Thursday, June 23, 2005

Shelah Lekha (Archives)

The Sin of the Spies

The incident of the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the Land of Canaan (Numbers 13-14) and returned with a frightening, discouraging report forms the central subject of this week’s parshah. This incident, like that of the sin of the Golden Calf, was seen as a major water-shed in the relations between God and Israel. It was as a result of this sin that the entire generation of the desert was condemned to remain in the desert for forty years, until all those who had been culpable adults at the time would die out.

The incident of the Spies is in many ways a kind of parallel or even mirror-image of that of the Golden Calf. Both play a central role in the biblical, and later in the midrashic, imagination. If the sin of the Golden Calf was a continental divide of the Humash (see Jacob Milgrom’s theory, which I cite in Ki Tisa), this is at least a fault line. As in the story of the Calf, here too the entire drama of sin, divine anger, Moses’ beseeching of God to forgive his people, and the ultimate message of Divine forgiveness—but with qualifications, and with the sense that something fundamental has changed—is reenacted. Quite a few verses here contain almost verbatim paraphrases of verses found in the chapter of the Calf: Moses’ argument that the Egyptians will say bad things about God, viz. that he had taken the Israelites out to slaughter them in the desert (14:13-16; cf. Exod 32:12); the invocation of the qualities of Divine mercy, first introduced in the Cleft of the Rock after the sin of the Calf (vv. 17-18; cf. Ex 34:6-7); the invocation of God to forgive (v. 19; cf. 34:9), etc. Moreover, several verses from this chapter play a central role in the Yom Kippur liturgy and in the Selihot (14:19-20; and also 15:26, taken from the halakhic section of the parashah). Like Exodus 33-34, this section too ends as a kind of repository of Divine forgiveness and atonement.

It seems to me that the gravity of the sin of the Spies is suggested, inter alia, by the language used to describe their punishment. Twice, in close succession, the Torah refers to the dead bodies of the members of this generation who will “fall in the desert” as pigreikhem (14:29, 32), the second person plural possessive of peger, “carcass.” This wording is extremely coarse, even crude; a contemporary Hebrew speaker would never use this term to refer to a human being, preferring guf (“body”), the neologism gufah, or at least geviyah (“corpse”). Unless the connotations of this word have changed beyond recognition since Biblical times (always a possibility), this usage seems intended to hint to the sensitive reader that these people have made themselves utterly despicable and even animal-like.

What was the nature of their sin, and why was it regarded so seriously? Unlike the sin of those who craved to eat flesh, or even that of Korah and his cohorts which appears in the following portion, the punishment for this one changed history. Why? The fundamental human fault displayed here is simple, raw fear. In religious terms, this is seen as tantamount to lack of bitahon, failure to trust in God, lack of confidence that what He did for them in the Exodus was undertaken for their good, and that they would ultimately come into the promised land. Had the report of the spies been accepted by the people, as it nearly was, it would have endangered the completion of the entire enterprise of the Exodus, the entry into and ultimate settling of Eretz Yisrael.

At this point, I would like to pose an obvious, almost silly question. What is so terrible about fear? Why do we see cowardice—less a vice or sin than a character fault—in such negative light? Isn’t the coward acting in a more rational way than the traditional hero, by hesitating to take foolish risks? Deep in our hearts, many of us, while we may condemn the scoundrel and the outlaw, also feel a certain admiration for his bravado, his independence, his ability to take risks, even if for lowly ends (look at Bonnie and Clyde and all the other Hollywood movies with outlaw heroes!), while for the coward we feel only contempt and loathing. But isn’t this feeling simple an archaic remnant of the classical masculine, martial, and machoistic virtues, exalting the ability to grit ones teeth and bear hardship? It seems to me that the nearly universal revulsion against cowardice goes deeper than that. The coward is a person who elevates his own personal survival, under all circumstances and at all costs, into an absolute. He is totally attached to his secure, comfortable, and possibly pampered existence. (Compare the Eastern idea of “attachment” as the root of all evil and all suffering) The brave man understands that there are certain situations, certain values and transcendent goals or ends, for which life itself must be risked; it is from this insight itself, and from a certain siy’ata dishmaya (Divine help), that the brave man draws the strength which, in many cases, actually enables him to do the unexpected, to overcome unfavorable odds, etc. It was this basic trait that was lacking in the generation of the Spies. They imagined themselves standing against a powerful, armed enemy, and could only think “We are weak and they are strong.”

God, and Moses, understood that there was nothing to be done with this weak, fearful people. Dramatic punishment of a selected group of leaders would not shock them into change; the fault was inherent in the depths of their personalities, in their training and life-experiences from their earliest years. The only solution was to wait—forty long years—until the old generation would simply die out and a new generation would come of age and take their place. These people would be toughened by the totally different experience of life in the harsh, lean environment of the desert—without taskmasters, but also without the illusory comforts of Egyptian urban civilization.

This story has become a major archetype in modern Jewish mythology. Ben-Gurion constantly referred to the transitional generation on the way to independence, those born in the Galut and burdened with the “ghetto mentality,” as Dor ha-Midbar, the “Generation of the Desert”; they would simply have to pass from the world before a proud, independent, self-reliant state and society would be able to emerge. It is a truism that this myth bears no small responsibility and/or blame both for the exaggeratedly macho and insensitive aspects of the Israeli national character, as well as for its strengths and virtues.

At this point in history, things may have come full circle. From the dangers of cowardice of a people just liberated from slavery (or the ghetto), to brave, hard, macho fighters, we’ve become a comfortable, middle-class consumer society, with the softness of those who have perhaps been too much spoiled. (NB: I am not advocating here the Revisionist, “iron and blood” approach so popular in certain religious circles, but merely describing what I see around me.) Ironically, perhaps, the American Jew and the Israeli Jew are closer today in mentality than they have been at any time in the past fifty years.

