Parashat BeHa’alotkha 5774 – Moshe’s Leadership

וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְ-הוָה נְבִיאִים

Parashat BeHa’alotkha bridges the end of Bnei Yisrael’s stay at Har Sinai to the beginning of their journey to the Plains of Moab and the land of Israel. Trouble begins immediately, as Moshe faces challenges to his leadership on all levels, from “each person at the entrance to their tent” (Bamidbar 11:10), to his own family (Bamidbar 12). These challenges are part of a larger string of narratives in Sefer Bamidbar dealing with issues of Equality and Leadership. The stories found at the end of Parashat BeHa’alotkha, in Bamidbar 11 & 12, discuss these issues in context of Moshe’s Leadership specifically, and in doing so, highlight the very foundation of biblical social structure, and the very nature of prophecy.

Bamidbar 11 opens with the complaints of the people, and Moshe’s reaction to the people. Moshe goes to the people and professes his inability to bear their weight (11:10-15). ‘א responds by validating Moshe’s concerns. Moshe says that he cannot lead alone (11:14), and ‘א responds by appointing 70 elders to lead alongside him (11:16). These 70 elders are gathered with Moshe to the Mishkan and ‘א overflows Moshe’s Spirit on to them, and they prophesy (11:17).[1] The problem that this raises is that if they are sharing in the prophetic spirit of Moshe, then Moshe’s hitherto unquestioned status as Leader of the Nation, not to mention Greatest of the Prophets, suddenly becomes shaky. The obvious solution for this dilemma, that Moshe is the one in charge of the bestowal of Prophecy on the Elders, and therefore he remains in charge, is made problematic by the existence of Eldad and Medad. Eldad and Medad decide not to come to the Mishkan, and yet despite this, they prophesy anyway, in the camp (11:26). These two prophets are outside the framework established by Moshe, and thus represent a direct challenge to his leadership.

This problem is addressed by Yehoshua, who calls upon Moshe to silence Medad and Eldad (11:28). Moshe’s response is somewhat astounding. “And Moses said to him: ‘Are thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”[2] (11:29). With this simple response, Moshe tells Yehoshua that he should not be concerned for Moshe’s sake. In Moshe’s eyes, the ideal would be that all of Bnei Yisrael would be prophets, if not for the fact that ‘א had clearly chosen only him to be the prophetic leader of the nation. Moshe doesn’t see himself as inherently special. Rather, anyone could receive this level of prophecy and leadership, if only ‘א would bestow it upon them.

The final story of Parashat BeHa’alotkha is one of the more difficult stories to deal with in the Torah. Miriam and Aharon, Moshe’s siblings, challenge both his spousal choice (12:1), and his right to lead (12:2).  “And they said: ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Has He not also spoken with us?” If ‘א spoke equally to all of them, then by what right could Moshe claim to lead? It would certainly be possible to answer that Moshe was simply better, naturally more fit to lead, but instead ‘א answers that their premise was wrong. While they saw their prophecy was being equal to Moshe’s, in fact it was not.

“And He said: ‘Hear now My words: if there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and he beholds the depiction of the Lord; Therefore why are you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?” (12:6-8)

Moshe’s leadership is not a function of a greater innate stature than others, but rather of superior prophecy. Moreover, it’s not what moshe can do that makes him the leader, but the manner in which ‘א comes to him that does so.

Sefer Bamidbar has to confront the issues inherent in the growth of a nation. After receiving the majority of their laws at the foot of Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael begin to travel toward the land of Israel. In Israel, they will face all of the challenges involved in the running of a society, and the roots of those issues are here in Sefer Bamidbar. The primary issue of the first few books of Nevi’im is that of Leadership: who is fit to lead, how do they relate to those being led, etc. In Sefer Bamidbar, the leader in question is Moshe. How does he relate to the rest of Bnei Yisrael? Is he a part of them, or separate? Both? These questions get raised forcefully and directly, and the answer comes in kind. Moshe isn’t inherently better or different than the people, he has simply been chosen by ‘א for a specific purpose. Anyone could be chosen. In fact, Moshe seems to like the idea of everyone being chosen, as he is. That, however, is not his choice to make. What makes Israelite prophecy unique is the fact that the prophets of Tanakh are messengers sent by ‘א for a specific purpose.[3] Our purpose is not for us to decide, it comes from ‘א. It was ‘א who chose Moshe to be a prophet and the leader of the nation. It is ‘א who chooses the purpose of each person. It’s our job to remember that. We should not take an apparently superior purpose as a sign that we are inherently better than anyone else, but rather we should take time to recall, as Moshe did, that all peoples are great, and each person is imbued with divine purpose.

