Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Beha'alotcha - Altar Egos and Split Parshan-alities

Those of us who have been longing for certainty can now breathe easier with the announcement that the Great Sanhedrin has been reconstituted and will soon announce itself as the sole arbiter of Right and Wrong in the world of Torah.

We'll come back to this story later in the hour. First, the latest on the Parasha.

Bamidbar 8:14 - "And you shall separate the Levi'im from the midst of Bnei Israel, and the Levi'im will be mine."

Chapter 9:1 "And G-d spoke to Moshe in the Midbar of Sinai, in the second year of their coming out of the Land of Mizraim, in the first month, saying:" - Did you notice that this parsha precedes Parashat Bamidbar? Which occurs "... on the first day of the second month of the second year..."? Rashi states that the purpose of this juxtaposition is "to teach that there is no order of 'before' and 'after' in Torah. Why does Rashi state this principle at this juncture? It is sometimes more startling to contemplate Rashi's underlying reasons for making a statement, than to learn the content of the statement itself.

The first part of the Sedra deals with the sanctification and setting-apart of the Kohanim. Note that this section follows on the heels of the action of Parashat Naso', which describes the dedication of the Mishkan. Logically, the section describing the setting-apart of the Kohanim should be the final section of Naso', and its actions should follow chronologically on the heels of the closing section of last week's Parasha.

Parashat Naso' ends with Moshe entering the Ohel Mo'ed to listen to G-d's words: according to Rashi's dissection of the incredibly precise wording of the pasuk, G-d speaks in a soliloquy, which Moshe is privileged to overhear. Immediately after this, the first Pasuk of our Parasha states: "And G-d spoke to Moshe..." The Speaker's focus seems to have shifted - the actor speaks his innermost thoughts aloud on an empty stage, then changes his tone as another figure emerges from the wings. The beginning of Beha'alotcha logically continues the flow of action from last week. It is only after the Kohanim have been sanctified that the text rewinds to a month before the activities that have been described in such detail. The sanctification of the Kohanim actually happens AFTER the actions of chapter 9, which is the bringing of the Korban Pesach. (Rashi also observes that this is the only time during the forty years in the Midbar that we bring the Pesach.)

G-d tells Moshe that G-d will take some of Moshe's wisdom and distribute it among the Ziknei Israel. It appears that Moshe's own share of wisdom does not diminish, but that the same quality of Wisdom is now shared out among seventy additional individuals, each of whom will become part of the leadership of Bnei Israel.

When the Elders were called out to receive the Wisdom, two of their number - Eldad and Medad - remained behind in the camp, where the spirit of Chokhmah descended on them too. Why does G-d instruct Moshe to bring the Elders to a place outside? Why does G-d not simply instill them with Wisdom where they stand? Coming from Moshe's first encounter with G-d, there is a combination of the physical with the spiritual which lies at the very heart of Judaism. Torah recognizes the tension inherent in Existence - that we inhabit the world of Space, Time and Motion - indeed, that this world makes us who and what we are. That, but for our flawed physical and temporal existence, we could never have Torah. In the very first encounter, G-d does not tell Moshe "You are about to receive holy teachings," G-d does not say "Pay close attention to these holy words." Rather, G-d instructs Moshe "Remove your shoes from your feet, because the ground you are standing upon is holy." It is the receiving of G-d's message that imbues the spot with holiness. Once the message has been received, the spot may retain a residual holiness, but it is the holiness of the "Mantel", the cloth covering that wraps the Sefer Torah, rather then the holiness of the Torah itself. It is only through our actions, the performance of mitzvot, that we continue to imbue objects and places with holiness.

Eldad and Medad remain where they were, and yet the spirit of Chochmah descends upon them, and they begin prophesying freely. Yehoshua', incensed, tells Moshe to kill them, whereupon Moshe replies - "Would that all Bnei Israel were Prophets!"

Aharon and Miriam mutter between themselves and disrespect Moshe over his Cushite woman, and G-d physically comes down and stands before the opening of their tent and hollers for them to come out. G-d rants at them, and G-d punishes them, and it is only through the intervention of Moshe that they are spared - using the word TZ'AQA - the same word G-d applies to the murder of Abel ("Dmei achicha TZO'AQIM elai min ha'adamah.") ("The blood of your brother CRIES OUT to me from the earth.")

