Perashat Bamidbar

I. Come In Under the Shadow of This Red Rock (or, Shelter in the Wasteland)

Bamidbar 1:1- And Gd spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert within the Ohel Moed (the Appointed Tent) on the First of the Second Month in the Second year from the Exodus from Egypt saying…

This week we begin the fourth of the books which comprise the Torah. This book, known most commonly as “Bamidbar”, “In the desert”, is also known as “Homesh Hapequdim” or as it is conveniently translated, as “Numbers”. In general, we have a return to the narrative of the wanderings in the desert of the Israelites, as well as some commandments, most of which, as pointed out by Ramban, are not of normative force today, though as usual we will attempt to derive emotive meaning from them as we encounter them. The opening perasha, which concerns us this week, has very little narrative or ritual, it consists almost entirely of the census taken of the people on the first day of the second month of the second year after the exodus from Egypt. I approached this perasha with great trepidation, given the fear I have of numbers since my grade school days; expounding, for example, on actuarial procedures in antiquity did not seem very inviting (OK, I can’t resist. One day the bookkeeper shows up at the office looking completely worn out. “You must have had had some busy evening”, said one of his co-workers. “It isn’t that”, yawned the bookkeeper. “I couldn’t fall asleep, so I started counting sheep. But I made a mistake somewhere, and it took me all night to find it.”).

This perasha consists primarily of this repeat census. The classical commentators wonder why a census is needed at this time. The Ibn Ezra explains that it was necessary in order to best set up the encampment and the flags. Rashi and the Ramban take a different approach. Rashi states that this census represents a counting of love, coming just after the erection of the Mishkan, as the Divine Presence was to rest upon the people. Ramban disagrees, as a census demonstrating love after the Mishkan was built should have been taken one month earlier, when the Mishkan was erected. Ramban’s conclusion, as stated in 1:45, is, well, that he doesn’t really have a good explanation of why these numbers needed to be related to us. Given this hermeneutic opening, the Hassidic commentators felt the liberty to take these passages in an entirely different direction, not being bound by a “normative” earlier traditional reading. I will present the readings of several authors, among them the Noam Elimelech and two of his disciples, the Or Pnei Moshe and the Maor V’Shemesh.

The opening verse, as presented above, is seemingly a trivial restatement of the date the command for the census was issued. To the mystically oriented, however, there is no such thing as a trivial text; if a time is given, it must come to teach something. Deleuze and Guattari name this kind of relation to time, such an individuation of a time experience as an haecceity; as they explain:

“A season, a winter, a summer, and hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing…concrete individuations that have a status of their own and direct the metamorphosis of things and subjects.”

There is the usual sort of indefinite physical time, and then there is a determining measured time, a very different relation to temporality, as reflected in a phrase such as “once upon a time”. To the commentators of a mystical bent, it is not only the date per se that is alive and instructive, but also the descriptions and other terms used to identify these times which produce meaning, becoming the source of important messages about how to lead our lives. The Ben Ish Hai in Baghdad, who is contemporary with the Hassidic masters and shares much similarity in approach with them, explains that the actual numbers presented in this verse, the numbers 1, 2, and 2, or in Hebrew aleph, bet, and bet, form the acronym “Bereishit Bara Elokim”, the first three words of the Torah, as well as the Aramaic word “bava”, which means gate. He insists that the narration of these numbers is of cardinal importance, and offers his own Kabbalistic meanings, which we won’t delve into at this time. What matters is the sense that there is a message here.