[1] Prophesy as an indicator of appointment to Civil Office is not unheard of in Tanakh. See Shemuel Alef 10:9-13.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org

[3] Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel.

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Shavuot 5774 – Reason and Revelation: Why does it matter that the Torah is Divine?

Why Does it Matter That the Torah is Divine?

“The streams of reason and revelation either run parallel or in different directions. If they run in different directions, then only one of them leads toward truth, while the other one leads toward error. If they run parallel, why do they need river and sea at the same moment.”[1]

This dilemma, known as the problem of Reason and Revelation, is something that goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato suggested that if Revelation is reasonable, as it generally seems to be, then it would contain nothing Reason could not produce on its own. Revelation would therefore serve no real purpose, being simply a repetition of Reason. Religious scholars since then have proposed multiple solutions to explain what purpose Revelation would have, what advantage it would possess over Reason. Some of the proposed motives were quantitative, stating that there was no essential difference between Reason and Revelation, but that functionally Revelation added something. Others made qualitative differentiations, stating that Reason and Revelation actually lead to the different conclusions and produce different content. However, all were trying to answer the same basic question: Why is it important that ‘א wrote the Torah?

Eliezer Berkovits book, “God, Man and History”, was devoted to founding a whole theology on his resolution to the Reason/Revelation problem. He resolved it by saying that  while Reason and Revelation do lead to the same content, only Revelation creates Obligation. In order for there to be Law, there must also be a Law-Giver, one who enforces the law. Therefore Revelation, which involves the relationship between the Law-Giver and those who must keep the law, also gives the law binding force. If someone thinks up the law on their own, there’s really no motivation for them to necessarily follow it, as opposed to when you have an external force, in this case ‘א, to enforce the Law, in this case the law of the Torah. Reason can generate laws, but only Revelation can obligate you to keep them.

Rav Saadia Gaon, leader of the Babylonian academies in the 9th-10th centuries, took a slightly different approach. He said that the idea that Reason and Revelation could generate the same information was only mostly true. For the most part Reason can keep up with Revelation, but not quite. For Rav Saadia Gaon, Reason falls short on two levels. Firstly, it doesn’t always get the details. Reason can tell you that stealing is wrong, but it won’t necessarily tell you that borrowing something without asking is tantamount to stealing (for example). More importantly, Reason as an abstract concept is one thing, but on a practical level Reason is something that varies from person to person, and not every person will reason out the same laws. You can’t make a law system in which each person is required to obey different laws. This problem is avoided by having one law-giver who reveals the laws to the society.

Of all the Kabbalists, Ramban is perhaps the most well known and certainly the most well read. This is due to the popularity of his commentary on the Torah. In addition to its sharp, text-oriented comments, Ramban’s commentary also features very mystically oriented comments. Some of these are famously clipped and cryptic,[2] but many go on to explain at length the mystical secrets hidden behind the surface layer of the text. These mystical understandings of the text could never be derived by Reason. As divine secrets, they have to be revealed by the Divine. Thus a revealed law is only partially reasonable; it’s also a godly mystery.

Heschel took a fairly unique approach to this issue. Taking the principle of Divine Authorship very seriously, he proposed a model of the Torah that could not possibly be written by man.

The Bible is primarily not man’s vision of God but God’s vision of man. The Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology, dealing with man and what He asks of him rather than with the nature of God.[3]

Heschel suggested that the Torah contains information that Reason could not possibly conceive, because it requires the Divine perspective. This mean that even if all the information in the Torah were completely reasonable, Reason and Revelation would still not be comparable. The divine perspective means that everything in the Torah is considered to be important by ‘א. While Reason is powerful, perhaps even theoretically unlimited,[4] ‘א’s perspective is something it could never compete with.

These are just a few many resolutions that have been suggested to this problem throughout history, from within the Jewish Tradition and from without. However, the most important part of the discussion is something seen most obviously in the arguments of Heschel and Berkovits. Berkovits emphasizes the part of the “revealer” in Revelation. Heschel focuses on ‘א and His Perspective as the basis of the Torah. The basic idea behind both of these ideas is that what makes Revelation important is that it is the Revelation of ‘א. The Torah is not just a book of laws created by a divine being. It is a book created by the Creator of the World. In the Torah, the Redeemer of Israel reveals His Will. Our God, and the God of our Fathers, placed His Wisdom in a text for us to study, to immerse ourselves in, not just because of the Torah itself, but because it is a way to connect to Him. It matters that the Torah is divine because learning a Divine Torah puts us in relation to the God of Israel. We used to hear His word from the mouth of his prophets; now we hear it from the text of His Torah.

