Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Parashat Bamidbar - Onward, Jewish Soldiers!

B"H

Thomas Mann's novel "The Magic Mountain" describes a seven-year stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. The book is, among other things, a discourse on the nature of Time, and of the way Time itself mutates in the perspective of each of us - and as our perspective mutates moment by moment, the effect this flow of the unstable Self has on the nature of Time. Hans Castorp, the central figure, comes to the sanatorium atop a mountain and, through his observations, we are gradually introduced to the life of a patient. Castorp's first week on the rest cure is described in intense detail, down to the specifics of hours and minutes... Of moments. This description takes up so much of the book that it is disconcerting to notice, after having completed it, how many pages were devoted to a single week - versus how many years subsequently rushed by in a mere few hundred pages.

In commenting on Sefer Bamidbar - the Book of Numbers - Don Isaac Abravanel notes the structure of the Torah, and we see a parallel in the way the Torah, as a narrative, deals with its own concept of Time.

According to the Abarbanel (/ Abravanel - how did he get two names that sound like mispronunciations of each other?) , the general structure of the Torah is:

Sefer Bereshit (Genesis) - Gives the ancestry of 'Am Israel - our own forebears, starting from the moment of the Creation. The world was created for the sake of Torah, after all.

Sefer Shemot (Exodus) - Introduces the fundamental Jewish notion of Exile & Redemption - and of Torah and the Mishkan.

Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) - The notion of Sanctity, as exemplified in the Mishkan, and the concept of Halacha as Sacred Normative Behavior.

Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers) - "Leading the People" - the journeys, the wanderings in the desert, Opposition and Delay - forty years in the wilderness.

Finally, as we shall see BS"D when we arrive at Sefer Devarim, don Isaac views the final book of Torah as perhaps an amalgam of Moshe's handiwork, spliced in with G-d's. It may be that G-d gave the words, while Moshe put them in their final order. Or maybe Moshe wrote a draft, then showed it to G-d and obtained final approval.

Using Don Isaac Abravanel's template as a jumping-off point, we can also view the first four books as:

Bereshit - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph

Shemot - Moshe

Vayikra - Aharon and Klal Israel - Israel as a unified body

Bamidbar - each individual Jew

In this reading, the last Book - Sefer Devarim - becomes our own attempt to discourse with G-d.
We should note that our parasha is very specific as to the setting. The place, and more especially the time of the events is stated precisely: (1:1) "And G-d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of assembly, on the first day of the second month, in the second year of their coming our of the land of Mizraim, saying:" The Rashbam, in his pragmatic fashion, says that the reason for the specificity of the date is that it establishes a cut-off for age of eligibility for military service. For that is what this parasha is about, at least superficially - it is about setting up a military draft.

G-d commands Moshe to take a census. This harks back to Parashat Ki Tisa. There, when G-d commands that a census be taken, Moshe is instructed to take a half-shekel from every able-bodied man. Chazal ascribe this same practice to the census taken in this week's parasha; notably, Rashi, on verse 2, darshans (explains / elucidates / "teitscht ois") the word "legulgelotam" - "by their skulls" (i.e. "head count") and says: By means of a shekel for each head.

In Ki Tisa, G-d commands Moshe to use shekalim for counting the people of Israel. There, the language appears broad enough that we can accept it as a general rule, to be applied here as well. At the same time, the shekel is not mentioned here. Rather, Moshe is commanded to count up the people, with the specific intent of singling out those destined for a military mission. (It is poignant to be writing this the day after Memorial Day, after watching two hours of programs about men who volunteered for military missions during WWII when they knew they faced almost certain death, but fought for the privilege of placing themselves in harm's way for the Cause. Often, these missions were to rescue POWs. Does the entire project of Being Human get any more horrendous and pathetic than when people are at war...?)

This parasha seems to be addressing Each Individual Jew. While the half-shekel of Ki Tisa was an equalizer - G-d specifically commands that the rich shall not give more, nor the poor less - this week's census focuses on the differences between individuals. The Mei HaShiloach addresses the array of the tribes and their banners around the Mishkan and says that each captain of each Degel (banner) knew the exact location of each person in the ranks within his Shevet (Tribe) and knew instantly if a person was out of their accustomed place.

[Two Chassidim are arguing about whose Rebbe is greater. One says: "My Rebbe remembers exactly where he was standing at Har Sinai!" The other Chassid departs in silence. Next day, they meet again. The first Chassid says: "So what do you have to say?" The second says: "I asked my Rebbe. He says you are right. Your Rebbe should remember where he was standing at Har Sinai, because my Rebbe stepped on his foot!]

The census of Bamidbar is more complex than the first census. Two words repeat in the text in describing the actions of this census. They are forms of the Hebrew words "Se'o" and "paqad". In verse 2, G-d commands Moshe: "Se'u 'et-rosh kol 'adat bnei israel..." The verb SE'U is in the plural form, meaning Aharon, who is included in the next verse. It means "lift up" and the command translates, "Lift up the head of all the congregation of bnei Israel..." In the next verse, the command finishes with "... tifqedu 'otam leziva'otam, 'ata ve Aharon." "... you [plural] count them according to their hosts, you and Aharon." The word PQD is complex and profound, awash in meanings. In Chumash it appears variously as: Remember, Visit, Count, Punish, Redeem, Command... The list goes on.

When we analyze these two words - SE'O and PQD - according to the principle of First occurrences, an interesting juxtaposition emerges. It appears that SE'O is in the human realm, while PQD is in the divine.

The first occurrence of the shoresh SE'O is in Bereshit 4:7, G-d admonishes Cain after rejecting his offering: "Ha-lo 'im teitev SE'IT?..." "Is it not true that if you do well, it shall be uplifted?" - Or, probably, "Isn't it the case that, if you improve yourself, then your offerings will be accepted?" We all know the outcome of that scene.

And PQD. Where does that first occur?

Bereshit 21:1 - "Ve HaShem PAQAD 'et Sarah..." As far as I can tell, the verb does not occur again until the end of Bereshit - Parashat Vayechi, 50:24, when Joseph is about to die "... ve'elokim PAQOD YIFQOD 'etchem..." "... G-d will surely remember you..." And will take you up out of this land to the Land promised to Abraham, Yitzhak, and Ya'akov... Then, Yoseph makes his brothers swear an oath, and the oath reads: "PAQOD YIFQOD Elokim 'etchem veha'alitem 'et-'atzmotai mizeh." "G-d will surely remember you, and you will bear up my bones from here."

We have seen that the oath is, in fact, passed down. It is probably the only remnant that ties Israel to its past - and future - when we were enslaved in Mizraim. The proof that we remembered is in Shemot 4:31, "And the people believed, and they heard 'ki FAQAD HaShem et Bnei Israel...' that G-d PQD Bnei Israel..." And so we bowed our heads and prostrated ourselves.... Although to what, we knew not.

And now, in Parashat Bamidbar, we believe that we know.

How wrong we are! But it will take forty years for us to begin to learn. G-d offers us the opportunity to combine human volition - SE'O - with Divine Providence - PQD. We end up not being up to the task on G-d's preferred timetable.

But G-d's delays are not G-d's denials. The message of Bamidbar - of the entire book - is the balance between Klal Israel and the individual Jew: balancing our individual destinies with the eternal arc of the destiny of the Jewish people. For the generations that perished in the Midbar, this may seem a bitter lesson - a PQD. For those who choose to view themselves as part of the overall destiny of 'Am Israel, it is no longer purely bitter. "Ha-lo 'im teiteiv SE'EIT?" Is it not in each of our power, individually, to better the situation?

Yours for a better world.

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