The Daat Moshe notes a series of superfluities in the text. For example, why does the verse repeat that they were in the Sinai Desert? That would be fairly obvious, where else would they be? This superfluity strengthens his impression that this verse is not merely meant as a caption giving us a time and place. He explains the multiple superfluities in the verse as encoding within it a lesson on how to attain the spiritual heights that Moshe reached. How did Moshe achieve this state of personal dialogue with Gd? The Daat Moshe explains: by virtue of Moshe’s extreme humility, a humility achieved by being in the emotional state of “midbar”, “desert” an annihilation of the ego brought about by a total openness to all, metaphorically as open to all as the wilderness. By virtue of existentially inhabiting this state of desert-hood, he earned “Sinai”, which numerically in Hebrew is equivalent to “sulam”, ladder, the ladder skyward, that is, by virtue of one’s self annihilation one achieves the heights of spiritual transcendence, and earns the “ohel”, which in Hebrew means ‘tent’ but etymologically also relates to “halo” (as in Job 29:3, b’hilo nero), meaning that he achieves transcendence and enlightenment. Ego negation is a prerequisite for openness to spiritual heights and enlightenment. Yet, bodhisattva like, a Moshe’s ohel is not complete, a Moshe resists climbing this ladder and keeps the light limited to this world, as a lesson for those who seek to learn and emulate this path; thus Moshe’s tent is kept “moed”, literally meaning “appointed” or “reserved”. that is, constricted to this world, available to those not yet on a high transcendent state. This lofty spiritual transmission is delivered via “echad lachodesh hasheni”, literally “the first of the second month”, but here, echad, “one” is famously the numerical equivalent of ahava, of love (the letters add up to thirteen, and it is an important meditation when reciting the Shema prayer, for example). It is through love that chidush, hitchadshut, renewal, is consummated, love renews the hearts of the people, because love means the care for the spiritual state of the sheni, of the Other. Love for the Other brings about a spiritual renewal so dramatic that it can transform even time, even time that has passed; the years of the spiritual poverty brought about by the hegemony of Egypt are now “b’shana hashenit”, shenit (second) being similar to the term hishtanut, transfiguration; even the past gets a second chance and is reconstructed in holiness. This verse we are reading ends with the term “laymor”, “saying”, reminding those who seek spiritual heights that they have a responsibility to speak the truths they learn, to teach the people the routes by which he or she gains this enlightenment, to share this love and light.

As an alternative reading to the latter part of the verse, he also suggests that “b’echad lachodesh hasheni” could insinuate that like the Echad, a term which is also a descriptive name for Gd, through Gd the uniquely One, who we are taught “each day mechadesh, recreates with His goodness”, one can become a “mishneh”, Gd’s aide-de-camp, in reconstructing the world toward the good, in tikkun olam. This can be accomplished by “shana hashenit”. Shana numerically is equivalent to “sefira”, similar to the Hebrew word “sapir”, “sapphire”, which glows from within itself (in other places the period of Sefirat HaOmer is thought of as a way to achieve an inner “glow”). Thus, one who is enlightened, through his or her own light, can bring about this same “shinui”, renewal, in others; this shinui is a result of each individual’s exodus from their own “metzarim”, those gnawing inhibitions which keep one from manifesting their own greatest potential.

In a similar approach, the Meor V’Shemesh reads this verse as symbolic of a process, a bildungsroman of spiritual growth. The MVSh notes that this first verse is constructed in a chiastic form. It begins with “dibbur”, traditionally meaning a public speech act, to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, an open space, which the verse then opposes with “in the Ohel Moed”, a covered space, which many Midrashim specify as referring to a more intimate dialogue, concealed within the tent, ending with the term “laymor”, “saying” the saying of “amira” being traditionally contrasted with the more commanding “dibbur” as referring to a more personal, softer address.

The Meor V’shemesh explains all of this by resorting to a central theme in Lurianic mysticism. In Lurianic Kabbala, spiritual growth is not linear but rather dialectic in nature. As explained by the MVSh, the first growth spurt, Katnut Rishon (Kaplan, translates this term as “first constricted consciousness”), is one of childlike, brute thinking, total nonceptualization. When one suddenly becomes “conscious”, achieving “Gadlut Rishon”, First Expanded Consciousness, action are performed with total commitment, in full vigor, prayers and studies in full voice. As the adept becomes more sophisticated and knowledgeable, as life reveals its complexities and doubt becomes a prominent aspect of life, there is a retreat to “katnut sheni”, the Second Restricted Consciousness. Overcoming this, and returning to a Second Expanded Consciousness, one can then encounter spiritual praxis again, this time without the childish shows of force, sans clamor, in sotto voce. All this, according to the Meor V’shemesh, is alluded to within our verse. The verse begins with term Vayidaber, signifying commanding speech, loud and forceful. After the humility that contemplative thought and life experience engender, metaphorized as “midbar”, the desert, the wasteland, one can achieve the state of “chidush hasheni”, this renewal, this evolution into Gadlut Sheni, where all action can be done covertly, intimately, as an “amirah” in the personal space of the “Ohel Moed”.