[1] A.J. Heschel, The Quest For Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy, “Reason and Revelation”, Pg. 50

[2] Ramban’s student, Rabbeinu Bachye, also wrote a commentary on the Torah, and many of his comments explicate the secretive statements of his teacher.

[3] A.J. Heschel, Man is not Alone, 129

[4] Rav Re’em HaKohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Otniel, in a shiur given at Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Parashat Naso – The Nesi’im and the Nation

זֹאת חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ בְּיוֹם הִמָּשַׁח אֹתוֹ מֵאֵת נְשִׂיאֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

Parashat Naso, one of the largest parshiyot in the Torah, is largely composed of Bamidbar 7, some 89 verses long. Chapter 7 consists almost entirely of 6 verses repeated 12 times with very little variation, namely the sacrifices of the leaders of the Tribes. This long passage is capped off by a verse that seems unwarranted: “And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking to him from above the cover that was upon the Aron of the testimony, from between the two keruvim; and He spoke to him,” (Bamidbar 7:89). Initialy, this verse appears to be entirely unrelated to the preceding 88 verses, which deal with the inaugural sacrifices of the Mishkan. However, this seeming discrepancy is mitigated when viewed in the larger context of the Inauguration of the Mishkan.

The Inauguration of the Mishkan is described in two other places in the Torah: Shemot 40:17-38 and Vayikra chapter 9. The passage in Shemot describes Moshe constructing the Mishkan, and then ‘א’s Presence and the associated Cloud filling it. Vayikra 9 depicts Aharon fulfilling the first services of the Mishkan, followed by a divine fire consuming the sacrifices on the altar. In both cases, an intensive, detailed, procedure is followed by the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence in the Mishkan. If we look at the passage in Bamidbar with this structure in mind, the similarity is striking. In place of building the Mishkan or initiating the sacrifices we have the Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, bringing donations. Additionally,  instead of ‘א manifesting His Presence in the Cloud or the Fire, the manifestation is in the revelation in the Aron, the heart of the Mishkan. Bamidbar 7 is one of three passages describing the Inauguration of the Mishkan, and as such, verse 89 can be explained similarly, as part of the necessary structure of the Inauguration passage.

What is important about this passage, is not how it is similar to the others, but how it differs from them. There are three main differences in all of the passages:

  1. The action performed in step one of the inauguration process
  2. The leader performing the action
  3. The resulting manifestation of ‘א’s Presence

In Shemot, the leader is Moshe, and the action performed is the physical construction of the Mishkan, which the Cloud then fills. Moshe is the leader appointed to take the nation out of Egypt and to the land of Israel. He is responsible for the physical guidance of the people, and so he builds the physical structure of the Mishkan. ‘א then manifests His Presence in the Cloud, which guides Bnei Yisrael through the Wilderness.

In Vayikra, the focus is on the priestly activities of the Mishkan. Aharon, in charge of the sacrifices and other rituals of the Mishkan, performs the inaugural sacrificial service, and ‘א manifests His Presence in the fire that consumes the sacrifices.

In Bamidbar, the tribal leaders bring animals and donations for the Mishkan, and the manifestation is in the revelation to Moshe from above the Aron.

While the passage in Shemot emphasizes Moshe’s leadership, and the passage in Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan, the inauguration in Bamidbar emphasizes the Nation of Israel.

Bamidbar is a book about the birth and formation of the Nation of Israel. Thus it makes sense that the depiction of the Inauguration in the Mishkan would focus on the leaders of the Nation. The Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, are the permanent leadership of Bnei Yisrael. They are the leaders that takes over when the nation settles in the land of Israel. More than either Aharon or Moshe, they are the leaders of the nation. That’s why in Sefer Bamidbar, where the focus is on the nation, they are the leaders in the Inauguration.

What is less obvious is why the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence here is through the revelation to Moshe above the Aron. This becomes clearer after a survey of several of the the narratives of Sefer Bamidbar. In chapter 11, the people complain and 70 elders are made prophets. In chapter 12, Aharon and Miriam are punished for their statements regarding Moshe. The narrative of the spies and the nation’s punishment fills Bamidbar 13 & 14. Korah’s rebellion is recorded in Bamibar 16 & 17. These, and the rest of the narratives of Bamidbar, are unified through consistant conversation of Moshe and ‘א in the Mishkan. Sefer Bamidbar demonstrates the amazing fact that Moshe could go to the Mishkan and ‘א would respond to him. Sefer Bamidbar is the story of birth of the Nation of Israel, and with the birth comes birth-pangs. Bnei Yisrael get off to a rough start, with a lot of unforeseen difficulties. Through all of these ups and downs, ‘א is there to guide Bnei Yisrael, and to answer Moshe when he needs help. This ensures the growth of the nation, and establishes the relationship of ‘א to Bnei Yisrael for all time. He is actively involved in our growth and development. More importantly, he responds to our development. He did not simply set us on a path and let us walk down it on our own. ‘א is with us every step of the way.

