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Parashat Bamidbar 5779 — 06/08/2019

Parashat Bamidbar 5779 — 06/08/2019

Tonight is Erev Shavuot — Chag Sameach to all!

Bamidbar 1:1-4:20

According to Ramban, the whole purpose of the Mishkan (Tabernacle in the desert) was to recreate the experience of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Now the Revelation was a pretty abstract affair for just about everyone but Moshe Rabbeinu, who “spoke with Gd face to face.” It is a well-known fact that moments of inspiration quickly fade into the fuzzy realm of memory unless they are concretized into action. How many of us have seen a beautiful sunset, stopped for a few seconds to take it in, and then gone about our business, essentially unchanged? Almost everybody. Incidentally, our tradition has an antidote to this blasé attitude – when we see a wonder of nature, or a great scholar (Torah or secular), or a powerful political leader (Jewish or non-Jewish), we say a blessing, thanking Gd for having created such things in His world, and, by implication, for allowing us to experience them.

In a sense, the Torah text that we have is a concretization of Revelation. As we have noted over the past few weeks, Revelation is actually listening in on Gd’s “conversation” with Himself. This conversation is understood to be the finest impulses of creation, expressed as speech, specifically speech in the Hebrew language. The Torah text, ink on parchment, is a physical object that is imbued with the holiness of the transcendent specifically because it conveys the content of the Revelation directly. Nonetheless, it is a physical object that we can see and touch and read from, and thereby actualize, to some extent, the experience of standing at Mt. Sinai.

The German scholar Benno Jacob beautifully captures the approach of these scholars: “Gd moves His presence from the mountain to the Mishkan, from the location sanctified by His hands to the sanctified location built by the Israelites…. The Sanctuary is the Sinai which travels in their midst, is the heavens and the vault of the heavens which has been uprooted and lowered to the earth [R. Goldin’s emphasis].”

R. Goldin continues:

Other commentaries focus on the further spiritual imagery conveyed by the divinely designed camp.

Rabbeinu Bachya [RAR: Bachya ben Asher, Spain, 1255-1340], for example, cites Midrashic sources that perceive an evocation of two parallel camps. The earthbound Israelite encampment, surrounding the Sanctuary on all four sides, is matched by a celestial camp comprised of twelve angelic tribes surrounding the Divine Presence in the heavens, again in groups of three tribes each. This technique of mirror imaging between heaven and earth is often cited in rabbinic literature as a way of underscoring the unity between Gd and His creations.

With exquisite attention to detail, Rabbeinu Bachya notes another striking phenomenon. In the process of delineating the location of each tribe within the Israelite camp, the text notes the names of the leaders of the twelve tribes. Four, and only four, of these tribal princes possess names that contain the name of Gd (E-l): Netanel, Shlumiel, Gamliel and Pagiel. Each one of these four princes participates in the leadership of a different tribal cluster: Yehuda, Reuven, Ephraim and Dan, respectively. The presence of Gd is thus symbolically attached to every section of the Israelite encampment, woven into the very names of the leaders of the camp.

I would like to extend Rabbeinu Bachya’s observations beyond the merely symbolic. Incidentally, I think it is very likely that Rabbeinu Bachya himself didn’t see his observations as “merely symbolic.” I think we tend to read them that way because in most cases we are unused or unable to see beneath the surface values of phenomena.

First, let’s ask what we mean by “symbolic.” A symbol is a sign that represents something else. For example, the word “chair” represents something that we can sit on, in all its various permutations, and excluding some things that we can sit on, like a rock or the ground. In English, the symbol “chair” has no intrinsic relationship with the reality of chairs – the symbol is arbitrary, much like using the letter “v” for speed in physics or the Greek letter θ (theta) for angle in mathematics.

Not so in the Hebrew language, according to the Kabbalists. In Hebrew, the vibrational qualities of the sound of a word are exactly the same as the subtle vibrational qualities of the word’s referent. So the Hebrew word “kisei” conveys the essence of “chair” on the subtlest level, the first sprouting of creation, where Gd is “speaking to Himself.” Now, when Rabbeinu Bachya points out that the primary tribal leaders of each of the four camps have E-l in their names, it is not merely symbolic of the fact that Gd is in each of the camps, rather it embodies the fact that Gd is in each of the camps, the unifying force behind all the variegated expressions of holiness that reside within the Jewish people.

