Thursday, May 17, 2007

Chumash of Bamidbar

Rabino Berel Wein

Weekly Parsha / 29 Iyar 5767 - 17 May 2007

The Chumash of Bamidbar is devoted to the narrative of the experiences of the people of Israel during their forty-year sojourn in the desert of Sinai. However, the Torah’s narrative of any event or historical happening is never restricted to dry facts alone. In its nuanced phrasing the Torah comes to reveal to us the human factors and the psychological and spiritual import of these events.

The Torah is not intended to be a history book and to view it as such will only raise problems of text and misunderstanding of message. It is rather the book of humankind, of its achievements and foibles, its grandeur and pettiness, its great capacity to do good and to be evil. Thus the entire narrative here in Bamidbar has to be seen in this light. The Torah is going to tell us the story of people and not just of events.

Therefore the book of Bamidbar is full of character sketches and descriptions of people who by their actions changed the course of Jewish history, not only in the desert of Sinai but for all times as well. Those who complained about the manna, the overriding ambition of Korach, the selfishness and timidity of the ten spies who were sent by Moshe and the contradistinction in attitude with their colleagues, Yehoshua and Calev, the love of the Land of Israel exhibited by the five daughters of Zlafachad, all of these - the analyses of people and their attitudes and motivations - are on display here in this book of Bamidbar. It is therefore no exaggeration to state that the book of Bamidbar ranks with the Chumash Bereshith in describing and teaching us about human beings and their individual but somehow common natures.

I think that this insight into the Chumash Bamidbar explains the often discussed issue of why this Chumash should begin with names of people and of the count of the tribes and the general population of Israel. The Torah, so to speak, is preparing us for the analysis of people and human characteristics that make up the bulk of this book. People have names, are part of a larger society and are distinct individuals. Not to recognize this basic fact of human existence will prevent anyone from having any meaningful understanding of the narrative of Chumash Bamidbar.

The commentators to Chumash point out that some of the tragedies of Chumash Bamidbar were indirectly caused by Moshe’s overoptimistic assessment of human beings and their behavior. The great men named in this week’s parsha – the beginning of the book of Bamidbar – are in the main no longer there at the end of the book. Positions of power take their toll on their holders.

The names therefore are recorded for us as an example of the pitfalls of power and office. By expecting people to be people and not saints and angels, great errors of judgment and policy can be avoided or at least mitigated. The desert was a harsh learning place for the Jewish people. If its lessons were truly absorbed and translated into Jewish individual and public life, then the experience will have proven to be of eternal value.
Shabat shalom.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Jerusalem Post / 29 Iyar 5767 - 17 May 2007

This week marked the fortieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. While it was a festive day in almost all of Jerusalem, it was less marked in other communities in Israel and in the Diaspora. Post-Zionism and the Leftist media have taken away all of the joy, enthusiasm and wonder of living in a Jewish state and certainly the excitement and historic meaning of living in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

The city whose name alone inspired Jews over the ages to keep the dream alive, the city that represented the glorious past and even more glorious future of Israel has in the eyes of many now become only a place on the map; the equivalent of Cairo or Bangkok at most. It is now a city of property to be negotiated over, a piece of some non-existent fatuous fantasy peace plan, with foes who mock our ineptitude and naivet?.

It is to me no exaggeration to say that as Jerusalem goes so does the fate of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel. The concept of Jerusalem of Gold has given way to the harsh realities of unbearable traffic jams, crowded neighborhoods and an uneasy relationship with our Arab citizens.
Though these Arabs loudly proclaim their dislike of “occupation”apparently few if any are willing to give up their Israeli right to live in the city and join their brothers in the paradise of the Palestinian Authority across the cursed security barrier. All in all, therefore, one can feel a bit discouraged about Jerusalem and its present status if one concentrates on only the present and its realities and problems.

But Jerusalem always was more than the present and realities. It is the city “that binds all together.” It is above time and space. It is King David and Isaiah and of Rav Shmuel Salant and Rav Aryeh Levin. It is the Temple Mount and the City of David, of Mount of Olives and Ammunition Hill. It is a place of mystery and history, of inspiration and destiny. It cannot be measured in ordinary terms because it floats above the ordinary nature of its realities.

It represents the whole of the Jewish story, what has already occurred to us as a people and what is yet to occur. It cannot be captured in marches, flags, parades, salutes, though these are undoubtedly necessary means to strengthen our will. It is a dream, an ideal, a vision of what will yet be. And therefore it is so difficult to reconcile with its present realities. The greatness of Torah and Jewish observances was its uncanny ability to take lofty, almost ephemeral ideas and translate them into practical human behavior. For example, the concept of charity and goodness to others, certainly an abstraction, is defined and translated in the Shulchan Aruch into detailed instructions of behavior and action.

Jerusalem however has no such guidebook and set of instructions. The people themselves have to create the Jerusalem of Gold in their hearts and minds and souls. Thus Jerusalem itself becomes a testing place and sounding board for our own spiritual abilities and maturity. If we only see the physical Jerusalem that surrounds us and not the eternal Holy City that it truly is then we have failed the test of our own spiritual nature.

In Jewish thought there is a concept of Yerushalayim shel maalah – the perfect holy Jerusalem that exists so to speak in heaven hovering over our Yerushalayim shel maatah – the earthly Jerusalem of this mundane world. It was the concept of the heavenly Jerusalem that kept Jews alive and hopeful in the long dark night of our exile and our separation from the Land of Israel.

The heavenly Jerusalem had no traffic jams, no quarreling political factions, no real estate arnona taxes to pay and spotless streets. Our earthly Jerusalem does not quite fit that template. But the task of Jews here as always and everywhere is to raise the earthly Jerusalem so that it at least resembles the heavenly Jerusalem.

It may be an unrealizable goal in its entirety but it should remain a goal nevertheless. As long as the heavenly Jerusalem is present before us and influences our lives, decisions and aspirations then the earthly Jerusalem is not merely a geographical place. To have this attitude of purpose and vision allows one to walk the streets of Jerusalem today and have Hillel and Rabi Akiva as one’s companions on that walk. In such company, the stones of Jerusalem are transformed into the Jerusalem of Gold.

Shabat shalom.

Berel Wein