On Men, Women and Mitzvot: A Bat Mitzvah Homily

I would like to present here a sermon based on this week’s portion which I have used at various “life-cycle events.” Like other parshiyot in the middle of Bamidbar, this week’s portion also begins with a major incident, followed by a series of miscellaneous laws, not necessarily connected either with one another or with the initial subject of the parshah. Indeed, one of the major difficulties in understanding the Book of Numbers is trying to make some sense of the order and location of all these disparate elements—a task I will not attempt here. Among those in Shelah Lekha, we find two mitzvot that are associated, respectively, with women and with men. Hallah, the separation of a portion of the dough each time one bakes bread (Num 15:17-21), and given to God through the priest or the Temple, is one of the three mitzvot mentioned in the Mishnah (Shabbat 2.6) as characteristic of women, for whose neglect they die in childbirth. (Albeit a man who bakes bread is no less obligated to separate hallah, this is conceived as a woman’s mitzvah, because traditionally women were those who baked, at least on the household levels; the Mishnah does mention professional bakers, presumably male, known as nahtomim, and priests who baked the shewbread for the Temple). On the other hand, tzitzit, the fringes worn on the corners of a four-cornered garments (15:37-41), is a mitzvah which traditionally has been performed only by men; the wearing by women of the tallit with tzitzit has become one of the central symbols of contemporary Jewish religious feminism, as well as a cause celebrè in the surrounding controversy. Is there a difference between the meaning of these mitzvot? Tzitzit, as we shall discuss presently, is seen as a constant reminder of God’s Torah, intended to prevent one from going astray “after ones heart and after ones eyes.” It is conceived as an active instrument in the inner struggle between a person’s intention and wish to serve God and his Yetzer Hara, the evil inclinations drawing him the other way—indeed, as far as I know, it is the only commandment whose entire declared purpose is to remind one not to sin. Hallah, by contrast, belongs to the large family of mitzvot whose purpose is to express gratitude toward God and acknowledgement of His bounty, by symbolically offering a small portion of the “first” of each thing to God. Other such mitzvot include: the sanctity of the firstborn of man and beast (bekhor); the offering of the first sheaf of new spring grain (omer); the bringing of the first ripening fruits of each year (bikkurim); the dedication to the Temple of the first yield of a new fruit tree, during its fourth year (neta reva’i); the first shearing of the sheep (reshit ha-gez); etc.

The uniqueness of hallah is that, unlike the seasonal, annual, or even once in a lifetime events represented by these other mitzvot, it is concerned with a homely, workaday activity—kneading and baking bread, the staple of the everyday diet.

At the risk of being considered “politically incorrect,” it seems clear to me that the Torah considers men and women to have fundamentally different emotional and spiritual makeup. The man tends to be more aggressive, more prone to the type of ego assertion discussed last week, more involved in inner struggles to overcome his chaotic, instinctual inclinations. Woman, by contrast, is seen as more whole, more self-contained; her characteristic sin is less likely to be that of hubris, of arrogant pride or presumption, and to lie more in the direction of passivity, of allowing herself to be “seduced” (not only sexually!) to follow the will of others. Her religious path is thus calmer and more tranquil, her characteristic mitzvah being simply that of expressing gratitude to God, and awareness of His presence in the humble activities of everyday life.

“Go not astray after your hearts and after your eyes…”

A well-known Talmudic dictum describes the meanings implicit in the mitzvah of tzitzit as follows:

Rav Yehudah bar Haviva said: [It is recited daily] because it contains five things: the commandment of tzitzit; the Exodus from Egypt; the yoke of the commandments; the [rejection of] views of the heretics; thoughts of sin; and thoughts of idolatry… From whence do we infer these? As is said, ’after your hearts’ [Num 15:39]—this refers to heresy (minut)… ‘after your eyes’ [ibid.]—this refers to thoughts of [sexual] sin… ‘after which you go a whoring’ [ibid.]—this refers to thoughts of idolatry…” (Berakhot 12b)

The Talmud thus sees tzitzit as a kind of spiritual and psychological prophylactic, so-to-speak, against two almost diametrically opposed levels of sinfulness: the sins of heresy and idolatry, rooted in the intellectual faculty (“the heart”), and sexual passion and sin, rooted in “the eyes”—a possibly momentary impulse and arousal prompted by the sight of an attractive woman (the proof-text brought by the Talmud refers to Samson, notorious for his weakness for women, who wanted a certain non-Israelite girl, justifying his choice to his parents with the words that she was “right in my eyes”–Judges 14:3).

Maimonides elaborates on the theoretical underpinnings of this Rabbinic dictum. By citing it specifically in that section of his monumental code concerned with “Laws of Idolatrous Worship,” he takes it far beyond the narrow realm of the mitzvah of tzitzit to the broad canvass of fundamental religious principles. For him, the quintessential point about the ban on idolatry is the teaching of correct doctrine about God. The human imagination is capable of constructing all kinds of misguided notions about God, thereby opening the way to grave theological error. Hence Maimonides’ emphasis on negative theology: God is best defined through what He is not. He states there that:

Not only are we enjoined against turning our thoughts toward idolatry, but we must not raise in our hearts nor turn our thoughts towards any thought that might cause a person to uproot one of the principles of the Torah, lest we be drawn after the thoughts of our heart. For a person’s mind is limited (da’ato ketzarah), and not all minds are able to fully attain the truth. And if each person were to follow the thoughts of his heart, it would destroy the world… For at times he may go astray after idolatry, and at others he may question the unity of the Creator… or at times he will question prophecy… or whether or not the Torah is from Heaven. For he does not know the logical rules (middot) by which he ought to conduct his inquiry so that he may know the truth, and he will go astray after heresy. And concerning this matter the Torah warned us, “Go not astray after your heart or after your eyes, after which you go a whoring.” That is, each of you should not follow his own limited mind, thinking thereby to attain the truth. And concerning this our sages said: ‘after your hearts—this is heresy; “after your eyes”—that is licentiousness.’…. (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2.3)

This passage from the Rambam, with its intellectual elitism, its profound distrust of autonomous human thinking, and its frank rejection of free-roving philosophical speculation for all but the most learned and highly trained, is diametrically opposed to the most basic premises of the modern democratic mentality. I had originally promised (in Yitro) to discuss this issue more fully here, in Shelah Lekha. Due to the unexpected delay in preparing this number, and in light of the fact that the closely related issue of authority vs. autonomy constitutes a central axis of the next Torah reading, Korah, I shall postpone the conclusion of the promised discussion ‘till the next issue of Hitzei Yehonatan.

I will conclude with one brief insight: the typology presented here of the two dangers confronting the average person in his striving to do the good—the “heart” and the “eyes,” read as instinctual passions and “thoughts of heresy”—seems to refer to two diametrically opposed arenas. Yet in fact, by their inclusion together, the Sages, and the Rambam, seem to be saying that these two areas are not so far apart as seems at first blush. Both blind instinctual drives, and intellectual reflection and cogitation over the mysteries of life and the universe, are ultimately rooted in the individual self; as such, they are bereft of any necessary connection either to objective reality or to religious tradition, seen as the distillation of prophecy and of far greater and purer minds, who were ultimately closer to knowledge of the One. But on that, too, more next week.

Beha'alotkha (Archives)

Number, Chapters 1-10: An Afterword

To return briefly to the beginning: if we attempt to summarize these first three (or 2 ½) portions of the Book of Numbers, we find that the theme of the people, in its various portions, is preeminent. The gifts of the princes in Ch. 7, which is really the winding-up of the dedication of the Sanctuary, belongs here because of the “twelveness” of the tribes; perhaps it is a counterpart to the census in Chs. 1-2. In between, there are laws concerning: the banishment of the leprous and impure from the camp (5:1-4); the sacrifice for the atonement of certain specific offences, especially those causing monetary loss to others (5:5-10; parallel to Lev 5:1-6): the Nazirite; the trial by ordeal of the Sotah; and the tripartite priestly blessing. The common denominator of all these is the concern with the sanctity of the people, or its absence by dint of physical impurity, sins requiring atonement, or sexual licentiousness.

