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Saturday, May 23, 2009
Parashat Bamidbar - the Haftara
Reading date: 23rd May 2009 – 29th Iyyar 5769
Our Highlighted Haftara Text
The Israelites should make camp in division, each person under his banner. (Num. 1:52)
To receive Torah, we have to be true to ourselves.
We begin a new book this Shabbat: the fourth book of Numbers, or Bamidbar. The book of Numbers is a hodge-podge of narrative, legislation, and genealogy, lacking the sweeping grandeur of Genesis, the theology of Exodus, or the literary consistency of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew title means 'in the wilderness' and tells the story of the Israelites' wandering in the desert. The English name, 'Numbers' (and Greek name 'Arithmoi') reflect the statistical material which opens the book. The first two chapters include a census counting the Israelites with the names of the heads of each tribe and their numbers. The parasha continues with a description of the Levites' roles and responsibilities, and instructions for dismantling and carrying the Mishkan, called here the Ark of the Covenant (Aron Ha'eidut) instead of the usual term used, 'ohel moed' (Num. 1:1).
The five books of the Torah are approximately similar lengths, so we tend to think that they cover the same time spans as well. But consider the 'internal clock' of the five books. Not counting the 'seven days' of Creation, Genesis covers 2309 years, Exodus 140 years. The whole book of Leviticus takes place in only 8 DAYS! (Numbers spans 39 years, and Deuteronomy 5 weeks.) So even though the events described at Sinai were read months ago, as we open the book of Bamidbar, we are only 8 days since the close of the book of Exodus.
In the parasha, where are we, exactly, in terms of time? Our weekly portion begins, "On the first day of the second month of the second year following the exodus from Egypt." In other words, the book of Numbers begins 13 months after the actual exodus. That means that the first anniversary of the exodus has already passed, and it is a bit surprising that the book begins a month after the first Pesach without any acknowledgement of that special anniversary of the Israelites' liberation. We have to turn ahead to chapter nine in Parashat Beha'alotecha, where we read: "Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai on the first new moon of the second year ..." with instructions on how to celebrate their first real Passover in freedom. (This serves as the proof text for Rashi's view: ain mukdam um'uchar batorah; the Torah need not be read chronologically). Even the book of Numbers is uneven. Although the book spans 38 years, the first five parashiyot occur within the space of a few months, then 38 years are skipped over and the events of the last few months and weeks of the fortieth year are described.
But the book of Numbers is not pre-occupied with time; rather it is concerned with space. Along with the census, the book begins with a description on the arrangement of the Israelite camp. And the geographical space of Bamidbar sets the tone for the whole book. Perhaps as much as the slavery in Egypt, the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness formed their character. Just like literary pathetic fallacy (where the weather reflects the mood of the character), it seems that the Israelites were wandering through both a spiritual and geographic wilderness. When we talk about the 'desert' (as in the Sinai desert, or the Negev desert), we should not have an image of the Sahara's sand dunes; the landscapes of Israel's desert wilderness (midbar) are barren and rocky as well as sandy. Wandering in the desert (or wilderness) is a common literary/religious metaphor.
The newly freed slaves had just left Egypt, the most sophisticated ancient civilization, yet it was in the wilderness that they receive the Torah. Even though Egypt was the intellectual and cultural centre of the time, it was not the source for the Israelite's moral code. The Torah is given to the Israelites in the wilderness at Sinai, not from even from the holy city of Jerusalem and the Temple mount. The Rabbis see much significance in the fact that the Torah was received in the wilderness. Because the Torah is open and accessible to all, as it is said (Isa. 55:1), "let everyone who is thirsty come for water" (i.e. Torah). I find this image of Torah as water in the arid wilderness striking.
This connection between the wilderness and the Torah connects to the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. Normally, the regular weekly Torah readings do not coincide with the festivals; that is, we are not reading the book of Exodus during Passover, or the book of Numbers during Sukkot. (On the actual holiday itself, in fact, we interrupt the regular scheduled Shabbat portions with special holiday readings). And the regular reading around the time of each festival may shift from year to year. So it is remarkable that this week's portion of 'Bemidbar' is always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. The Rabbis learn an additional lesson from this: "One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah" (Nedarim 55a).
As this portion of Bemidbar is linked through the calendar to the giving of the Torah, the RIM (Rabbi Isaac Meir Rothenberg) sees one more lesson in the phrase, 'each person under his banner' (1:52). Each person must be in their proper place to receive the Torah. We don't have to try to be someone else. Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol taught: In the world to come, I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moshe Rabbenu?’ I will be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’
To receive Torah, we have to be true to ourselves.