Monday, July 16, 2007

Matot-Masei (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog for July 2006.

“These are the Travels”

The opening Rashi of Parshat Masei is quite well known:

Numbers 33:1. “These are the stages [stations; i.e., in the travels] of the children of Israel, when they left Egypt in their hosts…” Rashi: Why are these stations written? To make known the kindness of the Omnipresent, for even though He decreed against them that they be tossed about and move around in the desert, you cannot say that they were tossed and moved about from place to place all forty years and did not have rest, for there are only forty-two stations here in all. Subtract from them fourteen during the first year, prior to the edict… and another eight stations after Aaron’s death… We find that throughout the thirty-eight years they only journeyed twenty stations. This is based upon Rabbi Moses [the Preacher]’s Yesod.

And Rabbi Tanhuma taught another homily concerning this: it may be compared to a king who took his sick son to a distant place to be healed. On the way back, the father began to enumerate all the stations on the way, saying: There we slept, there we felt chilled, there your head hurt, etc.

Several salient points about this passage: First, that Rashi is keenly aware of what might be called the “redaction” of the Torah—that , the manner in which it is edited or arranged—and attempts to understand why the Torah brings certain subjects, and why it does so where it does. In this case, at least some of the information given here appears elsewhere, albeit scattered in several different places and in incomplete form. Why was it important that it be brought here at all?

Second: most often, when drawing upon someone else, states his other sources: in this case, Rabbi Moshe ha-Darshan, head of the yeshiva in Narbonne and one of Rashi’s important teachers, and Midrash Tanhuma.

Third: there is a strong emphasis on what might be called “relational” rather than theological messages. God is depicted here as a caring, concerned father, reminiscing with his son over the hardships they have undergone together, rather than as a cosmic figure concerned with constant reminders of His power, His miracles, etc. (as implied by Ramban here). Neither is Rashi interested in the mystical allusions imbedded in the names of the various stations and their number, as is the case in certain Kabbalistic or Hasidic exegeses.

Finally, without any connection to the above, I would like to mention a most marvelous sermon I heard on Parshat Masei delivered by Art Green some years ago at the Leader Minyan. To this group, which consisted of many old-time “‘60s people,” he spoke, in half-jocular tone, of Masei as the chapter of “trips”—of life as a series of “trips,” and of the more serious Hasidic message that life is an ongoing journey, with many different stations or, if you prefer, “trips,” in which a person seeks meaning; all these taken together, both good and bad, make up who we are. Some, such as Haradah (paralyzing fear), Marah (Bitterness), and Tahat (Bottom), are negative; others, like Mitkah (Sweetness) and Har Shefer (Goodness), have more positive resonance. Or there may be group experiences, like Makhelot or Kehelata, or that of going to the “court” of a Hasidic or other charismatic teacher—Hatzerot. But at the end of the journey, there is a certain value to remembering all the trips, to knowing that they all, however misguided and stupid they may seem in retrospect, went into one’s life, and together constitute a source for a certain kind of wisdom.

PINHAS: Was the Tamid Offered in the Desert?

Last Shabbat, I was privileged to visit the table of my friend Mendel Shapiro. At a certain point, the discussion turned to a certain point in the week’s parasha—for whose rather technical nature he apologized, half facetiously. But in truth, properly understood, this subject, like all Torah, has interesting and far-reaching consequences.

The question was: were the fixed daily sacrifices—the two sheep, one in the morning and one in the evening, mentioned here—offered on the altar during the forty years of wandering in the desert? After all, following the specifications for the various artifacts to be made for the Sanctuary, it explicitly states, just after the construction of the altar, that “this is the thing you shall do on the altar every day” (Exod 29:38-46), and goes on to describe the Tamid, the fixed daily offering. (Note: all this is in terms of the Torah’s own self understanding. The “empirical historical truth” can in any event probably never be recovered—but, as is always our way, we place aside or bracket whatever historical and textual critics may say.)

But if that is so, why is the commandment repeated here, in Numbers 28-29, with the addition of the occasional offerings (musafin), at a point which is clearly preparatory to entering into the land, as if it is one of these commandments whose performance will only begin after entering the land. (In this, it would seem to be like much else in the latter half of Bamidbar, e.g., the cities of refuge, the separation of hallah and the giving of other offerings to the priests, and of course the detailed regulations of division of the land, its inheritance, the boundaries of the Land, etc.).