Beha’alotkha starts with a collection of short units, beginning with the command to light the Menorah, the Candelabrum in the Temple. It is interesting that in all those places where the Menorah is mentioned in the Torah (Exod 27:20-21; Lev 24:1-4; and here, Num 8:1-4), it seems almost an aside, something mentioned briefly, in passing. Yet it opens two separate, widely spaced parshiyot of the Torah (this one and Tetzaveh). Perhaps the Masoretic Sages who arranged the portions of the Torah liked the idea of Divine light (and the paradox of man bringing light into the glowing “dwelling place’ of the Infinite, who after all doesn’t need our light; see Numbers Rabbah 15:2).

The installation of the Levites, who substitute for the first-born as the servants of God, as both general assistants to the priests and as musicians and singers in the Sanctuary, is one of the two central themes in at least the first part of the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), the details of the census and the arrangements of the twelve tribes being the other. These two groups—the twelve tribes, and the Levites—constitute the totality of the people. (Note what I said in my introduction about this being “the book of Am Yisrael.”) Earlier, we read about the detailed genealogy of the Levites, and the differentiated tasks of the clans of Gershon, Kehat and Merari (Num 3-4); in this portion (8:5-26) we find instruction about their installation and some specific laws. Interestingly, the idea of their coming in place of the first born, mentioned already in 3:40-51, is repeated here nearly verbatim (8:16-19). It is interesting that here, too, there is a kind of chiastic or introverted structure, reminiscent of the instruction and execution of the command to build a Sanctuary, found in Exod 25-32 and 35-40.

Michael Kagan asked: “Do you have anything to say about the fact that the Torah story has been going in circles for the last several weeks?,” referring to the story of the dedication of the altar and the descent of the Holy Presence three separate times: at the end of Exodus, following 7 days of induction and sitting of the priests (Ch. 29); in the first part of Vayikra, where the sacrificial laws are introduced leading up to the dedication of the altar and the descent of the Holy Presence (on the 8th day), and in Num 7, which begins by describing the camp of Israel, certain social laws, the gifts of the Princes leading up to the dedication of the Tabernacle (12 days), and the descent of the Holy Presence. All these events, according to Rabbinic tradition, occurred around the dedication of the Sanctuary, on the 1st day of Nissan of the second year after the Exodus. There is also an intriguing gemara in Gittin 60a-b, which I also haven't analyzed in depth, or even really learned properly, which says that “eight parshiyiot were given on that selfsame day [i.e, 1 Nissan, of year 2].”

What I have referred to as the first section of Numbers closes with some instruction preparatory to the people going through the wilderness: the commandment about the use of the trumpets to summon the people together (and on festival days and holy days; and before going to war; and, according to our tradition, on fast days in times of trouble); the arrangements of the pillar of smoke and pillar of fire, that guided them “to show them the way by day and by night”; and the two mysterious verses placed between inverted nuns, which are no more than prayers of invocation to God to be with the people when and a scatter their enemies when the ark went forth at their head, and to return and rest with the myriads of Israel, when the ark rested.

“And the People Murmured…”

The second section of the book of Bamidbar begins in the middle of this week’s portion, Beha’alotkha, which spans Numbers 8-12. Unlike the first part, which presents an idealized, formalized, schematic picture of the various components of the people (the twelve tribes; the Levites, both as a whole and divided by clans), interspersed with various laws, this section paints a realistic, even pessimistic picture of the Israelite people, showing them with a propensity to complain—perpetually dissatisfied, and unable to accept the leadership or guidance of Moses and Aaron. This entire central section of the book contains one incident after another in which the people murmur, complain, rebel, follow trouble-making demagogues, etc.

The first such incident, described here in Chapter 11, involves the most basic of human needs—food. But the cause for their complaint wasn’t really hunger at all; after all, God had provided them with the manna, described as a wondrous, heavenly food, which resembled coriander seed, and tasted like “crackers with honey” (Exod 16:31) or “cakes baked with oil” (Num 11:8): sweet, easily digested, requiring no preparation (but suitable for cooking or baking if they so wished) and, according to Rabbinic legend, having whatever taste people wanted. No, they did not complain about hunger, but about boredom. They missed the interesting, varied, spicy food they used to have in Egypt: the onions and garlic and fish and dill and avatiah (some kind of melon, though probably not the modern watermelon) and what not. Specifically, they wanted to sink their teeth into flesh: “Who will give us flesh to eat?!” (v. 4). They found the manna boring and tasteless; something like overly sweet, cloying, “kids’ food,” perhaps, suitable for angels but not for real people. (One is reminded of American Protestant jokes about heaven as a church service with a choir of fat middle-aged women singing God’s praises in rather watery, effete music, while “downstairs” there are card games, jazz music, boozing and girls.) On the face of it, the Israelites were merely displaying a more mature taste in food.

There is something very basic, even primal, about the desire to eat meat, and thus of the cry of the Israelites. (Deut 12:20 also talks about the “desire of your soul” to eat meat). Those who us who at one time or another have had to deal with chronic overeating will know that the real problem in dieting is not hunger per se, but the cravings for a particular food: its taste, texture, flavor, and the experience of eating as such. The people displayed such a craving: not an elevated spiritual response, but neither does it seem to be the grave sin it is made out to be here.

God reacted to this complaint by saying, as it were, “I’ll show them!,” sending them meat—quail, a typical desert bird—day after day “until it came out of their noses.” And then, to top it off, a plague that killed off many, or all, of the people who had the craving. Why was He so harsh? God seems to come across here as a super-strict Victorian father, dreaming up ingenious punishments by which to instill moral lessons. But why? Was it the ingratitude of the people for the gift of manna? Or their coming down from the high spiritual level on which they had presumably been throughout their stay next to Sinai? In either event, wasn’t He imposing an impossible, inhumanly high standard? True, the manna has been described as spiritual food; its very name is occasionally used to characterize that generation as “the generation of manna eaters,” enjoying an immediate, intimate relationship with God. But how long can an ordinary person transcend the everyday, mundane, material interests of most workaday human beings?

Let us step back for a moment and look at the interaction between Moses and the people. Throughout most of the Torah, one feels that Moses and the Israelites conduct a dialogue of the deaf, neither side understanding the other. The picture of “the people” is almost consistently negative. In Egypt, prior to the Exodus, they doubted Moses’ mission; when he first came to them, bringing his liberating message, they were full of sceptical questions: “Who is HVYH?… Aren’t you just making trouble for us? You have made us disgusting in the eyes of the Egyptians!” Only for one brief moment, when they crossed the Sea and stood together singing the great Song of Praise to God were they briefly united in a moment of elevated consciousness. But then came the Golden Calf, and later on this series of incidents. We can imagine the Israelites looking at Moses. He must have seemed a strange, wild-eyed man, who had, unlike themselves, grown up amidst the comfort and even luxury of Pharaoh’s palace. This stranger suddenly came to them and told them to defy the Egyptian task masters: first to slaughter a goat or sheep, the deity of the Egyptians, an act of high sacrilege, before their very eyes; then, to simply take their feet and go. On the one hand, he clearly possessed extraordinary powers: he dared to present ultimatums to Pharaoh, and then backing them up by asking God to bring plagues down upon the Egyptians and, at his will, asking Him to stop them, with another wave of his magic stick. On the other hand, he existed on another plane than themselves. There was a look in his eyes that was far away, as if he saw and understood things beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. Try as he would to be a kindly, father-like, compassionate leader, there was an unbridgeable gap between his world and theirs. As we shall see in greater detail in the next chapter, he was a prophet who spoke to God face-to-face; he had existed for forty days and night on top of the mountain with neither food nor drink; he ceased living with his wife once he began prophesying, and certainly was above needing a woman in any vulgar sense. What could these ordinary, humble people, coming straight from centuries of grinding, back-breaking enslavement, understand of him? And just as important: what could he, really, understand of their petty complaints about meat and onions and garlics?

