Paradise Lost: Reflections on BeMidbar/The Book of Numbers and America circa 2020

The Punishment of Morah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron (Sandro  Botticelli, 1482)

Recent events have unleashed sad, self-evident and undeniable truths; far from “one union under God”, we act more like a loosely stitched patchwork of power structures and competing interest.  Fear of the other and racial hatred, the unequal distribution of justice, and rampant violence have planted deep seeds of mistrust.  Whatever our political persuasion, one thing is clear.  To paraphrase Hamlet, “Something is rotten in the State of America.”  We live next to our neighbors, but do we live with our neighbors? 

We all know the song Hineh Ma Tov U’ma Naim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad (Psalm 133)-- “How good and nice it is, brothers dwelling together.” For millennia, Jews have imagined what an ideal society might look like.  These utopias tended to encapsulate our deep-seated religious and historical values. In fact, the book of BeMidbar is in essence an extended meditation on what a utopia might look like as well as it’s problematics.  What do I mean?

If we read the book of Numbers, we are essentially reading two books.  The first half of the book constructs the ideal Israel.  Like the Platonic republic, the camp of the Israelites is regimented and divided into tribes, each with their unique and valued roles.  We are presented with twelve tribes as well as the priestly classes, the Kohanim and Levi’im.  Despite the tribal organization, they all encamp around the Tabernacle, which contains the Holy Ark.  Even when they travel through the desert, they travel in specific formations, which again place the ark in the center. (Although according to other texts, the ark traveled in front of the tribes.)

According to the Torah, the Divine presence emanates from the Holy Ark, residing in the center of the Tabernacle.  The camp is permeated by clouds of glory and pillars of fire. The message is clear:  the people are united by a common core and purpose; they are the people of God and are a collective nation of priests.  On a deeper level, the Jewish people of the first half of Numbers are seen not as a conglomeration of tribes and political interests, but are a spiritual reality.  If we were to encapsulate the vision, the Torah presents the dream of a holy commonwealth of diversity in unity, in which all the tribes are celebrated.  They share a common purpose, a sacred mission.

In our parashah Be’Ha’alotcha, this all begins to change. We find two verses bracketed by two inverted/upside-down nuns (10:35-37); if you were reading from a Torah scroll you might think the scribe was drunk while writing these verses!  Rashi states the inverted letters here are in fact brackets, and quotes the Babylonian Talmud which states that the brackets are actually an ancient indication that the verses are out of place!  If so, why are they here?  Many believe that they are meant to divide the book into two parts.  What follows is an attempt to clarify the division.

The two verses in brackets are familiar to many, as the former verse is recited when the Torah is taken out (Vayehi binsoa aron…) and the latter when returned to the ark (shuvah adonai). We are told that when the ark traveled, Moshe appealed to God to reveal his glory and scatter His enemies. When the ark rested Moses again prayed that God’s presence rest upon the multitude of Israel.  These verses are in brackets because they reflect the idyllic conclusion to the Torah, the story that never happened.

In that story, the people leave Egypt, receive the Torah, build a tabernacle which represents a continuation of the Sinai experience, encamp around God’s holy tabernacle, and leave the Holy Mountain to inherit the Holy Land.  They are led by Moses- not Joshua- into the promised land, and the Divine presence of God scatters their enemies.  Not one soldier bears arms!  There is no violence or war! Indeed, this is the triumphant ending for which we would have hoped. We can almost experience this inspiring last scene, and the powerful crescendo as the last notes are played!

However, the book of Numbers does not end on this triumphant note.  Rather, the book relates a period of forty years of conflict and aimless wandering in the desert.  With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, not one of these individuals will step foot in the Promised Land.  In reality, the epic saga that began in chapter one abruptly ends after these two verses, and begins a very different narrative.  We hear a litany of complaints against Moses and Aaron, which dominate most of the second half of Numbers- complaints about the manna, complaints about the lack of meat, complaints about lack of water, and complaints that Moses and Aaron assume power for themselves. 

Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses; the scouts complain about the land of Israel; and Moses and Aaron complain about the people, ultimately being punished themselves, denied access to the very land they have prayed to enter forty years.  Indeed, the rest of the book is dominated by war, conflict, and division.  The Promised Land remains firmly in the realm of the future.

