Friday, June 06, 2008

Bamidbar (Mitzvot)

For further teaching on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for May 2006/

“And they shall not come to see when the holy things are swallowed up, and die”

This parasha has very few mitzvot ledorot—i.e., mitzvot of a fixed, permanent nature intended for subsequent generations. Rather, it consists mostly of instructions regarding the specific time in the desert: a census of the entire people by tribes, conducted by the “princes” of each tribe; the four-square arrangement of the camp around the Mishkan (Tabernacle); the census of Levites; the substitution of the Levites for the first-born as the priestly family; the assignments of the different Levite clans to various tasks; etc.

But at the very end of the paraaha there is a brief but interesting passage (Num 4:17-20): Aharon and his sons are instructed to pack up (wrapping them in woven cloth and, on the outside, in coarser animal skins) the most precious artifacts used in the Divine worship—the incense altar, the menorah, the table for the shewbread, and the ark of the Covenant—to be transported as they travel from one place to another. The final verse states that the other Levites or the people, who are not specifically charged with this task, “shall not come to see when the holy things are swallowed up, lest they die” (v. 20).

What is the reason for this rule? What was so traumatic or sacrilegious in seeing the holy things “swallowed up”? It seems to me that there was a fear here of “demystifying” the sacred: that there was a certain danger involved in seeing the holy objects, used in worship, as mere physical objects (thus, for example, Rav S. R. Hirsch explains it). By seeing, for example, the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Shekhinah was believed to reside, as a mere physical object, rather than as something that partakes of the transcendent, there was a sense of reduction of its holiness, of the mystery surrounding it, of its awe-inspiring quality. (This would be so even if the violation of the object’s holiness is done by accident, as in the story in 2 Sam 6 of Uzza, who inadvertently stretched put out his hand to prevent the ark from slipping.) This attitude is almost diametrically opposed to the modern attitude, which is one of demystification of “myths” and what is often seen as “arbitrary” reverence towards holy objects and people, of debunking mysteries, of uncovering the concrete reality underlying even the most sacred things.

I would like to draw an analogy between this issue and a totally different area: that of sexuality. (Or perhaps it is not so different: one could plausibly argue that sexuality, as that area in which new life is conceived and brought into the world, is one of the areas in which human beings come most directly into contact with the sacred, or at least with the potentially God-like and holy.) In earlier generations, there was a certain aura of mystery and reticence or modesty surrounding even the discussion of sexuality. Needless to say, the type of graphic pornography that exists today did not exist—or did so in an underground manner. The idea of “frankness,” that anything that is, may be seen, was alien to this earlier mentality. In traditional halakhah, even married couples were not to look at one another’s (or even their own!) intimate parts, even during the act of making love (which halakhah strongly advocates as taking place in the dark). Over the past century, Western culture has undergone a great desacralization, if one may put it thus, of sexuality. Sex is seen as something mundane, available for the individual’s pleasure as he/she sees fit. The result is a loss, not only of the power and mystery, the sense of significance of sex, but even to an extent of romance. When kids have sex in high school, or when young professional adults do so on the first and second date or after pick-ups in single bars, what is there left to dream about in terms of intimacy? There is, of course, emotional, psychic, spiritual intimacy, which is distinct from the act of simple physical release, but when the physical, which is potentially a reflection of these, is cheapened, psychic-spiritual unity seems to become more remote as well.

Re Arkhin and the Rebuke

Last week I asked readers for any sources which might contextualize the “valuations” discussed in the last chapter of Leviticus. R. Avraham Leader drew my attention to the Izhbitzer Rebbe’s famous book of Hasidic derush, Mei ha-Shiloah, in both Vol. I and Vol. II, s.v. ish ki yafli: “He sees Arkhin in response to the Tokhaha. He seems to be saying there is no action that cannot be redeemed. I might expand this to say that, after the assault of fire and brimstone retribution, there is a need to reaffirm self-value.”


Chapter Five

Unlike the four preceding chapters, this chapter, the final one in the canonic mishnaic tractate, is not arranged according to the sayings of any particular group of tannaim, but is organized around sayings based upon number: ten (§§1-7), seven (§§9-12), four (§§13-19), and miscellaneous sayings.

Ten is a number having to do with Creation: the first three mishnayot relate to the Creation and the primeval history of humankind (which the Kabbalistic tradition connects to the ten sefirot): the ten “words” with which the world was created (§1); the generations from Adam to Noah, and from Noah to Abraham (§§2-3: i.e., the issue of the increasing evil in the world and how it was to be dealt with). We find here a a schematic juxtaposition of the Flood and the Generation of Babel, on the one hand; and of Noah and Abraham, on the other. There is also a list of “ten things created on the Eve of Shabbat” (§8)—i.e., the twilight hour, a time of ambiguity lying, so to speak, on the cusp between the natural and the supernatural.

What is the underlying idea of this mishnah? As I see it, the things listed therein—the tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments; the mouth of Balaam’s ass, with which she miraculously spoke; the hole in the earth that opened up to swallow Korah and company; the “ram of Abraham,” which served as a fortuitous substitute for Yitzhak when Avraham was told not to carry out the Akedah; the tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments; etc.—are all items which have a certain quality of the miraculous. By being created as part of the Creation, rather than being introduced by God as a tour de force when needed, the Sages are telling us that these objects are also somehow part of the order of nature. But by being created at the moment of twilight, at a time that was in between Shabbat and weekday, between Creation and post-Creation, between the natural and the supernatural—we understand that these things enjoy a uniquely ambiguous and ambivalent status. The more I reflect upon it, the more I see this as mishnah, despite its seemingly naïve, mythic language, as expressing a highly sophisticated theological position. A full millennium before the Rambam, the Sages were concerned with maintaining the integrity of a universe governed by fixed natural laws, while at the same time allowing room for God to perform miraculous deeds, allowing the incursion of the supernatural into the natural when need be. But the tools needed for the miraculous are themselves part of the preconceived Divine plan, a part of Creation created during this special, fleeting, twilight moment.

Mishnayot §§4 & 6 list ten “trials,” but using the same word in two diametrically opposed meanings: §4 speaks of the trials with which God tested Abraham, through which he faithfully demonstrated his devotion to and trust in God; while §6 numbers the trials with which our ancestors “tried” God—that is, the demonstrations of collective character weakness, rebellious or non-believing behavior, by which they “tried” His patience and forgiveness (these “trials” are, by the way, a central motif in the book of Bamidbar, which we begin to read this Shabbat). Finally, §§5 and 7 deal with miracles: the miracles God performed during the course of the Exodus, in Egypt and by the Sea; and the less dramatic or obvious miracles that allowed the ongoing functioning of the ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem over hundreds of years.

Two more brief associations with the number ten. In our decimal system (which mathematicians will tell us is arbitrary, only one of many possible systems), ten is the first number written with two digits, and thus suggests true multiplicity, the beginning of a multitude. This, and not only the prooftexts cited by the Sages, may be the real reason why ten was established as the crucial number of people needed for public worship: ten is a true plurality, a true community. (And compare the opening mishnayot of Chapter 4, which discuss the significance imparted to Torah study by groups of ten, five, three, two and one.)


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