Indeed, one can argue the case either way. But it seems strange to assume that the daily sacrifices were commanded in Exodus 29, only to be performed at a much later time. The phrase, “this is what you shall do upon the altar,” seems to suggest a certain minimum service to be performed in the desert: the Mishkan was surely constructed to be a functioning locus of Divine service. The passage in Exodus 29:38-46 seems clear enough: God describes the Tent of Meeting as the place where “I shall make myself known to Israelites… and I shall dwell among them… and they shall know that I am the Lord who took them out of the Land of Egypt.” And indeed, in almost the same breath it describes the two sheep to be offered on the altar daily. Then, too, in Exodus 40, it describes the erection of the Mishkan, the placing therein of the various requisite items, and the appropriate use of each one, and, in verse 29, describes the last item but one: the altar, upon which were to be offered olah uminhah. Yet a further argument in support of this view may perhaps be found in the use of the word tishmero in Num 28:2: “you shall guard to do in its right time”—as if it were a practice already familiar to the Israelites.

On the other hand, there is a verse from the prophet Jeremiah that “I did not speak to you of my burnt-offerings and whole-offerings on the day I took you up out of Egypt” (Jer 7:22)—but this verse is generally understood as one launching criticism against the over-emphasis on ritual, specifically sacrifices, and calling for justice, ethical behavior, kindness to the unfortunate, etc., and may be read as a certain poetic exaggeration rather than as literal truth.

Rashi’s position is quite clear. In Num 28:4 he states that the Tamid was only offered during the seven-day period of initiation (milu’im) of Aaron and sons, and of the Sanctuary itself:

Numbers 28:4. “The one lamb you shall offer in the morning…” Rashi: Even though it already states in Parashat Tetzaveh, “this is what you shall offer upon the altar” (Exod 29:38), that was an admonition regarding the days of initiation, while here He commanded regarding future generations.

But what does the rather strange verse, “a fixed burnt-offering, made at Mount Sinai” (Num 28:6), mean?

Ibid., 6. “A fixed burnt-offering, made at Mount Sinai.” Rashi: Because they were offered during the days of initiation. Another thing: “made at Mount Sinai.” An analogy is drawn between the fixed offering and Mount Sinai, i.e., that which was offered prior to the Giving of the Torah, of which it is written, “and he placed [the blood] in bowls” (Exod 24: 6)—this teaches that it requires [to be placed in] a vessel.

This second Rashi seems somewhat strained, even far-fetched: a conscious attempt, having taken a certain approach to this issue, to reconcile certain details to fit the earlier verses. That is, one that was only offered for a few days in the desert, on a special occasion.

Ramban disagrees, saying that the Tamid was offered regularly from then on. This passage is thus seen by him as being brought to teach various adjunct laws, which we shall not enumerate here, plus the musafin, etc.

What is the underlying conception of the meaning of the regular sacrifices here? In the desert context, the Sanctuary is depicted as the immediate continuation of the Sinai experience of epiphany, of the Presence. God appeared at Sinai in the fiery Cloud of Glory (Exod 24:15-17), and it was in this setting that the initial offerings described here were made; after the Sanctuary is erected, God’s Presence dwells over the Tent, described in words almost identical to those used earlier (Exod 40:34-38).

On the one hand, in a certain kind of midrashic perception, the Mishkan may be seen as a manifestation of the halcyon, romantic, honeymoon-like ambience between God and Israel: “I remember the tender devotion of your youth, the love of your nuptials, when you went after me in the desert, in an unsown land” (Jeremiah 2:2—a verse read in last week’s haftarah, albeit for a very different reason!). One could argue that the offering of korbanot is seen as an act of love, of responding to God’s love and palpable presence through a gift of that which was dearest, most valuable.

On the other hand, it is also a kind of “institutionalizing” of the experience of Presence, placing it within limits, boundaries, “below ten tefahim”—and to a large extent formalizing it, making it into a kind of routine which over time may even become largely empty of the sense of immediacy, of tangible holiness, that was once attached to it. It may even become subject to the ills of a priestly class, who misuse their association with the charismatic Divine power for their own crass interests. (We have written on this tension between fixity and spontaneity, between the innerness of spirit and the outward forms of halakhah, on numerous occasions in the past). The Mishkan may thus best be seen as a kind of “half-way house” between these two contrasting influences or “vectors.”

Once we turn to the situation once they entered the Land itself, the element of fixity, of “institutionalized religion,” becomes more dominant. The holy center was now located in a fixed home, a Temple built of stone, and not a portable tent of wood and cloth which could be taken down, packed away, and carted on to the next top. This was perhaps the insight expressed by Rashi in his claim that temidin were only offered on a permanent basis in the Land. On the other hand, the establishing of a fixed habitation, a community, settlement, calls for fixed sacrificial cult as well. But this habitation was always seen as “coming to the rest and the inheritance,” as an act of fulfillment, and not as something lifeless or more mere outward firm. The desert was a time of a more spontaneous, immediate sense of Presence, of interacting with God—but it could not last forever, any more than a honeymoon, in which a couple only interact with one another, without a fixed home or a position within the social nexus of a community, can long be the exclusive context of a marriage.

