Shavuot, see the archives for May 2006. For Naso on, see June 2006.

As this Shabbat is the one preceding Shavuot, part of this issue will be devoted to matters of the Giving of the Torah (including a teachings originally prepared for Yitro and Mishpatim, but which could not be sent out at the time due to computer problems). But we will begin with a brief comment of Rashi at the very beginning of the new book of the Torah whose reading we begin this Shabbat, Bamidbar:

Numbers 1:1. “And the Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month…” Rashi: “And [the Lord] spoke… in the Sinai wilderness… on the first day of the month.” Because of their being precious to Him, He counted them on every occasion. When they left Egypt He counted them [see Exod 6:14 ff.]; when they fell in the [matter of the Golden] Calf He counted them to know (the number) of those who were left [see Rashi on Exod 30:16]; when he came to rest his Presence upon them he counted them. The Sanctuary was erected on the first of Nissan, and He counted them on the first of Iyyar.

Nearly this entire opening parsha of the Book of Numbers is devoted to the “counting” of Israel—a general census of all the people, broken down by tribe, followed by the arrangement of the camps around the Tent of Meeting, as well as a separate census of the Levites, broken down into clans with the names of their leaders and their respective tasks. All this is seen by Rashi as an expression of Havivut Yisrael, the precious, unique status of the people of Israel before God. Indeed, the book as a whole might well be called “the book of the people Israel” (see Bamidbar [Torah]). If the theme of Shemot is slavery and redemption; that of Vayikra holiness and purity; if that of Devarim is an overall summary and exhortation to observe the Torah, then Bamidbar is a kind of catch-all of many different kinds of narratives, laws, etc., whose unifying theme is the people itself.

This is a central point, not only for understanding Bamidbar, but is a theme that runs like a gossamer thread through all of Jewish thinking about what we are. “Judaism” (if it’s at all correct to even speak of such a thing!) is not, first and foremost, a “religion,” a system of religious beliefs and principles, or even a system of law and behaviors, that can in theory apply to all humankind (like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.). This is true, even though conversion to Judaism is possible, and is becoming increasingly common in today’s open world; indeed, the proselyte himself does not become a “believer” in his new-found faith or a “member” of the Synagogue; rather, he/she becomes an adopted son or daughter of the Jewish people. In principle, Judaism is the story of one people and its covenantal encounter with is God. Hence, “Israel, Torah and God are one”—the people as such are an essential element , whose history culture, even in the purely secular sense, are of importance in their own right.

This creates two seeming paradoxes or anomalies: one, that we maintain our particularity as a people, as a specific group, notwithstanding the ultimately universal nature if our ground beliefs: the unity of God, and the singularity / oneness of truth and of the ethical norms that follow from God’s Torah, by its very nature.

Second, that secularism and Judaism are not mutually exclusive or contradictory: something that would be absurd if Judaism were simply a “religion.” In the modern world, in particular, we have many Jews, including some of the most outstanding figures in modern times—such as Freud, Einstein, Ben-Gurion, etc.—who saw themselves as secular. I will leave aside the attempts of some religious thinkers, such as Rav A. I. Kook, to legitimize this in religious terms through complex and fascinating theological dialectics about the presence of holiness within the secular. Quite simply, the existence of secular facts is a fact; they are our brethren, and our differing interpretations of the meaning of our history, cultural heritage, and identity are a family dispute, which should not prevent feelings of love, common identity and cultural interests, and certainly of vital political interest / destiny.

It deserves mention, in this context, that there has just been published a new, major intellectual project: a 5-volume encyclopedia (in Hebrew)of secular Judaism in the modern era, Zeman Yehudi Hadash, under the editorship of Yermiyahu Yovel and Yair Tzaban.

In a peculiar, very different way, we will talk about a similar idea—the idea of the seculum at the very heart of Torah—in some of our teachings for Shavuot.

“And Moses approached the darkness…”

Exod 20:18. “And Moses approached the darkness [where God was].” Rashi: Within three partitions: darkness, cloud, and thick mist; as is said, “And the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick mist” (Deut 4:11). Arafel [here translated as “thick mist”] refers to the clouds, of which it is said, “Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud” (Exod 19:9).

God is portrayed here as dwelling in the darkness, which Moses, unlike the rest of the people, somehow has the courage to approach. What does this image mean? Interestingly, this motif appears a number of times throughout the Bible: not only in the verses cited but also, e.g., in Solomon’s prayer upon dedicating the Temple: ה' אמר לשכון בערפל (“God said that He wished to dwell in darkness”: 1 Kgs 8:12), perhaps an allusion to the Holy of Holies, a dark, unlit, innermost chamber; or in Psalms 97:2, where He is shown surrounded by dark cloud. And yet, God Himself is portrayed as a source of great, brilliant light: “the light of the seven days” that is hidden away for the righteous.

What are we to make of all this? One element is the notion that God’s presence in the universe is not obvious. Rambam says something to this effect in the Guide for the Perplexed: the Divine light, “seeing” God, is a metaphor for clarity of apprehension, of inner understanding, found only in rare individuals, such as Moses—something that may be attained through inspiration from above, or through delving deep within. Da’at Elohim is not so much a startling, external vision that makes one fall on ones face, or even knowledge of an abstruse esoteric teaching, but a subtle yet radical change within the person’s way of looking at the world. It is a kind of inner shift of orientation in which everything is the same, yet at the same time totally different—suddenly, one sees that God’s presence is the most obvious fact in the world and not at all hidden. Perhaps it was this “darkness” that frightened the people, and it was to that place, “behind the curtain,” that Moses dared to venture. (Of course, one must add that Moses was unique: no one else entered so closely, so deeply, into the presence of God; other prophets and “men of high level” perceived things more hazily than he.)

Why “three partitions”? This phrase evokes images of the three concentric four-square formations in the desert mentioned in our parsha, with the encampment of the twelve tribes, the Levitic camp, and the Tent of Meeting; or of the Temple/Tabernacle itself, with its entrance-ways to the external courtyards, to the Sanctuary, and to the innermost sanctum; or even to the different levels of Mount Sinai during the revelation. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in a rather strange book called Leviticus as Literature, describes a series of tri-partite parallels among Sinai, the Tabernacle, the anatomy of the sacrificial animal, and the literary structure of the Book of Leviticus itself.

What then are these “three mehitzot”? Ultimately, I would describe them as levels of mystical consciousness, and/or as the four cosmic worlds known to us from Kabbalah. One popular “map” of Jewish liturgy sees the four main parts of the daily morning prayer—morning blessings & sacrifices; Pesukei de-Zimra; Shema and its blessings; and the Amidah—as corresponding to a gradual ascent through these four cosmic worlds and/or depth worlds of inner consciousness. These are often described as: Assiyah, the World of ordinary Activity—of concrete, practical human life; Yetzirah, the World of Emotion, or of angelic beings; Beriah, the World of Intellect, the “Thrine Room” or vestibule to the Divine; and, beyond all these, Atzilut, the World of Spiritual Consciousness, of apprehension (however limited) of the Godhead itself. This latter—breaking through beyond the intellect—is perhaps the most difficult of all for we modern people.


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