Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bamidbar (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion (including Shabbat Kallah and Yom Yerushalayim), see the archive to my blog for April 28 2006, May 2007, May 8 2008, May 2009, and May 2010 (to be posted)

The Four-Square Camp

After over a month during which these pages have been mostly devoted to digressions, albeit important ones (on Zionism, socialism, Pesah, etc.), we now return to our central theme of the individual and community.

I think of the Book of Numbers, or Bamidbar, whose reading begins this week, as the book of the people of Israel—not of Moses, not of the Law, not of the pre-history of mankind and of the family saga of the fathers of the nation, but of the people per se: its wanderings through the desert, its murmurings and dissatisfactions and rebellions, and its preparations to enter and settle the Promised Land. This week’s parashah is dominated by the image of the twelve tribes of Israel: the census of its numbers, the names of its leaders, and its orderly arrangement, whether marching or encamping. The Sanctuary is located at the center; the clans of the Levites, each with its own leaders and tasks, flank it on all four sides; and, in the outer circle, are the twelve tribes, in a symmetrical, stylized, four-square formation.

What does all this mean? What does this image imply about society? I read this as an ideal vision, in which each person, each beit av (extended nuclear family, perhaps spanning three generations or more), each clan (mishpaha), and each tribe has its own fixed place. Later on, in the Book of Joshua (Chapters 13-19; cf. Chs. 21-22 for the division of the Levitic cities and the special case of Reuven, Gad and half-Manasseh), the Land itself is divided among the tribes, with the tribal portions subdivided in turn among clans, families, and “homestead” units (nahalah; the source of the term hitnahalut) of each individual.

Thus, in striking contrast to modern society—in which each individual seeks his own destiny, his own future, is often driven by ambition to be a “success” and to “rise above” his origins; a society in which anybody can become anything—the image here is of well-structured, stable society, in which each person has a place, and knows exactly where he belongs. (See also the eschatological vision in Ezekiel 48, where the Land is divided into twelve horizontal east-west strips.) It is in many ways reminiscent of what we know of medieval European society—but unlike medieval society, here there is a kind of primitive egalitarianism, in which, at least in theory, inequalities caused by fate, talent, diligence, or lack thereof, are periodically corrected by the institutions of shemitah and yovel (sabbatical and jubilee years). The desert, in which there was no great private wealth for anyone to covet in the first place, thus served as the model for the future. (This was also the inspiration for the austere, egalitarian vision of the Rekhabites; see Jeremiah 35.)

Reflections on Numbers

(No pun on the English title of the book intended in the above heading) In the last three parshiyot of Vayikra, the number seven plays a key-role: in the laws of Shabbat and festivals, in the sabbatical and jubilee years, in the counting of seven times seven days and years; and in the punishments threatened in the concluding admonition of Lev 26. In this section the key number is twelve: the twelve tribes arranged in symmetrical camps around the sacred center of the portable Sanctuary.

I have heard it said that the human mind can grasp intuitively only the first four digits; for more than that, one perceives a group of objects as the sum of several smaller groups. Be that as it may, the first four numbers have very definite meanings:

1 represents pure, simple unity: the perfection of the thing itself. Maimonides discourses extensively on the unity of God, and on the special philosophical meaning of His Oneness.

2 represents polarity or contrast: yin/yang; positive/negative; male/female; black/white. The micro-electronic coding that underlies the computers so ubiquitous in our culture, called “machine language,” is ultimately constructed on the two basic position of any electronic impulse: on/off.

3 represents dynamics, the principle of growth. Hegel’s famous triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is built upon threes; three is the basic number of birth and family (Mommy, Daddy and Me). A question: What intuitive idea is innate in the number three that led Christian theology to build itself around the concept of the Trinity?

4 represents stability: the four-legs of a table. Four is a kind of harmonious multiplicity: duality and polarity raised to the next level. We thus have the four winds or compass points; the four worlds of the Kabbalah (and, as Huston Smith contends, the four-tiered model of reality is found in virtually all world-views throughout history—with the glaring exception of modern, materialistic empiricism); the four levels of exegesis, in both Judaism and Christianity; the four symmetric sides of certain kinds of Hindu and Buddhist mandalas; etc.

These four are the basic building blocks of all higher numbers, including their symbolic meanings. (At various times I have elaborated here upon the notion that Rosh Hashanah is the festival of threes, while Pesah as constructed around fours.) Turning from these to the numbers mentioned earlier: seven, the sacred number of Judaism, represents the dynamism of three raised to the next level: seven is twice three, plus one to make it an odd number, and thus preserve the element of dynamism. Seven represents, if you will, the dynamism of the Divine world—the seven days of Creation, and the seven lower sefirot , which are the building blocks of creation. Twelve is the three multiplied by four: thus, twelve is the number of stability raised to a higher level, a kind of fullness and completeness: the twelve months of the year and the signs of the zodiac, and the twelve tribes, which are the basis for the Jewish people.

From Firstborn to Levites

This week’s portion (Num 3:40-51) describes how the Levites are taken “instead of” the first-born of the Israelites to serve in the Sanctuary (in auxiliary duties to those of the priesthood, the kohanim). This is done by a combination of census, in which the 22,000 Levites substitute for 22,000 firstborn on a one-to-one basis, complemented by a monetary “redemption” for the remaining firstborn ( a kind of foreshadowing of Pidyon ha-Ben, the redemption of the first-born with a silver coin that is practiced to this day).

What does all this mean? In medieval Christian Europe, it was customary for one of the sons—I think specifically the second–born—to go into the priesthood. Here, we find the substitution of an entire tribe, who are without a “portion or inheritance in the land”—i.e., real property, to serve in the Temple. I’m not sure whether this expresses a tendency towards greater or lesser hierarchy, elitism and emphasis on birth; it’s hard to say. In any event, in actuality the firstborn never served as priests or religious officiants.

What we do know is that throughout the Bible, almost from the beginning, the idea of a special role fir the first–born is repeatedly upset and challenged. Time after time, in the patriarchal age and later, those who are not first-born play a central role, superior to their elder brothers: from Jacob and Joseph, through Moses, David, and many others.


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