More on Murmurings

Several more central themes and questions in the story of the quail.

1) The main sin of the people was, of course, their longing for Egypt—the fact that they so rapidly forgot the sufferings of slavery: not only the indignities, but the beatings, the back-breaking labor, the violation of their women (according to one noted midrash), etc. Thus, even if one can feel some human understanding for their cravings, it is more difficult to countenance their so completely forgetting the terrible sufferings of Egypt, from which they had been liberated. But all this is part of our experience of human nature: the cravings for something different; the inability to remain at a high pinnacle of spiritual consciousness; the desire for crass bodily satisfactions (let us be honest with ourselves: to what extent is our sense of sublime spirituality on Yom Kippur eased by the fact that, immediately after nightfall, most of us know that we will be able to sit down at a table laden with whatever food and drink our heart desires?); the propensity to gripe about the shortcomings of the present, however basically good that present may be, and to romanticize the past, however painful and filled with troubles it may have been.

If the Torah, knowing the weaknesses to which flesh is prone, is nevertheless unsparing in its criticism of the Israelites’ behavior here, this is because the Torah nevertheless wants the people to reach out towards a higher goal, to overcome some of these sentimental weaknesses, and to strive to live on a higher plane.

2) A puzzling feature: what is the connection between the crisis of the people’s craving for meat, and Moses’ gathering seventy elders upon whom God’s spirit rests, who then “prophesy” in the camp (vv. 16-17, 25-30). What kind of response is this? Is it intended as an answer to Moses’ complaint that “I cannot carry the burden of this people alone” (v. 14), that God provided a staff of “assistant prophets”? Or was the widespread “outburst” of spirituality, through the elder’s ecstatic prophesying (perhaps like the band of prophets with musical instruments whom Saul encountered in 1 Sam 10:5?), somehow intended to provide a counter-balance to the gross corporeality of the mass’s craving for meat?

3) Why the sudden turnaround, in which God waxed angry at them after eating the quail? Perhaps He thought that sending them the quail would bring them to their senses. The fact that they ate them for thirty days straight came to Him as a surprise, not part of the bargain; He evidently thought that they would reject it of their own accord.

“And the Man Moshe…”

The final section of this week’s portion, Chapter 12, contains a brief vignette describing how Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, gossip about his marriage to a Cushite woman. Were they critical of his choice of wife? Was this a second wife, or does this refer to Zipporah, the Midianite priest’s daughter, under another designation? Or were they discussing how he had separated from her, adopting in wake of his ongoing prophetic activity a monk-like existence which demanded extraordinary purity, as the classical midrash has it. In any event, God’s chastises them for their gossiping (this is the classical source for the strictures against lashon hara and rekhilut—gossip and talebearing against others); punishes Miriam by making her leprous; and concludes with Moses himself praying for her to heal, in a prayer astounding for its brevity: five mono-syllabic words. During the course of this narrative, there is a succinct presentation of the uniqueness of Moses’ prophecy, which forms the basis for Maimonides’ theological elaboration of this point, as we discussed in our Shavuot Torah: that Moses received prophecy when he was awake, and not in a dream; that he received it directly, and not via symbols and parables; that he spoke with God “as with a friend,” without the fear and trembling and the sense of being overwhelmed by the Divine Presence; and that he spoke with God whenever he wished.

I would like to dwell upon one verse here: “and the man Moses was very humble.” Jewish ethical literature is filled with exhortations to modesty and humility as the ultimate virtue. In his writings on the ideal ethical personality (in Shemonah Perakim and Hilkhot De’ot), Maimonides generally advocated the “golden mean” in all things (i.e, striking a happy medium between stinginess and profligacy; anger and total apathy; depression and empty bon-vivantism; etc.), while insisting that humility is the one trait of which a person cannot have too much.

It seems to me that issues of humility and ego are especially problematic in the modern world. We live in an age in which public relations and “image creation” are major industries; in which entire magazines (such as People) are devoted to discussion of celebrities and “personalities”; in which even serious newspapers, such as ha-Aretz and the New York Times, devote considerable space to detailed write-ups / portraits of celebrities, not only in the field of entertainment, but even in more serious cultural pursuits. Even in the area of religion, one encounters “super stars”—rabbis, rebbes, teachers, and of course various non-Jewish ministers, preachers and gurus—whose style project a sense of arrogance, and the feeling that they, and only they, have the true answers.

This attitude filters down to the ordinary person. There is perhaps a certain paradox here: the pressures of modern culture, the over-crowded cities, the intense pace of modern life, the shift of the center of balance in more and more people’s lives from home and family to work and career (for both men and women), have somehow reduced the average person’s natural sense of self, of dignity, and of self-worth. This is doubtless one of the sources of the ubiquitous interest in various forms of self-help, in New Age spirituality, and in various forms of counseling. Yet one of the other results is the emergence of what I call the “modern ego.” For many people, the putative emptiness of the universe, the fragility of human life, leads to an exaggerated need, a veritable thirst, to assert and gain recognition of the ego.

It is very difficult to attain genuine humility. There is, of course, much talk of modesty in Orthodox world, but the word is most often associated with female modesty in the most narrow sense—length of sleeves, hair covering, trousers vs. skirts, etc. A cursory search in the Concordance of the usage of the terms tzan’ua and ‘anav and their cognates in the Bible (the former term, interestingly, appears only twice in the entire Bible: in Micah 6:8 and in Proverbs 11:2) reveals that they are used in the sense of “humility” or “reserve,” but never as “modesty” in the physical sense; the emphasis is not on a woman’s manner of attire, but rather on the inner essence, of humility.

The contemporary emphasis on a very demonstrative and publicity-oriented attitude toward religion reminds me of an interesting incident involving Rav Soloveitchik, ztz”l. In 1973, I was approached by a journalist friend involved in the then-nascent teshuvah (return to Judaism) movement, who was busy preparing a book relating the stories of ba’alei teshuvah connected with various different Orthodox communities. Knowing my acquaintance with Rav Soloveitchik, he asked me to approach the Rav for the name of a ba’al teshuvah among his students who might be willing to share his personal story. The following Saturday night I thus duly approached the Rav following his weekly lecture on Jewish thought. The Rav’s answer was unequivocal, and went approximately as follows: “I don’t understand! Maimonides says that it is the nature of the penitent to be modest and self-effacing, and not to publicize or dwell on his past. Ours is not the way of Christian revivalists or evangelists, who make a big show of announcing their repentance in public. It is against the very nature of a baal teshuvah to seek publicity of this type. Such a book is the very antithesis of true teshuvah!”