Yom Yerushalayim 5774 – The Place that Dovid had Designated: Unity and Responsibility

אֲשֶׁר הֵכִין בִּמְקוֹם דָּוִיד

 

The picture of Jerusalem in Tanakh is a complex one. Beyond the fact that its name is not mentioned until Sefer Yehoshua (in the Torah it’s just called “the place that ‘א will choose”[1]), it is also the city whose destruction is probably most often prophesied. And yet it is ‘א’s City, which Yeshayahu depicts as the center of a new world-order based on the knowledge of ‘א. This complexity becomes clearer when one takes a look at the origins of the city as depicted in Tanakh. The conquest of Jerusalem is described multiple times, in the books of Yehoshua, Shoftim, and Shmuel. A closer analysis of these descriptions, and the interplay between them, demonstrates that Jerusalem’s complexity is a feature which goes back to its very origin.

The 15th chapter of Sefer Yehoshua depicts the conquest of the borders and cities of the territory given to the tribe of Yehudah, with a brief interlude detailing the experiences of Caleb Ben Yephuneh and Otniel Ben Knaz (Yehoshua 15:13-19). Verse 63, the last line in the chapter, describes Yehuda’s attempt to conquer Jesrusalem. “ And as for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the children of Yehudah could not drive them out; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Yehudah in Jerusalem until this day.”[2] This is not a promising start to the city, but its real importance comes in its contrast to the description found in the first chapter of Sefer Shoftim.

The first chapter of Sefer Shoftim both agrees and disagrees with Yehoshua 15.[3] Verse 8 describes the Tribe of Yehuda conquering the city. “And the children of Yehudah fought against Jerusalem, and took it, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and set the city on fire.” This fits with the verse from Yehoshua 15 only in the broadest sense. It completely lacks the sense of difficulty in conquering the city expressed in Sefer Yehoshua. However, Verse 21 reads almost exactly the same as Yehoshua 15:63, with the notable exception of Yehudah being replaced by Binyamin. “And the children of Binyamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Binyamin in Jerusalem until this day.” This is an outright contradiction to both the verse in Yehoshua 15 and verse 8 in this very same chapter of Shoftim, which describe Yehudah, not Binyamin, conquering Jerusalem.

There are various ways to resolve this contradiction. Professor Elitsur, in the Da’at Mikra Commentary on Sefer Shoftim, suggests that some of the verses refer to the city of Jerusalem itself, while some of them refer only to the area surrounding the city. According to this conception, Yehoshua 15:63 is referring to Yehudah conquering the land around the city, while Shoftim 1:21 refers to Binyamin conquering the city itself. Shoftim 1:5 speaks of the city itself, but not of Yehuda conquering it, only burning it. In the Daat Mikra Commentary to Sefer Shemuel, Professor Kiel suggests that the area of Jerusalem can be divided into two parts: the City of David, down in the valley, and the area of the Old City and Har Tsion, on the hill above. Thus he says that Binyamin conquered the City of David and Yehudah conquered the Old City and Har Tsion. These solutions each have their own pros and cons, but they do resolve the contradiction. They do not, however, answer the question of why it was written in this manner.

No matter which method one uses for resolving the contradiction, the glaring question remains: Why was the conquering of Jerusalem written in such a confusing manner? Either of the above solutions could have been written much more plainly, without any of the confusion and contradiction. Yehoshua 15:63 and Shoftim 1:21 use exactly the same words, but with a different name for the conquering tribe. However, this parallel is so exact as to imply conscious intent, which warrants assuming a greater degree of intent. Once the paralleling in the verses is recognized, there is a greater intent understood, that of specifically comlpicating the story of Jerusalem. Jerusalem does not belong to any one tribe, but to all of them. While it cannot physically be in the land of all of the tribes at once, it is right on the border of the lands of Yehudah and Binyamin. Therefore, its conquest is one which cannot be attributed to any one tribe.

It is important to note that at the time of Sefer Shoftim Jerusalem was not yet the official capital of Israel. Then it was just a city with a complex ownership situation. It didn’t become the capital of Israel until Dovid took it in Shemuel Bet 5:4-10.

