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Parashat 05/14/2010

Parashat BaMidbar

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

The end of our Parashah contains a warning to the Kohanim that they should protect their brother Levites of the families of Kehat (Aharon and Moshe were descended from Kehat, the son of Levi).  The Kehat families were responsible for carrying the Ark, the Menorah, the golden Table with the show bread, and the golden incense altar, and this job carried some danger with it:

And H” spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying: Don’t let the family-tribe of Kehat be cut off from the Levites.  Do this for them and they will live and not die when they come into the Holy of Holies – Aharon and his sons will come in and assign each man to his tasks and his burdens, and they [the Kehatites] will not come to stare at the holy [things] and die.

In fact, Gd gives the Kohanim and the Levites some detailed instructions for breaking camp.  First the sacred vessels were to be covered, then the structure was dismantled, and only after this was done were the Levites able to enter into the once-sacred space and carry off the sacred objects.  Somehow the sanctity had to be attenuated to a certain degree before the objects were safe to handle, as if they were in some way radioactive.

We have come across this notion a few times in previous parshiyot.  In Parashat Yitro, Gd descends on Mt. Sinai, which is covered in thick clouds and a loud sound of the Shofar is heard.  The people are warned not to set foot on the mountain, but in fact they move a ways off on their own accord for fear of coming too close to an experience they are not yet equipped to handle.  A few Parshiyot later, in Ki Tisa, Moshe Rabbeinu asks for a closer relationship with H”, but is told “no human being can see My Face and live.”  Instead, H” sequesters Moshe in a cleft in the mountain and holds His Hand as it were over Moshe until He has passed by, only removing the covering when Moshe can see His “back.”  After this intense experience, Moshe Rabbeinu must cover his own face with a veil before he can converse even with someone of the stature of Aharon, so intense is the sanctity that radiates from his countenance.  Finally in Parashat Shemini Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two older sons, approach H” in an unauthorized way, and coming too close to the source of all sanctity, they perish.

There is a second interesting aspect that we may note: When the Mishkan is in place, the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark rests, and from where Gd speaks with Moshe, is so intensely sacred that even Aharon can only enter on Yom Kippur, and only in a rigidly prescribed manner.  Yet once the curtains are taken down and the enclosure is no more, that place becomes just another spot on the desert.  In the same way Mt. Sinai itself has no intrinsic holiness; once Gd’s Presence left, it was just another rather nondescript desert crag.

On the other hand, we do have in Judaism a very distinct notion of holiness of place.  For example, Jerusalem is holy because of the Divine Presence which rests on it at all times.  Similarly a synagogue is holy, albeit with a lesser holiness, so much so that our tradition tells us that all synagogues in the Diaspora will be transported to the Land upon the arrival of Mashiach.  And within a synagogue each person should have a makom kavu’a, a fixed place to pray.  This place will become permeated with our own special holiness and will be especially efficacious in enhancing our prayers.

Since Gd is everywhere at all times, what does it mean to say that one place is holier than another?  Perhaps we can get a hint from our Parashah.  The sacred objects in the Sanctuary must be covered before the Levites can transport them.  Somehow these objects act as lenses to focus holiness, which is the infinite value of life, into concrete expression.  However if there are impurities, even slight ones, this expression may be too much for an individual to handle; therefore the objects must be covered over; the holiness must be veiled lest it overwhelm the finite completely, the way the light of a candle is lost in the glare of the noonday sun.

This concept is further developed in the Kabbalistic system of the Arizal (R. Yitzchak Luria, 1534-1572, Tzefat).  When Gd began to create, there was no room for anything but Gd.  In order to leave room for creation, Gd “contracted” within himself (tzimtzum) and then radiated light, holiness into the space.  This light was supposed to be contained in finite “vessels,” but it was too intense, and the vessels shattered (shevirat hakeilim).  This disintegration is what we see today in the finite world, and it is the job of every Jew to re-integrate the “shards” (kelippot) of the broken vessels so that they can contain the full value of holiness, of infinity.  In this light we can reread Gd’s instructions to the Kohanim and the Levites.  Gd’s sanctity fills the Holy of Holies, but it is too intense for a human being, a finite vessel, to bear.  Therefore the holiness must be covered up, or veiled to prevent the vessels from shattering.  In the case of Nadav and Avihu we have a representation of actual shattering; although we understand that they died al kiddush H” (sanctifying Gd’s Name), this is certainly not an outcome that we want to become widespread!

We can take the analogy a step further.  The entire creation is an elaborate veil that covers the infinity that lies at its core.  Infinity is radically and absolutely different than the finite.  If our awareness is on the finite, we may be protected from having our individuality overwhelmed by the universality that characterizes infinity, but at the same time neither are we able to reflect the full value of life that is deep within us.  I believe that through prayer and mitzvot we can gradually pull back the veil and begin to take measured glances at infinity, until gradually we become purified and able to withstand greater and greater intensity of holiness in our day-to-day lives.  Our gaze begins to penetrate the veil until our mind and our perception becomes suffused with infinity, with holiness.  Eventually perhaps, we can even hope to repair ourselves, to piece together the shards and become the glorious container of light that we are all supposed to be.

Pirke Avot Chapter 6

The sixth chapter of Pirke Avot is actually a later addition.  The first 5 chapters are a part of the Mishnah as redacted by R. Yehudah haNasi (R. Judah the Prince, generally referred to simply as Rebbi, c.135 – c.200 CE).  The sixth chapter is material from the same time period of the Mishnah, but which was left outside the corpus of the Mishnah; hence these sayings (and many other such sayings in the Talmud) are called Baraitot (from Aramaic bara = outside).  It was probably added to provide a sixth week of readings to come right before Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah 7 weeks after the Exodus.  It is often called Perek kinyan Torah (the chapter on acquisition of the Torah).

Mishnah 1

R. Meir says: Whoever engages in Torah study for its own sake merits many things, and furthermore, the entire world is worthwhile for his sake.

I think that on the highest level, the study of Torah means putting one’s individual mind in tune with Gd’s mind.  To be a Torah Sage is to be spiritually developed to the highest possible level, to see everything in terms of the infinity that hides behind every finite value.  Such a person is someone who reflects to the maximum extent the nature of our Creator, and fulfills his or her own destiny, and is someone the Creator is proud to have created!