Hasidic thought contains some illuminating insights regarding these issues of ego. Outsiders are often dismayed by what seems a cult of personality surrounding the Hasidic leader, the Tzaddik or rebbe, and the unabashed adulation shown them by their followers. Must not a person be singularly arrogant and vain to accept such veneration? The check against this danger, at least in theory, lies in the concept of bittul atzmi, self-abnegation; that the individual who has truly achieved an awareness of and attachment to the Divine, will entirely negate his/her own ego before God.

To return to the problem of humility in modern culture: I would go so far as to say that the modern ego is quite likely the #1 problem in religious training and character development. Without a modicum of effacement of the self, it is impossible for a person to even begin to see or hear the other nor, certainly, to attain the “acceptance of the yoke of Heaven” that is the essence of the religious attitude.

Moreover, the modern ego seems to me to be at the core of the widespread problems in inter-personal relations which plague our society. I believe that it is one of the underlying sources of divorce, of why so many people are reluctant to marry; why there are so many bachelors and unmarried women. (One explanation is the sexual freedom of our age: that there is no longer any need to even be secretive about premarital relations. But another, equally cogent reason seems to me to be the modern ego: that people are less prepared to make the compromises, the every-day consideration, the thinking about the needs of another person required by marriage)

Friday, June 10, 2005

Naso (Archives)

As I sit down to write on this week’s portion, I feel a certain envy of my friends living abroad, who have a full week to “digest” the festival of Shavuot before going into a new Shabbat, with another Torah portion—especially one as rich and full, with such a diversity of subjects crying out for comment and analysis, as this one. Both the Midrash Rabbah and the Zohar on this portion are bountiful and filled with homiletics. Even the chapter of the Gifts of the Princes, in which the princes of each of the tribes bring identical gifts to the Sanctuary on twelve successive days (Numbers 7) serves as a rich source for midrashic exegesis, the gift of each tribe being seen as uniquely appropriate to its peculiar history and experience. (There are those who suggest that this richness is an outcome of the proximity of Naso to Shavuot).

Be that as may, I will briefly comment on two subjects, which are to my mind among the most interesting laws in this portion and in the Torah as a whole. Both of these are very distant from our everyday, contemporary Jewish experience: the Nazirite, and the Trial by Ordeal of the wife suspected of adultery (Sotah). In both cases, these laws are long defunct; the Sages already had ambivalent attitudes toward them; and each one has an entire tractate of the Talmud devoted to elucidating their legal intricacies. My own interest is in trying to understand what, beyond the laws as such, is the meaning of these practices.

The Nazirite

In Numbers 6:1-21, the Torah provides an option for a certain model of asceticism. Although the Hebrew word for such a person, Nazir or “Nazirite,” is used today to refer to Christian and other forms of monasticism, Biblical Naziritism in fact does not involve sexual celibacy, but abstention from three acts: contact with the dead, cutting ones hair, and consuming wine and other grape products.

The Rabbi’s ambivalence regarding the Nazirite is reflected in their interpretation of the requirement that at its conclusion he bring a sin-offering “because he sinned on the soul” (v. 11). One view states that he does so because he had been on a higher level of holiness, and now, rather than continuing to sanctify his entire life to God, he has returned to mundane everyday life, “to contaminate himself with the lusts of this world” (Ramban al ha-Torah on v. 11). The other view, that of R. Eleazar Ha-Kapar in Sifrei, states that, on the contrary, the Nazirite sinned by dint of the fact that he abstained from that which is permitted. In other words, such asceticism, by the very refusal to enjoy legitimate bodily pleasures, is itself sinful.

Modern Jewish apologetics have by and large stressed the latter view, noting the world-affirming, this-worldly emphasis of Judaism—possibly adding the Maimonidean celebration of the “golden mean,” the balanced, moderate approach, taking all things in moderation. Yet this does not quite seem the whole picture. Rabbi Michael Rosen recently remarked that, as it seems clear that the Torah is here providing a definite framework for the option of asceticism or withdrawal from the normal course of life, it is important to attempt to understand the phenomenon and its spiritual and psychological roots, rather than to smugly dismiss it, saying that middle-of-the-road, comfortable, “bourgeois“ religiosity must be the norm for all.

My own sense is that the institution of the Nazirite combines two interrelated themes. There is a basic impulse toward a more intense type of religious experience, to reorder the priorities of life as a whole toward spirituality. This is achieved, first of all, by a certain return to the primitive; by a rejection, if only symbolically, of some of the externals of urban civilization; of a hearkening back to the days of the desert: a rejection of polished, urban civilization, and a return to the pristine simplicity of the desert. There is something wild in his very appearance, a return to the wilderness, a rejection of the concern with externalities, with propriety, with the opinions of others, that looms so large and takes up so much of the energy of the respectable urbanite. One of the original Nazirite groups, the Rechabites, are cited in Jeremiah 35 as an example of loyalty to ancestral traditions. The basic impulse described there was to forego many of the appurtenances of civilization; their forebear Yonadav son of Rechab, taught them: “Do not drink wine, nor build houses, nor plant seeds, but live in tents.” One can imagine these Nazirites wearing rude homespun clothing, or even simple animal skins like Elijah. The growing of long hair seems to symbolize a rejection of the city dweller’s concern with appearance. Wine, too, is an archetypal product of sophisticated, urban civilization: a certain degree of settlement is required to grow grapes, leave them in vats to ferment, etc.: it involves a polishing or improving of natural food as it grows from the earth. More so then meat and bread, it requires extensive time period and a lot of patchkerei, fuss and bother, to prepare. In our day, there is an entire culture of wine-tasting, in which familiarity with varietals and specific vintages is seen as a sign of sophistication—not to mention the danger of intoxication as a result of drinking to excess. More than anything, it would seem, the Nazirites sought a return to essentials, to an unadorned, simple life.

Numerous examples of this impulse come to mind, in a variety of cultures and religions. In early Christianity, there were those who built monasteries carved into the sides of the mountains in such wild, inaccessible places as Wadi Kelt; or Simon of the Desert, who stood on a pillar for twenty years; or, in medieval times, the Trappists, who eschewed all speech. Even that paragon of balance, the Rambam (Maimonides), states in one passage that, if one finds oneself living among people who do not adhere to the basic rules of decent human behavior, and they do not leave one alone, than one should flee from such a place and even go to live “in the caves and bushes and wilderness” (De’ot 6.1). In more recent contexts, such models as the Amish, who live in families, but reject much of modernity and insist on living off the land, come to mind. In early Hasidism, too, there was a certain anarchistic element—a rejection of conventional propriety and behavior, and a return to the essentials of the inner life of service of God in every moment of life. The hippie culture of the ‘60’s (and, I must add for those who are too young to remember: before it became a marketable commodity, like everything else in our global marketplace culture) had much of this spirit. With all of its failings—a certain mood of self-indulgence, expressed in the free-and-attitude towards drugs and sex; an element of irresponsibility and living for the moment, which in the end made it impossible for the more serious visionaries within it to build anything lasting—there was a core sense of seeking a purer, more honest life, with more direct relationships between people, and less obsession with the accumulation of things. For a few brief years, some of the communes in the remote reaches of America may have had some small bit of the same spirit as the Rechabite tents of old.

