Monday, July 16, 2007

Pinhas (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives for July 2006 at my blog,
In the coming days, I intend at long last to send out my essay on “Simon Rawidowicz’s Babylon and Jerusalem: Then and Now,” to coincide with the fiftieth Yahrzeit of its subject, Simon Rawidowicz, who died on 22 Tamuz 5717 (the Yahrzeit thus falls this coming Sunday). This essay, which has been many years in its germination, deals with a relatively little-known figure in modern Jewish thought, whose thought deserves being far more widely known, and its implications for today’s Jewish world.

Rawidowicz’s Babylon and Jerusalem: A Homiletic Prelude

The following comment by Rashi on this week’s parasha may serve as a suitable introduction to our topic:

Numbers 28:2. “Command the children of Israel and say to them…” Rashi: What is written above? [“And Moses spoke to God saying:] ‘May the Lord appoint…’” (27:16). The Holy One blessed be He said to Him: Until you command Me concerning My children, command My children concerning Me. This might be compared to the daughter of a king [in this context: a queen] who was dying, and instructed her husband concerning her children… As is written in Sifre (ibid., §142).

[Text of the Sifre: Before you instruct me concerning your sons, instruct your sons concerning me, that they not rebel against Me and not behave towards Me in a contemptuous manner. Thus said the Holy One blessed be He to Moses: Before you command Me concerning My children, command My children concerning Me, that they not rebel against me and not exchange My Glory for that of a strange god.]

This passage, in which God commands the people regarding the entire system of daily and occasional offerings (temidin u-musafin) to be brought regularly in the Temple on behalf of the people, follows on the heels of one of the few passages in which Moses addresses God in the imperative, essentially telling the Almighty what to do (although Rashi ad loc softens the tone somewhat). Moses, knowing that he would soon die, asked God to appoint a successor to lead the people. This section, dealing with the arrangements for statutory Divine worship, is seen as a kind of response: “Before you tell Me what to do about My children, perhaps you should command My children about Me.”

Moses is depicted here as standing in a uniquely intimate relation with both God and the people of Israel: as if he were the wife of the One, and mother of the other. Indeed, in one of the many difficult junctures in this book, he complains that God is treating him as if he had conceived and given birth to the people, expecting him to carry them and dandle them “like a nursemaid who carries an infant” (Num 11:12). In relation to God, he serves not only as messenger, but as God’s, so to speak, friend and partner in the project of forging the Israelites into a free, holy nation (on this point, see, e.g., what I wrote on the ambiguity of Moses’ position in HY III: Ki Tisa = Ki Tisa [Midrash]).

The use of the image of the mother here is very interesting. The implicit assumption is that the mother is far closer to the children than is their father; she feels an immediate, tangible connection with them, a longing for them and an attachment felt in her very womb (even when they are strapping men, perhaps towering over her), who may act as a kind of intercessor for them with a sometimes harsh and demanding father. This idea is not only a natural one—we speak of a maternal instinct, derived from the physical fact of having borne these children in one’s womb; but there is also a special halakhic connection. The father’s monetary obligations to his children are due them, so to speak, as part of the conditions of the Ketubah which are prescribed by the Sages as part of any Jewish marriage—that is to say, the financial support given to any children born of the union (up to a certain point) is conceived as part of the man’s husbandly obligations to his wife (see m. Ketubot 4.10-11).

In preparation for his own death, Moses is shown taking care to assure that matters will be in order after his death—first and foremost, that the people will have proper leadership. God takes him to task for this, reminding him of the other side of the coin: as if to say, remember that in your role of “mother” you must not only care and worry about the people, but also have a certain power of persuasion over your children, a natural emotional influence that the “father” doesn’t have. In other words: they will listen to you, because they love you, and not only fear you. (We shall leave aside all latter-day stereotypes about Jewish mothers and their power to impose guilt.) Therefore, don’t forget Me, and that I also need some reassurance that my sons will remain loyal and devoted to me even after her death—so say a good word to them, and convey this regimen of orderly Divine worship as an assurance that all will be well….

What is interesting here is what is taken for granted: the total intertwining of Israel as a natural human community and as a religious congregation based upon a certain cult of religious worship. As we shall see presently, issues of Jewish peoplehood, and the relationship, if not precisely between religion and peoplehood, between culture and history and peoplehood-in-Diaspora as against modern political-geographic conceptions of nationhood, lay at the heart of Rawidowicz’s thought.


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