Bamidbat 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

The Book of Bamidbar, or Numbers, has a variety of themes and stories; it’s hard to figure out the overall structure of the book. It concerns itself with the organization and movement of the Israelite camp; laws of the portable sanctuary; laws for priests; laws of ritual purity; criminal laws; and laws of settling the Land of Israel. Significant narratives in Bamidbar include the spies sent to scout out the Promised Land; the rebellion of Korach and his followers; Bilaam’s attempt to curse Israel; and the daughters of Zelophechad standing up for women’s rights to inherit.

OVERVIEW

The first portion of the Book of Bamidbar is also called Bamidbar; it begins with a census of the adult men of each tribe, and a description of the order of the Israelite camp by tribes. The descendants of Levi are not included with the others, as they are responsible for the Mishkan, and thus have a special status within the nation. Within the tribe of Levi, the family of Kohath have certain unique duties pertaining to the vessels in the Mishkan.

IN FOCUS

“And these are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day God Spoke with Moshe on Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aharon: the firstborn Nadav, then Avihu, and Elazar, and Itamar. These are the names of the sons of Aharon, the anointed priests, whose hands were filled for priesthood.” (Numbers 3:1-3)

PSHAT

Aharon’s descendants form the priestly class within the larger tribe of Levites; other Levites who were not specific descendants of Aharon performed other ritual duties and assisted the priests but did not perform the sacrifices themselves. Thus, after discussing the organization of all the other tribes, the parasha now focusses on the priestly clan, and begins with the sons of Aharon himself. The phrase “whose hands were filled” is an idiom meaning that these sons went through the dedication rituals for priestly service. (Why the verse mentions Moshe’s descendants when it’s really only concerned with Aharon’s family is a problem for another time.)

DRASH

Aside from our problem of mentioning Moshe and then not telling us anything about him, another interesting aspect of this passage is the apparently unnecessary repetition of information in verses 2 and 3. We learn twice that “these are the names of the sons of Aharon-” the passage could have compacted these two verses into one, which told us both their names and their status as anointed priests.

The Eglei Tal, a nineteenth century Hasidic text by rabbi Avraham Borenstein (a disciple of Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the “Kotsker Rebbe,” for those who follow such things), notices these apparently extra words and uses them to make a midrash about the place of leaders in the Jewish community:

    Why does the statement “these are the names of the sons of Aaron” occur twice in two consecutive verses?  

    It is well known that in some other religions, priests are regarded as superhuman beings who are immune to error. For this reason when a member of these religions is ordained to the priesthood he is given a new name to signify that he is no longer the same as he was prior to his ordination, but has become a new person. Not so the Jews. Even the greatest Jew is regarded as a human being who is by no means immune to error. . . .

    We are indeed duty-bound to give due honor to scholars. However, we do so not because of their persons but only in order to honor the Law which they study and observe, just as we pay honor to a Scroll of the Law [i.e., a Torah scroll] not because of its physical character- after all, it is only plain parchment- but because the sheets of parchment from which it is made bear the sacred words of the Torah. We do not believe that the clay of which a Torah scholar is made is any different from the substance from which ordinary persons are formed.

    The statement “these are the names of the sons of Aharon” occurs twice, first in the naming of the sons, and then in the characterization of the sons as priests, in order to show that even after their anointment to the priesthood, the sons of Aaron did not receive new names but were still considered the same human beings as before.

    [quoted- with slight modifications – from Wellsprings of Torah, a delightful English anthology of Hasidic and Mussar teachings on the weekly parasha.]

This is a powerful lesson not only for leaders of the Jewish community but for “ordinary Jews” as well. Leaders- including, if not especially, rabbis and teachers!- must remember that as human beings, they can make mistakes just like anybody else. Jewish knowledge is just that- a specialized knowledge that can have a profound effect on someone’s soul, but does not turn a human being into some kind of perfect Divine being. Leaders and scholars can be jealous, petty, insecure, forgetful, and sometimes just drop the ball like anybody else.

Having said that, “ordinary Jews” (by which I simply mean those who do not currently occupy “official” positions of leadership), thus have a responsibility to watch carefully for the human fallibilities of communal leaders. This doesn’t mean one should cast a suspicious eye on everything someone says, but rather that one should expect that occasionally things won’t go perfectly, and thus one should never be afraid to point mistakes out in a gentle and supportive way. Recognizing the human imperfection of “even the greatest Jew” also implies the need to tolerate and forgive those imperfections in our leaders- we must forgive others for their imperfections just as we’d like to be forgiven for our own.

Finally, our midrash this week reminds us that no Jewish teacher is a “guru” or prophet; as a human being with limitations of insight and intellect, any particular teacher can offer only part of the greater scope of Torah. Perhaps this is why an ancient midrash teaches that one must learn Torah from more than one person. (Avot D’rabbi Natan ch. 3) A familar teaching from Pirkei Avot makes a related point:

    Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person, as it is said: ‘From all my teachers I have gained understanding.’ (Psalm 119:99) [Pirkei Avot 4:1]

A Jewish seeker should not rely on one teacher (or one website!) alone, but seek to learn Torah wherever they can, knowing that each teacher offers a unique perspective, but only part of a greater whole. New insights emerge out of a dialogue between teachers and students, with each learning from each other, in a spirit of openness and humility.

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