All this may seem surprising to many of us who are used to thinking of the Jews as the quintessential urban people. Certainly, this has been true for centuries, both in the European classical Diaspora and in the modern world: Warsaw, Vilna, New York, London, Paris, are but a few of the cities in which Jews felt at home. The shteitl was largely a fruit of necessity, when Jews were excluded from the big cities of Russia and forced into the small towns of the Pale of Settlement. The Jewish “character” is inevitably thought of as sophisticated, intellectual, quick, adaptable to a wide variety of milieus and cultures and human types, enjoying complexity and subtlety—in short, the very epitome of cosmopolitanism. Even the return to nature and to rural milieu, so celebrated by classical Zionism, seems to have played itself out. Israel today is one of the most intensely urbanized and over-crowded places in the developed world. Whose imagination is stirred today by Degania, Kfar Tabor, Emek Yizrael, Rosh Pinah, or even Sdeh Boker? Indeed, how many people even remember their names?

Nevertheless, there is also a powerful anti-urban impulse also present in the Tanakh, at least in certain streams and themes, stemming from a certain innate contradiction, or conflict, between civilization and spirituality. The Torah provides the option of Naziritism, together with a clear framework and safeguards, for those—and there evidently always are such—who seek the purity of a narrow, intensely focused spiritual life.

Sota: Trial by Ordeal of the Unfaithful Wife

The other longish chapter within the portion of Naso, Numbers 5:11-31, describes the “trial by ordeal”—the test to which a woman is submitted when her husband is overcome by a spirit of jealousy and suspects her of having been ”defiled” with another man. She is taken to the Temple or the Sanctuary, bringing with her a meal offering; the priest mixes a vial of water with dust from the floor of the sanctuary, referred to as “bitter waters” and recites certain curses before her; these are then written on a scroll, which is erased in the water, which she is then required to drink. If she was in fact guilty, the curses take effect, her body swells, her thigh falls away, and she dies a horrid death. If not, her innocence is considered vindicated, her husband is expected to take her back, and she will conceive a child.

Nearly every modern reader instinctively rejects this ritual out of hand as primitive, bizarre, and intolerably cruel. First of all, because of its patriarchal, blatant double standard: it is the woman alone who is held to such stringent standards of marital faithfulness, whereas the philandering husband, providing his paramour is an unmarried woman, gets off scott free. Secondly: because of the cruel and barbarous nature of her punishment: a protracted and painful death, described in graphic detail. Third: the total dependence on a supernatural miracle to reestablish the woman’s innocence or guilt. If my memory serves me correctly, this is the only case in the Torah in which an individual’s guilt or innocence are in fact determined by means of supernatural intervention. It would seem that Hazal were disturbed by this chapter, feeling no little ambivalence about it, couched in the laconic comment that, once adultery became too common, the bitter waters were abolished (Mishna Sota 9.9). Already in their age, the sense of horror regarding such unfaithfulness was somewhat abated. They also softened the impact of the possibly fatal consequences of the trial by emphasizing its positive effect: to affect reconciliation between man and wife. “Great is peace, that even the Holy Name is erased [i.e., as a part of the curse text dissolved in the bitter waters] in order to make peace between man and wife.” I shall not attempt to offer an “apologia” for this law. To the believing Jew, for whom the entire Torah is the word of God, this too is Torah, and we must learn it. Implied in this case, too, is the faith that, so long as it was practiced, the Divine Will was somehow directly present in its results; the Torah was interested in invoking the miraculous in order to safeguard the area of marital chastity. For those who cannot accept such a faith, this chapter remains deeply problematic. In either event, my own interest is to try to understand it in its own terms.

Two brief remarks seem in place. First, it is interesting that the starting point of the chapter is not so much the woman’s dalliance, but the husband’s jealousy. “And a spirit of jealousy comes upon him, and she has been defiled… or a spirit of jealousy comes upon him, and she has not been defiled…” (v. 14). Male jealousy, it would seem, is a universal, basic human emotion that, so long as it is present, wreaks havoc with any possibility of normal, settled, harmonious family life. It is pointless arguing whether it is a worthy emotion, whether it is rational, to say that the woman is not chattel, that she is the master of her own body, etc. etc. Like the impulse toward religious perfection and purity present in the case of the Nazirite, intense, all-consuming jealousy exists at all times, at least among certain individuals. And, surprise of surprises, it shows no sign of disappearing in the modern 20th century or even in the so-called post-modern 21st century. Various attempts to “outgrow” this “outmoded,” “patriarchal,” even “chauvinist” emotion have not been crowned with notable success. (I remember some ‘60s’ communes which tried to practice sexual “pluralism” or “group marriage”; sooner or later, the men ended up slugging it out when one guy slept with another’s girl-friend.) The Torah was concerned with coping with this emotion, by creating a mechanism for providing a decisive, unequivocal answer to the niggling question—was she in fact faithful or not? It seems to me that one can perhaps fault the method chosen, but it is difficult to gainsay the motivation.

Second, it seems to me nearly impossible for us moderns to even begin to understand the scale of values underlying such a test. Our attitudes towards sexuality have so changed that it is difficult for us, at least in self-appointed “liberal” circles, to see adultery as much more than a “misdemeanor”—a mistake or mishap to be regretted. There is truly a quantum jump between our mentality and that of the Torah regarding sexual matters. The Torah seems to teaches us that, on the most basic level, there is something holy (or, more precisely, that should be made holy) in the act of sexual intercourse. All the rest follows from that. This is a kind of a priori axiom, which cannot be arrived at by logical or empirical reasoning that starts from a secular, biologistic world-view. A certain religious faith is needed to start with to arrive at this place—if not in every detail of the halakha, at least some sort of basic concept that such a thing as “holiness” exists in human activity, beyond utilitarian or practical social considerations.

Shavuot (Archives)

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, 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 Kabbblah 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.

“And All the People Stood Against the Mountain” vs. “The Prophecy of Moses our Teacher”

Maimonides perception of Ma’amad Har Sinai (the Sinai epiphany), in Guide for the Perplexed II.33, is rather interesting—and very different from that which seems to be conveyed by the main thrust of the Jewish tradition. Consistent with his general emphasis on the intellect as the gate to the Divine, Maimonides contends that Moses alone experienced the full force of the Divine revelation, clearly hearing the Ten Commandments; the rest of the people only heard “the voice” or “sound” (kol) of the first two commandments, and even that not as clearly articulated words. Hence, there was a profound gap between Moses’ experience of revelation and that of the people.