Zelophehads’ Daughters

An old friend from my Young Judaea Year Course asked me if I had any particular teachings to share about the daughter of Zelophehad. Two comments:

This case is one of a handful of places in the Torah in which Moses is depicted adjudicating a concrete, practical situation, whether one in which an offender commits a serious transgression, or one in which people come to him to resolve some problem. (This is perhaps ironic, as Moses is already shown being observed by his father-in-law, in Exodus 18:13-14, as sitting “from morning till evening” to deal with the people’s questions and problems.)

The cases are: the nokev hashem, the man who blasphemed the Divine name in the course of a quarrel (Lev 24:10-23); Pesah Sheni: the case of individuals who had been ritually impure on the first Pesah and were unable to participate in the sacrifice (Num 9:1-14); the mekoshesh etzim, the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat (Num 15:32-36); the case known by Pinhas’s name, in which a man flagrantly engaged in sexual behavior, publicly, with a Midianite woman (Num 25:1-15: Moses is described by the Talmud as forgot the halakhah, while Pinhas spontaneously understand what needs to be done); and finally, our case of the daughters of Zelophehad, which involves two separate phases, described in two separate places.

In this case, a group of five sisters came, whose father had died, want to know whether their inherited homestead-portion in his share in the Land will simply go to waste because they are women and not men. They were told that, in such a case, they would be entitled to the inheritance (Num 27:1-11). The second round of this same story recurs after they are granted their share in the inheritance. Their (male) fellow Manassites ask: wait a minute, what if they marry outside of the tribe and remove the clan’s homestead from the tribal property? This time Moses ruled that, in order to prevent such a situation, they must marry within their own tribe (Num 36:1-13)

One of the interesting things here is that in almost all of the cases mentioned, Moses is reluctant to rule on his own, but awaits a direct Divine revelation or word to know how to rule. It is only in this final case that we see him acting, for the first time, as a “Sage” rather than a “prophet”—that is, with a sense of his own authority and mandate to decide on the basis of his own autonomous human wisdom—God–inspired, to be sure, but essentially a human decision, rooted in a sense of his responsibility as leader of the community.

A second, possibly more significant question, is: why, of all the cases, and of a handful of practical cases adjudicated in Torah, is this one reopened a second time? I think that this expresses something significant about the sensitive nature of issues involving women and marriage law. On the one hand, a woman is an autonomous individual, a member of her family, clan and tribe, just like a man, and as such deserving of a rightful share in the property and heritage of her family. On the other hand, it is the nature of the woman to marry, to establish new family, and for that family unit to have a new identity and place in society.

An attempt is made here to draw a balance between these two values. Unlike the situation in an ordinary lawsuit—say, between two claimants to certain property, two business partners, an employee and employer, an artisan and his customer, etc.—a dispute within a marriage, or even one involving a hypothetical future marriage, as here, cannot be treated as merely a formal adversarial relationship. A man and a woman living together in shared quarters, not to mention living together intimately, perhaps building a family, cannot be treated only in terms of formal justice, allowing tensions between them to be stretched to the breaking point. Somehow, the interests of both sides must be served, while maintaining a milieu of peace and harmony.

In my view, there is food for thought here for contemporary feminist movement.

POSTSCRIPT: “One law for great and small”

Last week the State’s Prosecution agreed to a plea bargain with Israel’s recently-resigned President, Moshe Katzav, in which Katav admits to sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, is given a suspended sentence (i.e., no jail time!), and all charges of rape, attempted rape, and unlawful relations are dismissed. The justification put forth for this arrangement by Meni Mazoz, Legal Counsel to the Government, is two-fold: that complainant A’s story had certain inconsistencies, and might not stand up in a court trial; and that, by not indicting him for a serious crime, this somehow protects the “honor” of the Presidency.

To my mind, what the prosecutor has done is no less than to erase two verses from the Torah: “you shall not know honor persons in judgment; hear great and small alike; fear not persons, for the judgment belongs to God” (Deut 1:17); and “You shall respect the face of neither small or great; judge your fellowman with righteousness” (Lev 19:15). If once again the high and mighty are spared prosecution to the full extent of the law, while the grievance of complainant A, who is young, and female, and was an ordinary office worker, is essentially thrown into the trash (and her credibility discredited in the bargain), what does it do to the principle—which is of course a central one of secular law and democratic theory, as well as of Torah law—of equality before the law? And what message does this send to bosses with “wandering hands” when a man to whom Mazoz himself referred, prior to this deal, as a “serial sexual monster” gets away with a slap on the wrist?

As for “protecting the honor of the Presidency”: Katzav has besmirched the Presidency through his actions. But the Presidency is not identical with its occupant; it may be best seen as a kind of symbolic embodiment of “Statehood,” embodied in a specific person chosen for that purpose. But if a given individual dishonors his high office, as Katzav has evidently done, a clear and radical distinction needs to be drawn between him and the State that he, so to speak, heretofore symbolized. Whatever the court may decide to do with is case, as a citizen accused of a felony, neither adds nor detracts from this.


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