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty and three years over all Israel and Judah. And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who spoke unto David, saying: ‘Unless you take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither’; thinking: ‘David cannot come in hither.’ Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the city of David. And David said on that day: ‘Whoever smites the Jebusites, and gets up to the water channel, and [takes away] the lame and the blind, that are hateful of David–.’ Therefore they say: ‘There are the blind and the lame; he cannot come into the house.’ And David dwelt in the stronghold, and called it the city of David. And David built round about from Millo and inward. And David waxed greater and greater; for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.

 

This depiction, mirrored in Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-9, is most notable for its total lack of a mention of ‘א. When it comes to choosing and taking the city that will be the seat of Israel’s Kingship, theoretically until the end of time, the choice is not made by ‘א, but by David. Similarly, when the site of the Bet HaMikdash is chosen (Shemuel Bet 24:17-25), it is chosen by David, not ‘א, as is made clear by Divrei HaYamim Bet 3:1. “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in mount Moriah, where [the Lord] appeared to his father David; At the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” Once again, the choice is made not by ‘א, but by David.

Jerusalem has two different aspects: its function in terms of the nation and its function in terms of ‘א, and neither of which is as we would expect. While we normally expect a city to fall under one domain, Jerusalem falls under two, and is further considered to not really be their property anyway, rather being a place for all the tribes. It’s not so much a city as a national center. Meanwhile, one would expect the site of national encounter with ‘א to be at a place of His choosing, not some place chosen by Man. And yet, David’s choice designated not just the city but also the very place where ‘א would choose to make his name dwell. Both of these factors lead directly to Jerusalem as a city that could be the center of the universal service of ‘א, and also has its destruction prophesied with terrifying regularity. The city is founded on the unity of diverse groups of people and it is either good or bad based on their choices. Jerusalem represents all the good that Bnei Yisrael can possibly achieve when we are united, but also all the bad we can fall into when we are not. It is on us, not ‘א, to make sure that the city and the nation become all that they can be, and that they lead the rest of the world in living up to all the potential that ‘א has given us.

“And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For Law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Yeshayahu 2:3)

[1] Devarim 12:5, 11, 18, 21, 26, and others.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with some emendations for clarity.

[3] The discussion of the interplay of the verses form Shoftim 1 and Yehoshua 15 and the conclusion drawn from it are based on a class from Rav Amnon Bazak’s year-long “Studies in Sefer Shotfim” (HEB) course, given at Mikhlelet Herzog.

Parashat Bamidbar – Census and Separation

וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת

 

Sefer Bamidbar begins with a listing of all of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael and their count, followed immediately by the formation of the camp, which includes all of the counts all over again. In both these lists the absence of the Tribe of Levi is glaring. The reason for this is simple: the Levi’im do not go to war, so they get only a quick mention in each list. Thus, in these first two lists of Bnei Yisrael, the Tribe of Levi gets sidelined. After the listing of the war-camps however, the Torah returns to the Tribe of Levi in order to describe all of its families, along with their jobs and counts. In all of these lists, one element is strikingly out of place. The beginning of the listing of the Levi’im starts out with the Kohanim, Aharon and his sons, and it not only mentions Nadav and Avihu, but also their crime.

And Nadav and Avihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of Aaron their father (Bamidbar 3:4).[1]

In a list of all the Levi’im, it makes sense to include Nadav and Avihu, and to say that they died with no children to succeed them, but it is odd to include a mention of the crime for which they died. It seems a little out of place, and it certainly would not be missed if it was absent. However, looking at this line in the broader context of the first few chapters of Sefer Bamidar points out a theme not only in these chapters, but in Sefer Bamidbar as a whole.

The pasuk says that Nadav and Avihu died because they “offered strange fire before the Lord.” The word used here for “strange” is “זרה”. This word recalls to the reader the other times this word is used in this context:

“And when the tabernacle sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the common man (זר) that draws near shall be put to death.” (Bamidbar 1:51).

“And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, that they may keep their priesthood; and the common man (זר) that draws near shall be put to death.” (3:10).

“And those that were to pitch [their tents] before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, were Moses, and Aaron and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary, even the charge for the children of Israel; and the common man (זר) that drew near was to be put to death.” (3:38).

Beyond the connection in terms of word-choice, the parallel here is obvious. Just as Nadav and Avihu died because they came improperly before ‘א, so too if a commoner comes improperly before ‘א they shall die.

To the modern ear, the distinction between the Levi’im and the common Israelites seems at best arbitrary, at worst immoral. The idea of castes and classes seems like a problem in need of solving, the kind of thing civilized man left in the long-forgotten past. However, much of Sefer Bamidbar is a discussion of these kinds of issues. Is it really true that all men are created equal? And if that is true, does that mean that all people are meant to do exactly the same thing, or do some people perhaps have different jobs? What is the relationship between the function and value of an individual person or group? These are the kind of questions tackled by the various narratives of Sefer Bamidbar.