The Or Penei Moshe, also a student of the Noam Elimelech, puts his focus upon the term “Ohel Moed”. These two words “Ohel” and “Moed”, teach us how to relate to our lives. The reason people are haughty and arrogant, he explains, is that their relationship to time is based on a mistaken sense of immortality. We forget that we are mortal and that death waits for us at some point. The moment the individual realizes that one’s time is limited, that life must end in death, then there is a total transformation of the person’s commitment and being toward life. This is what the phrase “bamidbar Sinai b’ohel moed” means to teach us. “Ohel”, “tent” symbolizes the sky, stretched over the earth like a tent, stretched over, beyond, not-in-this-world, transcendent. “Moed”, on the other hand, translates as “time”, with the full phrase Ohel Moed thus connoting: “there will be a time in which one will be not-in-this-world”, our lives are pointed skyward, beyond or after the world we live in now. Becoming conscious of this, alters life entirely- one achieves the state of “midbar”, recognition of ultimate annihilation leading to a lack of attachment to the ego. Once the immature illusion of immortality is overcome, the individual is open to Sinai, there where the Torah is given. Thus, through conscious awareness of the individual’s transience, new transcendent possibilities of meaning regarding life appear. Interesting how this anticipates by about one hundred years, the following signal paragraph of twentieth century thought:

Death is a possibility of Being that each Dasein must itself take over. With death Dasein stands before itself in its most proper potentiality for Being. What is involved in this possibility is nothing less that the being-in-the-world of Dasein as such…When Dasein stands before itself as this possibility it is fully directed towards its very own potentiality for Being…As potentiality for Being, Dasein cannot surmount the possibility fo death. Death is the possibility of the unqualified impossibility of Dasein. Death thus reveals itself as the most proper nonrelational insurmountable possibility… (M. Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, section 50, p. 250).

Both the Meor V’shemesh and the Or Pnei Moshe were students of the Noam Elimelech, R. Elimelech of Lizensk. Thus it is interesting how the Noam Elimelech’s teaching on this verse is much more tragic and radical than those already presented. He explains that in the giving of the Torah specifically at Sinai, we are taught the extreme humility necessary to actualize the Torah’s message. The Torah was deliberately given at Sinai, as the midrash teaches, Sinai being a smaller hill, not the most lofty of hilltops, in order to relay this message. However, this type of extreme humility, this ego annihilation, runs the risk of being a psychologically destabilizing experience, one that can quickly bring on a debilitating depression. Thus, Sinai is linked to Ohel Moed in this verse, meaning that along with the depressive Sinai postion one must surround themselves (thus the term Ohel, tent) with Moed, which here is translated as festival, the combined phrase meaning a “joyful environment”. Here, I believe, in 1788, first appears the phrase more frequently associated with Breslov, that is, that it is a “mitzvsah”, a commandment to be “tamid b’simcha”, to maintain joy (I suppose I should point out that in an earlier source, in Shaar Hakavanot of the Ari, we find that it is forbidden to pray while in depression, because it eventually causes prayer to become unpleasant for the person, and the Likutei Amarim (Tanya, chapt. 26) proposes a form of cognitive psychotherapy, given that depression is of no value, one must create imaginative techniques to get rid of it).

We are commanded, then, to maintain joy as a bulwark against depression, which is so readily a fate for a soul that recognizes the Divine in the world. But the self-punitive soul may ask itself, how can I maintain joy when I know that I have sinned and am not worthy of joy? Thus, the verse continues, “b’echad lachodesh hasheni”- every individual (echad) soul is twice born- the first time at birth, the second renewal (which is like a total rebirth) at the time of repentance, which is a change of life equivalent to the exodus from Mitzrayim, from those inhibitory cathexes which accompany sin.