And after the Pesah, G-d immediately gives the laws of Pesah Sheni, a make-up observance for those who were ritually impure, or on the road - in short, for those who had other things to do that prevented them from bringing this all-important Korban in its proper time.

Why does Rashi emphasize this discrepancy of time? Is this strong evidence of an agenda behind the planning of the parshiyot?

If the actual chronological sequence had been followed, we would first learn that a Tamei person has the opportunity to make up what he or she missed, by simply repeating it a month later. In preparation for the dedication of the Mishkan, all Tamei persons are ordered removed from the Machaneh. The dedication of the Mishkan is exactly parallel to the cosmic occurrence of the first Sabbath - a once in cosmic history occurrence - but it is one that is symbolically repeated (symbolically? Or actually?) each time the Mishkan is taken down, moved and set up anew.

So, again, if the section of the Pesach in the Midbar came in the narrative where it comes in time - which is before the setting up and dedication of the Mishkan - then we would not be so focused on doing things right. Then setting up the Mishkan would be just another activity, a Mitzvah , but one that can be done on our own timing.

There are certain mitzvot that are constant renewals. When we say the Shema in the morning and evening, each saying is a new acceptance of the Yoke Of Heaven, each recitation creates anew our relationship with G-d. This is perhaps comparable to the Ner Tamid - the Eternal Light - which was not kept lit constantly, but was lit every day, without fail. It is certainly akin to the Mishkan, the construction of which is viewed as a reenactment of Ma'aseh Bereshit - the Work Of Creation. Renewed each day, as we say in the morning prayer.

The deeper message underlies the ongoing dispute between Rash and the Ramban. In the sequence of Matan Torah, for example. Rashi does not follow narrative sequence, but believes all is conflated to Moshe ascending twice, coming back down twice.

The Ramban, on the other hand, reads the text of Torah in direct narrative, argues with Rashi in vehement terms. Does not the Torah, he argues, know what it means to say? Or was its Author so confused as to state something three times when only two actually occurred?

This gives us insight into the fundamental differences of Rashi / Ramban, and perhaps into underlying differences of Ashkenazi versus Sefardi peshat. Ashkenazim, following Rashi, tease out the secrets, the sequences of events that are hidden in the Torah narrative, make them explicit, and go on to derive principles from them. Sefardim, following the path laid down by Ramban, insist on the integrity of the text as it stands. The inner secrets of Torah remain hidden, and are for us to uncover in our own manner and in our own time. It is as if to say that secrets do not stand revealed, but disclose themselves to us when we are prepared. Rashi, on the other hand, uncovers the inner structure of Torah and brings its secrets to the surface.

The Ahskenazic Haggadah asks the Four Questions in the order of what it considers the importance of the Mitzvot; the Sefardic asks in the order in which the elements of the night appear at the table. Ahskenazim say we are responsible "to view oneself" as though we had been personally redeemed from Mizraim; Sefardim say "to show oneself" - "viewing" means we have taken in the message, that we have our own inner interpretation of events. "Showing" means we conform to an outer behavior that is broadly and uniformly recognizable, both by outsiders and by each other. The Ashkenazic texts seems to give the responsibility for interpretation to the individual; the Sefardic, to the Klal.

And, of course, one imagines that Rashi and Ramban do not fundamentally differ on the inner meaning of Torah, any more than did Shammai and Hillel - but that Ramban inherited something of Shammai's sternness and insistence on conformity, while Rashi carries on Hillel's tradition of permitting individuals to seek their own level, to find Torah for themselves and ultimately embrace it as a process of discovery and falling in love.

Meanwhile, back at the Machaneh... Eldad and Medad pop up like two characters in a Star Trek episode. They have been struck by the Spirit of Prophecy, and they appear not to know what hit them as they spout prophesy in midst of the camp. Is this different from any modern concept of the evolution of rabbinic Judaism, which emerged when one group muscled another aside and claimed for themselves the direct line of SMICHA from Moshe? The first Mishna in Pirkei Avot speaks directly to that notion: Moshe received Torah from Sinai, and then passed it on directly in unbroken line down to... to whom? To the Chief Rabbis of the state of Israel? to this or that Rebbe? To the Yeshivas?