Perhaps the best example of this can be found by continuing to trace the appearances of the word “זר” to it’s appearances in Bamidbar 17 & 18. These chapters come on the heels of the rebellion of Korah, a Levi who decided that the nation shouldn’t be ruled by any one or two individuals. Korah’s perspective strikes a chord with modern democratic sensibilities, especially in his bold statement, “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them,” (16:3). However, he and his followers are rejected, and Moshe berates them for thinking that importance is determined by hierarchy (16:9). In the wake of this rebellion, not only are the laws of the Kohanim reiterated and the prohibition for a common Israelite to come improperly before ‘א reinforced (18:4, 7), but they take the consecration fire-pans of Korah’s rebellion and make them into a covering for the alter “to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no common man, that is not of the seed of Aaron, draw near to burn incense before the LORD; that he fare not as Korah, and as his company; as the LORD spoke unto him by the hand of Moses,” (17:5). In the wake of the rebellion of Korah, not only do the laws differentiating between the various groups of Israelites need to be reiterated, the nation needs a permanent memorial to remind them of this eternally.

A more in depth analysis of each of the issues mentioned above is beyond the scope of this paper, but perhaps a simple explanation of the issue of the classes can be found in looking back to the sin of Nadav and Avihu, not in it’s brief mention in Bamidbar, but in its original version in Sefer Vayikra. Vayikra 10:1 reads, “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.” While this is very similar to the quotation from Bamidbar 3:4, it adds one important detail: that ‘א had not commanded their offering. With this in mind, it is clear that what makes something “זר” is not some innate quality, but the word of ‘א. The differentiations between the Israelites, the Levi’im, and the Kohanim are not a function of innate differences between the groups, but rather of ‘א’s decision. And as can be seen from Moshe’s response to Korah (16:9), this differentiation is a matter of function only. It doesn’t make any one group better or more important than any other, and thinking that it does is a rejection of ‘א’s distinctions. It is this purpose, not an external signifier like serving in the Mishkan, that makes a person or group important. Perhaps this is why Sefer Bamidbar starts not with the census of the Levi’im, but with that of the rest of Bnei Yisrael. The census counted each individual person and family and tribe, for each of them had its own unique purpose, and was just as important as every other.[2] This is what is highlighted by the mentioning of the sin of Nadav and Avihu in Bamidbar 3:4, that the issue of the זר who approaches the Mishkan isn’t classes or castes, it’s about the unique purpose ‘א designates for each and every individual.

[1] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with minor emendations for clarity.

[2] Ramban, Bamidbar 1:45

Parashat Behukotai – Holiness Inside and Out – Redux

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מִמֶּנּוּ לַי-הוָה יִהְיֶה-קֹּדֶשׁ

 

The large part of Parashat Behukotai is taken up by Vayikra 26, known as the תוכחה, the Rebuke. It is essentially a description of the consequences for following or disobeying the Law of ‘א, and as such is a fitting end for Sefer Vayikra. It even ends with a verse which clearly summarizes a much larger section, “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the LORD made between Him and the children of Israel in mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Vayikra 27:46). This organizes Vayikra into a collection of laws and a motivational speech about the importance of following them[1], a wondrous and logical construction, which is absolutely ruined when you get to the end of chapter 26 and discover chapter 27. Vayikra 27 is known as Parashat Ha’Arakhin, “the passage of values”, and contains laws regarding personal vows and consecrations to the Mishkan/Mikdash. While a very important set of laws, this section completely destroys the previously beautiful structure created by ending the book with chapter 26. However, a closer analysis of the chapter and its role in Sefer Vayikra will reveal that it replaces the original plan with an altogether more important structure, closing the book and highlighting its most important values.[2]

Parashat Ha’Arakhin is one of two bookends to Sefer Vayikra.[3] It is matched, on several counts, by the first few chapters at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra that discuss the animals brought to the Mishkan as Korbanot. The sections share a basic structure. The early chapters first discuss the Voluntary korbanot, the Olah and Shlamim, followed by the Obligatory korbanot, the Hatat and Asham. This same pattern of Voluntary-Obligatory is mimicked in parashat ha’arakhin, which starts off by discussing the monetary values of people, animals, and land that someone could voluntarily donate to the Mishkan, and then discusses first-born animals and produce-tithes that a person is obligated to give. More important than the structural similarity is the thematic one. Both parshiot involve people bringing things (animals, produce, money, etc.) to the Mishkan. Sefer Vayikra opens and closes with people taking what is theirs and giving it to ‘א. This focus on the Mishkan defines Vayikra, with it’s lengthy descriptions of the laws of Korbanot, Purity/Impurity, etc. However, as chapter 27 reminds us, it is not the only important theme of Vayikra.