The Noam Elimelech also presents another reading which to me reveals a level of sensitivity to human suffering, particularly meaningful to those of us who deal with the gravely ill on a daily basis- he points out that even a parent who sees the suffering of their child, may attempt to ameliorate the child’s pain by offering candy or food or whatever they have at their disposition, but they know that they can’t ever really remove the pain and the trauma or undo the loss caused the beloved infant. Gd is aware of the sublime tragedy of the human condition, R. Elimelech explains, and Gd means to inform us that communication to humanity is not from some exalted and removed Olympus, but from within the midbar, from within the desert wasteland of our human existence itself. From within that world, through a relationship with Torah, with Gd’s speech act, we can erect an Ohel Moed, a shelter, an envelopment of joy, within the sad tragic realities of the human condition.

Taking into account the Shem MiShmuel’s explanation for this census, being that is was meant to teach us that each and every individual “counted” is as important as the “people” as a totality, that every individual life is part of the Text, then we find, derived from a seemingly trivial passage, a profound and affecting set of teachings, which are at the core of the Hassidic hermeneutic project.

II. Correspondances

L’homme y passe a travers des forets de symboles

Qui l’observant avec de regards familiers… (Baudelaire)

In this week’s perasha, among all the other actuarial information, we are presented, in 2:2, with the marching orders of the Israelite camp. The tribes are broken up into four, three tribes to a side, not counting the tribe of Levi, forming a large square, with each group maintaining its side of the compass. Noteworthy is the itemization by flags. Each group of three tribes has a flag ( or to some, each tribe). The Abravanel sees in this marching order a proper military administration, thus the stronger tribes such as Yehuda serve as the “avant garde” (his term, spelled out in Hebrew letters!) though he is willing to entertain that this set up may in some way also reflect a more cosmic order.

Order is important, of course, but the Midrash sees more in this segment than a description of martial discipline, particularly when regarding the matter of the flags:

Gd fixed His name in our name and made of us flags, as is written (2:2) ” Man upon his flag”.With great love did God envelop Israel, making for them flags as carried the Angels of the celestial host.When Gd revealed his presence at Sinai, thousands of angels descended with him, and all were with flags; when Israel saw this, they became desirous of flags as well.Great and awesome were Israel with their flags; all the nations stare and wonder: (Shir Hashirim 6:10) Who is this appearing like the dawn. (Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 2)

It is clear, then, that aside from a proper alignment of tribes, etc, there is a unique message within the flags, which could be seen by the Midrash as being a source for great yearning. The Mei Hashiloach, without too much elaboration, states that the flags symbolize the ideal situation in which everyone is in their proper place, an idea akin to that in Plato’s Republic.

The Netivot Shalom goes in the opposite direction; he suggests that the reason each angel bears an individual flag is that each angel has its own unique mission; this idea, that each individual has a unique purpose, is what the people of Israel wanted to sense at their formative moment.

The reading that attracted my attention is that of the Shem Mishemuel, given the signifying nature he attributes to the flags as such. According to the ShMSh, the flags signify perfected states of holiness, such as pure Mercy, pure Judgement, etc, as stated in the mystical texts. However, until this time they are carried by the angels, who serve as intermediaries in carrying these effluxes from heaven to earth, and vice versa. The Israelites, however, wished to be intermediary free, they wanted to raise their own flags, and the recognition of the propriety of this desire is signified by the people receiving the command to raise flags on their own.

What struck me as interesting in this reading, is that the sign of attaining an unmediated state is the flag. A flag would then be a signifier, which itself is classically considered a mediated symbol, that is, a signifier stands in for an object that is no longer present. To Saussure, and semioticians until recent times, the signifier was itself an empty symbol, devoid of its own meaning and significant for meaning something else. In other words, the priority is given to the signified, with the signifier being only a secondary cipher.

The Shem Mishemuel, giving the signifier flag the status of representing non-mediation, seems to be in lines with the Derrida of “On Grammatology”, who prioritizes the signifier. The signifier, the text, the flag is the sign of unmediated encounter, unmediated thus always present, rather than some event in the past. The signifier is the message; hoisting the signifier gives meaning to the signified, rather than the reverse.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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