Beginning with Parashat Be-Ha’alotcha our idealistic vision is tempered by reality.  The tribes have their own interests, their own grievances, their own fears, their own sense of injustice, their own goals.  Indeed, we would like the community to represent the ‘perfect union’ we envisioned.  However, in reality the camps of Israel look more like a conglomeration of competing needs and political interests.

While we cannot analyze each of the conflicts that will erupt over the next few parshiot, the narrative builds until we are faced with a full-fledged rebellion against Moses and Aaron in the Parashah of Korach, who claims ultimately that Moses and Aaron have seized power for themselves at the expense of the people, who are all holy.  Korach and his followers pitch tent outside the tent, while Datan and Aviram refuse even to engage in any conversation with Moses.  In essence, these groups secede from the community.

Moses responds through invoking a Divine ordeal, stating that the one rejected by God will die an unnatural death, and indeed that is exactly what happens.  Datan and Aviram are swallowed up by the earth, and the 250 chieftains are consumed by a fire descending from heaven.  (The fate of Korach is less clear in the text.)

These actions however, far from inspiring confidence in Moses, reconfirm his image as a ‘despotic leader,’ killing ‘the nation of God’ (Numbers 17:6).   The episode ends with yet another plague, this time by God, which consumes 24,700 souls. The entire episode seems tragic in nature, and in the end of the parasha, God defines clear boundaries and responsibilities for both Priests and Levites, and sets down the order for the way the camp should operate.  In other words, far from coming together, the conflict ends with a weaker camp, diminished by war, violence, and even plague! [1]

In reflecting upon these sad events, I think we need to ask a few difficult questions.  Did these destructive events arise out of unrealistic expectations of the community itself?  Furthermore, did the initial utopian vision described in the first half of Numbers blind the people to the difficult project of community building? How do we act when our vision does not reflect that of the actual community? When challenged, do we crush opposition, or engage them?  None of these questions have easy answers.  However, one thing is abundantly clear; in Korach, both those who rebelled as well as the leadership failed, and the result was devastating for the community.

A realistic assessment of the potential and limits of community encourages us to engage in ways that are constructive, building consensus and understanding, as opposed to conflict and secession.  This is a tall order, and requires responsible leadership. Leaders should not see themselves as invincible or all-knowing, but invite the active participation of all various groups.

We need to create structures which are inclusive, inviting participation.   To do this however, we need to again put God in the middle of the camp, to understand that we indeed are ‘one nation under God.’  If we do not recognize this, I fear our polity will continue to be dominated division, and order maintained by the exercise of power and violence against one another.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, a giant of the Modern Orthodox world who died last week, spoke soon after the Race Riots in 1968.  In a sermon delivered at the Jewish Center in NYC, he bemoaned the violence that was pervasive then.  He noted that the violence in the Torah is called hamas, which the rabbis associated with theft or sexual immorality.  Hamas, the Torah tells us, was the reason why God destroyed the world in the flood!  He mentions, however, that the Rabbis distinguished between theft and hamas, as the latter was stealing something worth less than a perutah, i.e, a penny. In other words, hamas can be taking something with no economic value.  However, he warns us, that theft even at this level is an act of violence:


“Violence is not only a matter of the dramatic assassination that makes the headlines [clearly referring to Rev. MLK, Jr.], but it is as well the thousand little assaults that we perpetuate every day against our neighbor’s sensitivity, a friend’s ego, a mate’s peace of mind, a parent’s dignity, a child’s self-respect, a colleague’s self-worth, a competitor’s equal opportunity…Whenever we humiliate another person, we do violence to his self-image… The Almighty can despair of man … even for hamas- less than a penny, even for those who kill another human being, not all at once, but in tiny little bits.” 

Alas, for too long we have lived next to our neighbor, but not with our neighbor.  The incidents of police brutality that we have seen are but a symptom of a society that has neglected its sacred responsibility to one another and has chosen to place other values in the middle of the encampment.

Alas, the encampment has again become compromised by anger and strife.  What role will we play to transform our camp in such a way that we place our most lofty and sublime visions for ourselves in the center?

[1] For a fascinating analysis of Moses and political leadership, see Aaron Wildavsky, The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader, (University of Alabama, 1984)

Shabbat Shalom

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