Vayikra 27 also closes a smaller section at the end of the book, beginning with chapter 25. Chapter 25 deals with issues of God’s ownership, both of the land and the nation of Israel, and the legal manifestations of that.[4] This does not in and of itself seem to be similar to chapter 27, which deals with evaluation and donations. However, reading the two chapters side by side, one is struck by the numerous repetitions of conjugations of the word “גאל” (redeem, redemption, etc.) in both chapters. With 18 appearances in chapter 25 and 10 in chapter 27, Redemption is not only a common theme to both chapters, but also a fairly dominant theme in each chapter individually.[5] However, the word “redemption” here is not intended in the manner people usually use it; it has no spiritual, national, or historical, connotations. Rather it refers to the return of a person or their property to their own, personal, ownership.[6] In chapter 25 it refers to the redemption of a person, or their property, that was sold to avoid bankruptcy. In chapter 27 it refers to persons or properties that are dedicated to the Mishkan, either by default or intentionally, and their redemption from that state. This connection, between redemption in Vayikra 25 and redemption in Vayikra 27 affects how we view chapter 27. Redemption in chapter 25 is obviously positive, but in chapter 27 it’s not clear. One could suggest that redeeming items intended for the Mishkan is something only meant to be done when absolutely necessary, permitted but far from positive. The similarities to chapter 25 (Particularly 27:16-24, dealing with redeeming land in relation to the Yovel) indicate that the redemption of chapter 27 is the same as the redemption in chapter 25. Redeeming things from the Mishkan must then be seen as similarly positive to redeeming the destitute from slavery. While this seems perhaps a little strange, with all the focus on the Mishkan in Sefer Vayikra, and the simple fact that the Mishkan is where Bnei Yisrael could most easily feel ‘א’s presence, it makes perfect sense when one takes into account the second half of Sefer Vayikra, which deals almost exclusively with life outside the Mishkan.

Parashat Ha’Arakhin was chosen to finish off Sefer Vayikra because it encompasses what are perhaps the two most important values of the sefer: the Mishkan and life outside of it.[2] Bnei Yisrael brought dedications and Korbanot to the Mishkan the same way we dedicate our lives to ‘א. We are pulled towards the presence of ‘א, and in embracing this, in taking the rest of our lives and dedicating them to this, we are wrapped up in His majesty. But the is life outside the Mishkan. The Torah lays down laws for a holy society, but a society needs people to do the work and maintain it (Bereishit 2:15). The Holy Society idea is in direct tension with the Mishkan. Instead of bringing ourselves to ‘א, building a holy society requires bringing ‘א to the rest of our lives. That’s why the Torah lays down laws for agriculture and property ownership, because then the observance of those laws is innately godly.[7] This tension does not have a resolution, it’s something we have to live and struggle with on daily basis. How much of our day is just for ‘א? How much is for ‘א’s world? There’s no set method for determining this, but that doesn’t excuse us from the question. Each day we must ask ourselves anew, and each day we must do our best dedicate ourselves to ‘א while still dedication ourselves to building His world.

 

[1] It’s worth noting that their is a large debate among the commentators regarding which laws the Rebuke is giving consequences for.

[2] For more on this, see my discussion of it here: https://levimorrow.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/parashat-vayikra-the-mishkan-the-people-and-the-land-holiness-inside-and-out/.

[3] Ideas found in this paragraph are from Jacob Milgrom’s Commentary to Vayikra, Yale Anchor Bible Series, Vole. 3 Ch. 27, Comment B; and form R’ Menachem Leibtag’s commentson Parashat Behukotai, found on www.tanach.org.

[4] For more on that, see my discussion here: https://levimorrow.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/parashat-behar-the-property-law-of-man-and-god/.

[5] This paragraph is also largely based on Jacob Milgrom, Op cit.

[6] This has a lot in common with a more national-historical form of redemption, but it’s not quite the same thing.

[7] This is the greatness of the rabbinic requirement of דינא דמלכותא דינא, “the law of the land is law” (תלמוד בבלי, מסכת בבא בתרא, דף נ”ד, עמוד ב’. תלמוד בבלי, מסכת גיטין, דף י’, עמוד ב’.). It give halakhic weight to any civil law, and essentially makes it a mitzvah to eva good citizen.