It depends who you ask.

Which makes it all the more fascinating to read in the press that Adin Stenisaltz has accepted the post of Nasi of the new start-up (or is it "upstart"?) Sanhedrin now being created in Israel.

A perfunctory viewing of some of the names of people associated with the project - it is notable that the majority do not want their names revealed - shows a distinct tendency towards Mashiach, Beit Shelishi, and the re-establishing of the monarchy of Beit David. None of which is likely to find instant acceptance with the Rabbanut, the Yeshiva world, or the Security Council...

The comparison to the END OF DAYS series of highly popular novels depicting Armageddon, the Rapture, etc for the ultra-radical Christians with what appears to be leaking from the all-but-hermetically-sealed container of the Sanhedrin Project is instructive and not a little scary.

What has led Jews to the step of seeking to establish a Biblical Theocracy in the State of Israel? Where do they think their support will come from? Do Steinsaltz et al really believe the American ultra-right Christians (Or is it the Ultra-Christian right...?) are on the side of the Jews? Their entire rhetoric is xenophobic and anti Jewish (not to mention anti Muslim, black, women, etc) and anti human rights. These are frightening people. all the more so because the John Kerrys and Hilary Clintons of the world are standing by and reassuring the American voter "Hey guys, we're religious too! We believe in G-d, Jesus, America, Family Values!" They don't want to be left out. Perhaps the only area in which these strange bedfellows overlap is in the extrmism of their rhetoric. And, frightening to contemplate, the extremism of their underlying belief systems.

The Ultra-Christian Right have dedicated two decades of highly organized, laser-focused work on attaining political clout. They have an Approval Rating process, which they publicize, and members of the House and Senate are constantly checking their ratings, which equal votes. A surprising level of members of both houses enjoy approval rating approaching 100%. Is Rabbi Steinsaltz next to attain a Perfect Score on the Christian Right chart for his stance on the major issues?

When the Psalmist admonishes us to Put Not Our Trust In Kings And Princes, it refers to members of the Senate too. Especially when their underlying philosophy embodies an eschatology that has us all being vaporized. Is it too simplistic to ask this particularly nasty question: if the eschatology of the Christian Right requires the Return of all Jews to the Land of Israel - which then precipitates the Rapture in which all Jews will be instantly (and painfully) destroyed - are we essentially being herded into a small plot of real estate so that we can be exterminated?

If all this is simplistic and excessive in tone, let us remember that it is simplistic communication that moves vast numbers of people, that motivates crowds. That fires up mobs. The people at the forefront of the current movement in America are not Billy Graham, they are not John Paul II. Time will tell who and what they are, but I, for one, believe The Time is already here. There are people in the State of Israel who yearn for the Land of Israel, people who believe the way to bring Mashiach is to rebuild a gigantic stone temple and resume the slaughter of sheep and goats. Might I suggest that this approach might risk losing sight of G-d's historical imperative?

In Torah, there is no word that corresponds to our contemporary word "Nature." Everything that occurs is either at the hand of humans, or at the Hand of G-d. Perhaps the State of Israel had to be created by non-religious Jews. This was Jews acting, not be-derech haTorah, but be-derech ha-teva'. It is the "natural" Jews who, without relying on G-d, forced the issue and created a State out of a blighted Land. We should all be extremely wary of attempts to "imbue the State with holiness." Because the definition of Holiness varies with the speaker.

And we should be even more cautious in our choice of friends. History proves time and time again that no one supports the Jews' agenda. Especially not the Jews.

Joshua comes to Moshe in a rage when he hears Eldad and Medad are publicly prophesying. "Wipe them out!" he demands.

Moshe looks sideways at Yehoshua and grins. The lad is full of the righteous fire of youth. Moshe, who has been to the mountaintop, has a longer perspective. "Destroy them?" he asks quietly. "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, and you want me to destroy them? I wish ALL the people were prophets!"

Moshe stretches his legs, cradles his head in one arm and reaches for his Bombay and tonic on the rocks. "Don't worry," Moshe reassures his young amanuensis. "Let them all become prophets. They'll destroy themselves...!"

Yours for a better world...


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