Was the experience of the people then only a vague, indistinct sense of something overwhelming, uncanny, with lots of noise and impressive sights? Was this the sum total of the great Sinai experience that we are constantly told to remember, to pass on to future generations (see Deut 4:9-10), that is constantly invoked as the incontrovertible proof for our Torah, etc., etc.? (Kuzari, Book I, and elsewhere in polemic literature, medieval and modern) Indeed, the people, did not have the spiritual fortitude to hear the Divine voice for more than a few moments, telling Moses: “You speak with God and we will listen, and let not God speak with us lest we die” (Exod 20:16). The Midrash says that this already happened after the first two commandments; inferring that 611 of the 613 commandments were conveyed through the intermediacy of Moses, and not heard directly from God (Makkot 23b-24a).

Elsewhere, too, Rambam consistently refers to nevuato shel Moshe Rabbenu, “the prophecy of Moses our Teacher” as the source of the Torah, enumerating the various dimensions in which there was a qualitative difference between him and all the other prophets. In his Mishnah Commentary, (Hakdamah le-Perek Helek), where he lists Moses’ prophecy as the seventh of the thirteen basic principles of the faith, he states that Moses completely transcended his limitations as a human being, and achieved the level of the angels, which he equates with pure intellect. Why, then, was the epiphany before the entire people necessary at all? To give testimony to the truth of Moses’ prophecy, and by extension to the binding authority of the Torah (thus Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah, Ch. 8).

Maimonides was forced to this view by his particular philosophical approach, which equates the highest religious experience, that of prophecy, with a cognitive apprehension of the “Active Intellect,” and thus of necessity confined to a small elite, after long and rigorous training. This seems to contradict another powerful motif in Jewish thought, which insists that the entire people experienced the Sinai epiphany. Indeed, one of these legends focuses specifically upon Moses as representative of human beings in all their weakness. It is related that, when Moses ascended on high to receive the Torah, the angels challenged him with the words, “What business has one born of woman, among us?” He answered that, precisely because human beings are mortal, and have bodily needs and human passions and emotions, they need the Torah, which is specifically oriented towards the human condition (b. Shabbat 88b-89a).

Perhaps we can suggest the following synthesis: Whether or not the people of Israel clearly heard the words “Anokhi” and “lo yihyeh lekha” (“I am the Lord…” and “you shall not have…”) does not really matter: the overwhelming experience of the numinous, of the divine presence, in and of itself, WAS the “Anokhi” experience; the source of the strongest, surest and most certain knowledge that “I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, the concomitant fear of God, verging on sheer terror and panic in the face of His overwhelming Presence, WAS, existentially, the source of “you shall have no other gods before me”: they felt the quintessential fear of Him that is the root of all the negative commandments, and first and foremost the prohibition of idolatry.

I would like to quote in this context an idea propounded by the Christian theologian Jacques Maritain. In one of his books, Maritain explains that the philosophical proofs of God’s existence—he speaks particularly of the epistemological and the argument from design—are not only for philosophers, but have their counterpart on another level for ordinary people. The same arguments established by philosophers with rigorous, closely reasoned, step-by-step argumentation, correspond to basic truths intuitively grasped by ordinary people. The philosopher may demonstrate logically why every existing thing must have a prior cause, working back logically until he reaches the First Cause; the simple man looks up at the starry sky, or at the brooding beauty of a deep forest, or at a stark desert landscape, and bursts into praise of the Creator: “How great are your works, O Lord!” The philosopher presents the epistemological argument: the fact that we can conceive of God at all proves at He must exist; the simple man feels faith in his heart, directly. And so on. The same holds true for Sinai. The people tangibly felt the Presence and Glory of God, giving birth to a kind of intuitive, inferential faith, which led to “Anokhi,” the acceptance of His sovereignty—and from there to the acceptance of all the mitzvot they were taught by Moses their teacher.

Some Short Thoughts on Shavuot

The “sixth,” non-canonical chapter of Pirqei Avot, is specially added on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot to round off the series of Shabbat afternoon readings during the Counting of the Omer with one appropriate to the receiving of the Torah. This chapter, known as Kinyan Torah, contains a beraita enumerating the 48 ways in which the Torah is acquired. This is a vast subject; a noted Jerusalem rabbis, Rav Noah Weinberg, has written an entire book for neophytes to Judaism in which he elucidates in detail each of these ways. But what is most striking about this is that which is also most obvious: that the study of Torah demands complete devotion, giving ones all. Before even beginning to enumerate the ethical and social virtues that must be acquired, the 48 ways lists a series of disciplines: studying, listening, repeating with ones lips, understanding with ones heart, clarifying and sharpening the precise meaning of what one has learned with ones cohorts, serving the Sages, etc. ; but also the demand to reduce to a bare minimum all those other aspects of life that ordinary people take for granted—sleep, ordinary conversation, business, pleasure, laughter, [presumably, lawful marital] sex, etc.

Why such a strict, puritanical regimen? one may ask. Is not the Torah a Torah of life? Surely, none of these things are bad per se. At one time in my life, I would have found such passages oppressive and off-putting, reading it as heavy yeshiva mussar (moralistic preaching). But on further reflection, it seems to me that this must be read as simply stating a fact of life, almost a law of nature: in order to become a true scholar, one whose personality, whose very being is shaped by Torah, one must make it the center of ones existence. Indeed, so as to accomplish anything in life in a serious way, certainly in the field of intellectual endeavors, one cannot do things in a half-hearted way. An hour lost can never be regained. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons why Shavuot is the Festival of Time, the only holiday whose very name is a unit of time, one which comes after 49 days of counting the most basic unit of time. Ultimately, learning Torah is, inter alia, about learning to use time properly, and understanding its true value. For that reason, Reb Zalman used to write on his Sefirat Haomer calendar the verse “Teach us to number our days, that we may have a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12).


The Sefat Emet (Yitro, 5652, s.v. be’inyan ma’amad har sinai) reflects on the use of idioms relating to standing in connection with the Sinaitic revelation: Ma’amad Har Sinai (“the standing of Mount Sinai”), and the verse “the day that you stood before the Lord your God on Horeb” (Deut 4:10). The concept of standing is of being like angels, of having reached a certain state of completion. By contrast, the normal human state is described as walking: a process of constant growth, of constantly moving from one level to another. (And I would add that the word for Jewish law, halakhah, is likewise derived from “halikhah,” walking -- a dynamic, ongoing process). Nevertheless, the moment of receiving the Torah is one of “amidah”—of stasis, of a momentary sense of having achieved, or having been graced with, a certain completeness.

Perhaps this is the symbolism of standing on a whole group of ritual occasions: first and foremost, during the Amidah, the Prayer par excellence, which is described in the halakhah as “standing before God”; during Kabbalat Shabbat, which is also a time of “receiving the Shekhinah,” as explained by Rab Soloveitchik (whose own practice was to stand throughout Kabbalat Shabbat); and, according to the ancient Ashkenazi custom originating with Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, during the reading of the Torah, which is a kind of reenactment of the Sinai moment.