I believe the same can be said about that actual arrangement of the tribes around the Mishkan, and the way they marched (R. Goldin discusses this too, and finds symbolic meaning in the two opposing Talmudic positions). We have known for a long time that creation is structured in layers – surface, molecular, atomic and nuclear, etc. It appears that creation has a fractal structure as well – a structure that is self-similar at all levels. This means, simply, that the microcosm and the macrocosm are parallel to one another. Thus, the camp of the Israelites (more concrete level) is the same as the camp of the angels around the Heavenly Throne (subtler level). Perhaps this extends all the way to the structure of the infinite itself. Far from being symbolic, the camp in the desert, with the Mishkan in the center, and the Holy Ark in the center of the Mishkan, actually recreates the most fundamental structure of creation. Every Jew who marched in that camp was part of this most fundamental structure, and his/her participation aligned the individual mind with the cosmic mind. Sadly, in our generation we don’t have this opportunity. We do have the opportunity to do the mitzvot of the Torah however, and in that way recreate pieces of the cosmic drama, and become an intimate part of that drama.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Bamidbar

The desert symbolizes both barrenness and transcendence. Depending on our level of awareness we perceive it either as the opportunity of transcendence or the sorrow of barrenness. The relation between Gd and Israel, Gd and human, Wholeness and expression, is such that Gd more and more deeply unfolds the opportunities within the seeming barrenness, eventually revealing to each individual that Gd is all there is and each individual is an expression thereof.

We have a saying, “Gd helps those who help themselves,” not selfishly but as members of a community dedicated to service of Gd, Full Restoration of Awareness.

We have another saying “Gd is in the details,” meaning: “Don’t just pray to Gd for help; pay attention to the details and act from our own side to fulfill our desires through the specific actions we take. Once we act, then Gd is more and more revealed as the Source of our desires and our actions and not only is our immediate desire fulfilled but the purpose of all life is fulfilled: return to experience of the Oneness which expresses itself within itself as Infinite Detail, Infinitely Harmonized.”

In this parshah, Gd commands a census — revealing the details of the population of the Children of Israel — at least, of the males of military age, and revealing the detailed opportunity to serve.

We also say, “You count!”  People can get sad feeling that they don’t matter. With the census it becomes clear that everyone (at least, males of military age) counts, matters.

We also say, “Stand up and be counted!”: stand up for what you believe in. The census requires everyone to stand up and acknowledge they are not just individuals, they are part of the Children of Israel, the Nation of Israel, dedicated not just to their individuality but to Gd.

When Gd gives details or asks for details, He is showing us something of the Details of Himself — He is not just an abstract mass of Fullness, He has a Structure, just as do our bodies, our communities, our nations, planet, Universe. In this case, I could not think of any way the number “603,550” — the number of males of military age, excluding the Levites — connects to the Nature of Gd and I found only one source on the Internet that addresses the issue.
The source looks at the census from the point-of-view of Gematria, a traditional way of interpreting Torah from the standpoint of the symbolism intuited from comparing one word to another through the use of the numerical value that each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has.

The author looks at the earlier census Gd commanded and to this one, finds the number 1820 is significant in terms of one aspect of the difference between the censuses, and finds that this number is significant in terms of some of the Names of Gd and also the nature of Creation, of Amen, of the Messiah.

I mention this source, because from the standpoint that Gd is in the details, the author is attempting to attend to the detail of the census, to find meaning in it, and since every aspect of Torah is useful in our life, paying attention to its detail is an action that helps reveal to us the Nature of Gd as All-in-All, One that is All-in-All.

The parshah also describes the separate roles of the three Levite clans and also the spatial orientation of the different tribes in the encampment: Levites, including Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons, in the inner circle, the twelve tribes around that in the groups of three tribes for each direction.

Here we have a possible symbolism of Gd not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of space: not that Gd is limited to space that we can perceive with our senses but that Gd is Wholeness with a structure that we can perceive more and more as through our actions we attend to the details of Torah and of our lives as members of families, communities, planet, universe.

We have in Torah: “Gd created Man (Humanity) in His own Image” Genesis 1:27.

Torah is the Liveliness of Gd, One with Gd, and so to look at its structure and meaning helps us to find the way, the ways, in which we are Images of Gd, and to gradually find that we are not merely Images of Gd, but expressions of Gd, Gd fully acts through us.

The exploration of the nature of the census presented here is tentative. Please join me and share with me what you know, feel, think, guess so we can grow together and Remember and Experience Fully our Oneness.

Baruch HaShem