Parashat Vayikra 5774 – The Mishkan, the People, and the Land – Holiness, Inside and Out

וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-הוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Sefer Vayikra[1] is certainly the most law-oriented book of the Torah. While most of the books of the Torah include a significant narrative section, Vayikra has only a few scattered narratives, all directly connected to the laws of Vayikra. Adding to the uniqueness of this characteristic, most of the laws are very ritually oriented. While this section does include plenty of ethical laws, the vast majority are concerned with rituals and worship. This peculiarity led Julius Wellhausen, the founder of modern biblical criticism, to say that Vayikra is actually a very late addition to Tanakh, a ritualistic corruption of earlier prophetic ideals. More recent scholars have concluded that this was largely a manifestation of Wellhausen’s anti-Semitic beliefs, an intended denigration of what he considered to be the most Jewish part of the Torah. In this one facet, he may have been right. Vayikra is ostensibly the most Jewish book of the Torah. Much of the laws and rites we follow on a daily basis have their roots in Sefer Vayikra. Moreover, the entirety of Sefer Vayikra, down to its very structure, expresses characteristically Jewish ideas.

Sefer Vayikra can be very neatly split into two parts, Chapters 1-16 and Chapter 17-27. These two sections each deal with their own unique subject matter, and where there is overlap, the overlapping law or idea is discussed in two very different ways. The topic of the first section is fairly easy to determine, namely the Mishkan, the Korbanot, and the people responsible for both. This also includes the various persons that are not allowed to enter the Mishkan due to temporary “impurity”, and the ways those people acquire that status. The second section,  however, is a little more complex.

The second half of Vayikra jumps rapidly from topic to topic[2]. It starts off with the laws regarding animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan, moving quickly to forbidden sexual relations and the requirement not to live like the nations that previously inhabited the Land of Israel. It also discusses the laws of the Shabbat and the Holidays as well as the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Surprisingly, peppered throughout the expected ritual laws we find an unexpected amount of moral laws. Finally, near the end of the Sefer we find the punishments awaiting those who fail to live up to the laws of the Torah.

While the laws of the first half of  Sefer Vayikra focus on the Mishkan. the proper way to act therein, and who may enter and who may not, the second half focuses on the life of Bnei Yisrael outside the Mishkan. It covers most, if not all, aspects of life. It deals with the sanctity of the People, the Land, and the special designated times of the People in the Land. Quite beautifully, the switchover from the first section to the second (in chapters 17 and 18) centers on A. The laws of slaughter outside the Mishkan, and B. The command to live differently than the nations that once lived in the Land of Israel. Slaughter outside the Mishkan means taking something that normally occurs inside the Mishkan and moving it outside. That external movement brings us outside the Mishkan and into the land, upon which Bnei Yisrael must behave according to certain moral laws.

These two sections are not simply two sets of laws put side by side, however. On the surface one might think that they both ended up in one book simply by virtue of each being too small to merit its own book. But in fact the first half of Sefer Vayikra very delicately and deliberately sets up from the second half. There are many linguistic and literary connections between the two sections, but the most significant by far are the usages of the words “מעל”, “טמא”, “טהור”, and “נדה” (in their various conjugations). All of these words possess great significance in both sections of Vayikra, but their meanings are not the same. While there are many words simply repeated in the two sections, these words are repeated with entirely different meanings. While in the first section they have an explicitly ritual connotation, in the second they assume very moralistic intentions[3]. “Impure” becomes “Morally Corrupt”,  and “Purification” becomes “Forgiveness”. Ritualistic terminology becomes Moralistic analogy. The language of the Mishkan becomes the language of the Nation in the Land.

The function of the second half of Sefer Vayikra is to take the first half and apply it to the rest of the life of Bnei Yisrael. It essentially analogizes the concepts of the Mishkan to the daily life of the people. The first half of the sefer describes the Mishkan as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the people who go there. The second half of Vayikra describes the People and the Land as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the actions of the people on an individual and collective basis. Just as certain actions mean that a person cannot share ‘א’s space in the Mishkan, so too certain actions mean that ‘א cannot live in the daily life of the people[4]. The laws of Sefer Vayikra are not simply complex ritual laws. They are a description of what it means to try to live in ‘א’s world and to have Him live in yours.

[1] This essay draws heavily from ‘Introduction to Sefer Vayikra’, a lecture by Rav Menachem Leibtag easily locatable on www.yutorah.org, and the Jacob Milgrom’s Introduction to his commentary on Sefer Vayikra, part of the Yale Anchor Bible Series.

[2] Note: This paragraph is just a quick summary. There are plenty of other laws in this section, but these are some of the big ones.

[3] This division isn’t necessarily 100%, rather it is general trend.

[4] It’s worth noting that of its 51 appearances in the sefer, 49 of the uses of the phrases “אני י-הוה” are in the second half of Vayikra.