Ten Commandments or 613?

There is a certain ambivalence in Judaism toward the Ten Commandments. On the one hand, of course, they are of great importance, the very quintessence of God’s Law, the concrete contents of the Revelation at Sinai (at least according to a straightforward reading of Exodus 19-20). On the other hand, they do not encompass all of God’s Torah, but are more like an outline, a set of chapter headings or perhaps a condensed version, given to the masses of the people at Mt. Sinai, for what He was later to teach to Moses in detail.

This problematic was reinforced by the polemic with Christianity. At the time of the Temple, the Ten Commandments formed a central element of the daily liturgy; they were recited by the priests, alongside the Shema, as part of the daily verbal worship service which they conducted in the Chamber of Hewn Stone prior to offering the morning sacrifice. Later, when early Christianity began to emphasize the exclusivity of the Ten Commandments, the Rabbis removed it from the daily liturgy, lest it be thought that the other mitzvot were not an equally integral part of the Divinely revealed Torah (Berakhot 12a). It is printed in some Siddurim, but only at the very tail end of the service, to be recited privately by individuals. In Maimonides’ time, this controversy again flared up over the question as to whether the congregation was to stand up for the reading of the Ten Commandments. The Rambam lambasted this custom in passionate terms, making it clear that he saw it as a matter of principle; all the Torah, and not only the Ten Commandments, was given at Sinai; hence, it bordered on the heretical to stand for this chapter and not for the others.

On the other hand, some Medieval poets saw all 613 commandments as embodied in the Ten, in a midrashic or metaphorical sense. In olden times, one of the most popular genres of piyyutim (liturgical poetry) for the holiday of Shavuot was the Azharot, poems enumerating the 613 commandments. Many of these were based upon a scheme in which all of the commandments were subsumed under the basic Ten: thus, commandments relating to civil law and torts were subsumed under “thou shalt not steal”; all laws of holidays and special times under the Sabbath; those concerned with the active service of God in general under “I am the Lord your God”; those prohibitions rooted directly or indirectly in the rejection of a pagan way of life under “thou shalt have no other gods..”—and so forth.

It is perhaps significant that, in the aggadah which serves as the source for the 613 commandments, reducing them to ever more basic principles—“David based them on eleven... Isaiah on six… Micah on three… again, Isaiah based them on two… Amos… and Habakkuk based them on one” (Makkot 24a)—the Ten are not even mentioned.

Esther and Ruth

In three of the Five Scrolls a woman serves as a central figure: Ruth, Esther, and the Song of Songs. (As in the latter the female protagonist is painted in rather vague terms in terms of her personality, and indeed it is not clear whether the book even has a plot in the usual sense, we may discount it). Of these, Ruth and Esther make an interesting study in contrasts. The Book of Esther is set in the sumptuous royal palace city of the Persian empire. One can almost feel and touch the highly polished floors of marble and precious stones, the sumptuous banquet of who-knows-how-many courses served in gold and silver vessels, with the company reclining upon soft linen and crimson cushions. Yet all this pomp and circumstance is set against an atmosphere of corruption and decadence: a foolish king who spends his days partying with his princes and viziers, determines the fates of entire provinces and ethnic groups on the basis of a whim or at the advice of an intriguing courtier, and spends each night in the arms of a different beautiful young virgin, who has been prepared for this moment after being soaked for six months in myrrh and six months in various spices (a procedure that always seemed to me more appropriate to a cucumber than to a human being). Esther, too, gained her pivotal and fateful position of influence through her own beauty and feminine charms; or is it possible that Ahasuerus may have been captivated by the contrast between a certain modesty and bashfulness on her part, which we may presume to have been part of her Jewish heritage, and the blatant, unsubtle sexuality of the Indian or Persian girls, who were raised on the models of Indian erotic sculpture and the Kama Sutra?

In any event, the Book of Ruth, set in time perhaps 700 or 800 years earlier, provides a striking contrast to Esther. Boaz is a wealthy man (ish hayil), but only in comparison with his fellow townspeople. We do not so much as glimpse the inside of his home; he lives a simple, unadorned, rustic life. He sleeps outside during the harvest season, together with his workers, on the hard ground among the haystacks. He eats simple bread dipped in vinegar; a kerchief filled with six measures of barley constitutes a special gift for him. But the contrast with the Persian palace life is just as great in the moral dimension, and in the opposite direction: here, there is not the smallest hint of corruption or unseemliness in the behavior of any of the protagonists.

Two crucial moments in Ruth’s life pique our curiosity. What was the inner processes that went through her soul, that led to these decisions? First and foremost, the decision to go with her mother-in-law, Naomi. The two young widows accompany their mother-in-law—an old, broken vessel, with bitterness written on her very face— towards the Land of Israel. “Go away, my daughters, return!” (1:8-14) she exhorts them repeatedly. But while Orpah returns to her own family, Ruth persists, saying “Wherever you go, there I shall go; wherever you lodge, I shall lodge; your people shall be my people; your God, my God; wherever you die, I shall die, and there shall I be buried” (vv. 16-17). We are accustomed to reading this little speech as the essence of an act of conversion to Judaism; but it is equally an expression of intense personal attachment to her mother-in-law. What motivated this: a sense of responsibility? Devotion? Love? Pity? Contemporary feminists would (and doubtless do) celebrate this book as an expression of female bonding, of inter-generational friendship between women; or, perhaps, as an idyll of mother-in-law—daughter-in-law relations, so often marked by acrimony. In any event, we are left pondering the question: From whence did Ruth draw this strength and these spiritual resources. Ultimately, there is a certain mystery to conversion: what causes one human being make the incredible jump from one culture to another, and particularly from one that is pagan to a deeply spiritual culture?

The second central scene is that of Ruth’s night-time visit to Boaz at the threshing floor (3:6-15). Here she was risking both her virtue and her reputation. What sort of woman goes to visit a strange man late at night, in a deserted spot in the field? What would others think of her, and what would he think? Here, we need to read between the lines: she must have sized up his character as an honest, decent man; that his fatherly, protective demeanor (warning her of the young men who would be only too ready to take advantage of her weakness, and ordering them not to molest her; allowing her to glean after the harvesters; sending her home with a bundle of barley; etc.) was authentic, and not a cynical maneuver to gain her trust. At this stage, she must have made up her mind to trust him completely, and to risk losing all. When she lay down next to him in the field, he could easily have taken his pleasure with her; or he could have priggishly pushed her away with words of rebuke: “Get thee away, you brazen hussy!” That he did neither—that he listened to her, and agreed to go to the gate and arrange things properly and legally with the elders of the town—could not be taken for granted. What stands out here, more than anything, is Ruth’s intuitive, instinctive judging of people. Where did this Moabite girl get this clear, true sense of others character?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Bamidbar (Archives)

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.