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Parashat Bamidbar 5776 — 06/11/2016

Parashat Bamidbar 5776 — 06/11/2016

Bamidbar 1:1-4:20

Sometimes I wish I could just copy R. Steinsaltz’ entire piece on a parashah – this is one of them. Of course, I can’t, and there are laws against plagiarism, so allow me to summarize briefly what he says.

Part of our parashah details the duties of the Levitical family of Kehath – this is the family from which Moshe and Aharon come, and indeed, they are singled out for the most honored portion of the work of the Mishkan, namely carrying the Ark, the Incense Altar, the Menorah and Table with the show-bread. However, the Torah warns the kohanim to be very careful to cover these articles before the Levites take them. The Levites are not permitted even to see the articles being covered, “lest they die.”

The Mishkan was meant to be dismantled and reconstructed at every stage of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. R. Steinsaltz asks us to consider what this entails – a space which was the Holy of Holies, where only the Kohen Gadol was allowed to enter, has now, with its curtains removed, and the Ark covered, become just another spot in the desert, where anyone can walk, where animals can tread. With the dismantling of the Mishkan, it appears that holiness itself is dismantled, yet it is rebuilt in another place, which then becomes holy.

R. Steinsaltz remarks that this dismantling of holiness takes place all the time in Jewish life. We study Scripture and we think we understand it. Then we read Talmud or Midrash, and we find that we didn’t understand anything about Scripture. In the same way, we study a page of Talmud with Rashi and we understand it, until we read the commentaries and find out that our understanding was woefully incomplete. We need to dismantle everything we know and build it up again.

This is not a process for the faint of heart. When we dismantle everything we know, or we think we know, there is always the possibility that we will not be able to put it back together. Thus, only the Kohanim are allowed to do the actual dismantling and covering of the objects in the sanctuary, before the Levites are allowed to carry them. In the same way, some scholars are allowed to pursue certain questions, while others, perhaps less steeped in Torah or of not quite the same intellectual stature, are steered away from them, “lest they die.”

I might point out that there is support for this thesis in both Scripture and Rabbinic literature – the famous story of “The Four Who Entered Paradise” tells of four great Sages who engaged in Kabbalistic practices that allowed them to have visions of the celestial realms. One died, one became insane, the third became an apostate, and only Rabbi Akiva “entered in peace and returned in peace.” King David asks Gd to be merciful to him because “I did not pursue matters too great and too wondrous for me” (Ps 131). Indeed, David wanted to build the Temple, but was told that he couldn’t. Like the Levites, he did what he could (acquiring and preparing the site) and then passed the torch to someone more suitable for the job, viz his son, Solomon.

I think most people know instinctively that there are areas where they dare not trespass. Most people adopt a set of beliefs early, generally from their parents and/or community, and they are extremely reluctant to part with any piece of this set of beliefs, even if contradicted by facts, and even if the set of beliefs is internally inconsistent. Examples abound: on the right, some people insist that the world was created 6,000 years ago and that evolution does not take place, despite ample scientific evidence to the contrary. On the left, people insist that the banking system and government are controlled by the Jews, even when they act contrary to the Jews’ wishes and interests. (The same anti-Semitic canards are used by the right as well, of course, when it suits their interests.)

The reason for this reluctance is that it is extremely difficult to take apart our constructs and examine them objectively, and then put them together again into a consistent framework. Apparently it is easier to live with the cognitive dissonance of an inconsistent set of beliefs, and to drown out our discomfort by turning up the TV or calling sports-talk radio and engaging in learned discussion of how the Broncos won the Superbowl, than it is to do the hard work of stepping outside our narrow boundaries of thought and examining our belief system in the cold light of reality. After all, we might have to admit we were wrong, and change the way we are living.

I’d like to consider this procedure of breaking down and rebuilding a little further. It seems to me that we are dealing with two opposite faculties of humanity in this process. The process of breaking down belongs to the intellect. The intellect is that faculty that makes distinctions. The Hebrew word for intellect is binah, which comes from the root bein, between. It is what is supposed to allow us to distinguish between truth and falsehood. It is what allows us to take two things that are very similar and tell them apart. It is what allows us to see the different parts of a system and their relationships. And it is what can tell us if two propositions are consistent with one another or not. Intellect is a function of the mind.

The other side of our procedure is rebuilding what we have taken apart. Anybody who’s played with a clock knows that this is easier said than done! This is essentially an integrative process. While we think we are rebuilding something piece by piece, in truth, in order to build anything, we don’t work on the level of the parts – we must have a vision of the whole. This holistic vision then guides us in emplacing the pieces – as the vision that Moshe Rabbeinu was shown on Mt. Sinai guided the construction of the Mishkan. This holistic vision is a function of the heart. Love is that which unifies opposites, love is that which makes peace between contending forces, love is that which integrates pieces into a whole which is more than the sum of the parts.

Moshe Rabbeinu was the paragon of the intellect – it was he who brought the Torah from heaven and interpreted it for us. Moshe was a Levite. His brother, Aharon the Kohen Gadol, was the lover of peace, the pursuer of peace. “Peace” in Hebrew is Shalom, which has as its root wholeness. Aharon made peace between quarreling neighbors, between husband and wife, between Israel and Gd. It was Aharon and his sons who could take the Tabernacle apart and put it back together again, because their hearts, full and suffused with love, could see the vision of the whole in the myriad parts. If we are to be a kingdom of priests, we must expand both our hearts and our minds, so that we can both tear down and build up, always striving for a higher expression of ultimate truth.

Haftarah: Hoshea 2:1-22

The whole of the Book of Hoshea is a long parable of a broken relationship and the power of love to mend it. Hoshea starts off very down on the Jewish people for not being faithful to Gd, and suggesting that Gd cast them off. In reply, Gd tells him to go marry a loose woman / prostitute, which he does and has children with her. After some time Gd hints to Hoshea that maybe his wife is not being faithful to him and that he should dump her. Hoshea tells Gd that he loves his wife and children and doesn’t want to leave them. Gd says, “Aha!” Now you understand my love for Israel, even when she strays.

As individuals and as a nation we are constantly trying to individuate – from the day we are born we must progressively assert our individuality. Yet this process of individuation is also a process of distancing – in the case of a baby it is distancing itself from parents; in the case of an adult it can be a distancing oneself from Gd. Carried to its extreme, this distancing of ourselves from Gd leads to our own annihilation, as we attach ourselves more and more to the relative, changeable, mortal aspects of our personality – mind, emotions, body.

Fortunately, Gd guarantees us that we will not be cast off completely – Gd’s infinite love, the infinite integrating power that Gd wields, always binds us back to Him. In the concluding words of the haftarah, which we say as we wrap the strap of the arm t’fillin around our finger like a wedding ring: I will betroth you to Me forever, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and judgment, in loving-kindness and mercy, I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know Hashem.

A Joyous Shavuot to all!

A postscript: Do you know why the Yankees were never as dominant after 1968 as they were before? The answer: They got dismantled!