Skip to content

Parashat BaMidbar 5774 — 04/21/2014

Parashat BaMidbar 5774 — 04/21/2014

The Ohel Moed [Tent of Meeting] shall travel [along with] the camp of the Levites in the midst of the [other] camps. (Bamidbar 2:17)

Since the Torah is placed in the Aron in the Ohel Moed, the Tent always must be “in the midst” – the center – not closer to one camp than another. This is similar to the placement of the bimah in the center of the synagogue. So too, we find that the Tree of Life was situated “in the midst of the Garden” – which the Targum translates, “in the middle of the Garden’ The Torah, too, is a “Tree of Life:’ and everyone must gather around it so that the Torah is in the center.

   And because life’s wellsprings come from the heart, the heart must be centrally located in the body. From there, the heart sends out blood, the “seat” of the soul, to all parts of the body equally.  Every part of the  body draws its vitality from the heart, and thus we are instructed: More than you guard anything, safeguard your heart. (Mishlei 4:23).  (Chafetz Chaim)

I’m writing this just after Valentine’s Day, so it would seem that the heart analogy is quite apt.  On the other hand, there are significant differences in the way the heart is perceived in Jewish tradition and in Western tradition.  For example, in Western tradition the heart is considered the seat of the emotions (heart vs. mind), while in Jewish tradition it is considered the seat of thought (“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart…”).  Nevertheless, the heart is always considered the archtypal vital organ, and, as the Chafetz Chaim points out, it is centrally located in the body.  From this central point it influences all parts of the body, through the blood it sends out.

Interestingly, the blood is the “seat” of the soul as the Chafetz Chaim mentions, but it is the seat of the most expressed aspect of the soul, the nefesh.  Animals have a nefesh too – it is that part of the soul that handles moving about and eating and procreating, and is sometimes called the “animal soul.”  In fact, we are told that the blood is the seat of the nefesh specifically in the context of animals, where we are enjoined not to eat the blood, as it is used for atonement for our own souls.  On the other hand, in the brief meditation some say before putting on t’fillin, we find the phrase the neshamah that is in my brain.  The neshamah is a much more fundamental aspect of the soul, having to do with the qualities of thought and intellect that make us uniquely human.  Apparently our tradition places this in the brain, which certainly makes sense from a Western perspective.  Now the brain is also a vital organ – it controls all the functions of the body and is the place where our subjective nature intersects with our bodies.

There is a dispute in the Talmud (Yoma 85a) that highlights this tension between heart and brain.  It is forbidden to clear away rubble from a collapsed building on Shabbat, unless of course there is some suspicion that someone might be trapped in the rubble.  The question arises, if you come across a body, how much of it do you have to unearth in order to determine if the person is still alive (and you keep digging) or is not (and you must stop since there’s no more question of saving a life).  The case is where we first discover the feet and begin clearing from there.  One opinion says we must clear only until the heart – if the heart is still beating the person is alive, if not, then not.  The other opinion is that one must clear all the way up to the nose, to see if the person is breathing or not.  Breathing is controlled by the brain stem, and brain stem death is generally recognized as death for halachic purposes.  [Note that this is different (and more stringent) than what we call “brain death,” where there is no cerebral activity.]  This conclusion makes even more sense in our day and age where many know how to perform CPR and desktop defibrillators are becoming more common – a heart can, at times, be restarted.  A brain cannot.  Once the higher soul has left its seat, there is no longer any human life.  For more perspective on this issue, please see The Halachic Organ Donor Society web site.

Nevertheless, the heart of the matter is that it is the heart that is in the center of the body, and serves as a metaphor for other “centers,” as the Chafetz Chaim points out.  These metaphors all point to Torah as the “heart” of the Jewish people, and in fact, of the world as a whole (as the Tree of Life).  How are we to understand this?

We create metaphors for a reason – they allow us to picture that which has no form, to imagine that which has no image.  In the case of our metaphor, the heart is at the center of the body and nourishes the entire body.  What our metaphor is telling us is that Torah is central to our individual lives, to the life of the community of Israel, and to the life of the universe as a whole.  And I think the reason for this is that Torah is knowledge of Gd, and ultimately it is Gd Who sits in the center of creation, continually sustaining it and nourishing it every moment.  In one sense, since “Gd, the community of Israel and Torah are One” (Zohar), we can therefore also say that Torah sits at the center-point of creation. Perhaps it is this aspect of Gd, which is revealed and, as it were, Gd’s active interface with creation, that plays the role of nourishing creation – the lifeblood, so  to speak that comes from Gd, the heart.

Therefore, King Solomon tells us: More than you guard anything, safeguard your heart.  On the physical and emotional levels the meaning of this statement is obvious.  On the spiritual level, perhaps we are being told that we must take care of our most precious possession – our connection with the Divine.  The stronger our connection is to Gd, the more real life we have, and the more we can accomplish in life.  If we have that connection, we have everything, but if we let it dry up through neglect as we strive for mundane success, we will wind up with nothing in the end.  It really shouldn’t be such a difficult decision!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 5: Auto-Anti-Semitism (probably 1970’s)

In this short essay (presumably R. Steinsaltz himself forgot when he wrote it) R. Steinsaltz begins with the proposition that believing Jews and anti-Semites share an important belief – the belief that the Jewish people are unique in the world.  Of course the Jew believes that this “chosenness” implies a special closeness to Gd, and a special responsibility to sanctify Gd’s Name in the material world.  The anti-Semite, on the other hand, sees our “chosen” status as giving us license to manipulate society for our own nefarious purposes.  The blatherings of the likes of Walt and Mearsheimer, or of Richard Falk, are good examples of this kind of thinking.

When it comes to the non-Jewish anti-Semite, R. Steinsaltz points out that their hatred is tinged with envy, since they see the Jews as a superior people (thus they need to degrade us in any way possible).  The Jewish anti-Semite, on the other hand, experiences no such ambivalence.  He can take the attitude, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  It is this kind of self-hate that has caused us so much trouble throughout the millennia, so much so that a blessing had to be inserted into the Amidah to deal with it.

Our Sages say that the ultimate cause of the enmity of the nations is to be found within us.  When we deviate from the path Gd has prescribed for us, usually by adopting customs and practices of our host nations that are antithetical to Torah values, we get a “reminder” from our hosts that we shouldn’t be getting too cozy in “their” country.  Ultimately, we have to recognize that we are “a nation that dwells alone, not reckoned among the other nations.”  We have to find our security and our identity in our relationship with Gd.  Once we are connected with Gd’s light within us, we can radiate it into the world on our own terms.  We will be able to love our neighbors, because we first love ourselves.