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This is a Dvar Torah I did a couple weeks ago at Dorshei Derech for parashat Bamidbar. As such, it’s probably a little late to be posting this, but since we’re still in the middle of Bamidbar, and because the themes it addresses are feeling pretty relevant right now, I thought I’d put it up anyway.
It has always seemed a little ironic to me that the parsha entitled Bamidbar should be so obsessively concerned with the organization of people and space. For the Biblical authors the midbar (usually translated as “wilderness”) is a complicated place. Most basically, the midbar is the wasteland, the uncharted wilderness outside the boundaries of the community, and even outside of normal space and time. In some ways, one might look at it as the dry-land version of the wild and unpredictable sea that in ancient Near-Eastern mythology represents the primal chaos that must be tamed and held back in order for the relatively sane world we live in to exist.
As a place, or better yet as a state of mind, the midbar has an important role to play in the world of the Bible. On the one hand, it is a dangerous and frightening place. It is a place where the ordinary rules of time and distance don’t seem to apply, a place where somehow it becomes possible for the relatively modest journey from Egypt to Canaan can take forty years. It is a place where the Israelites can wander for ages without encountering another settled people, and yet wicked tribes bent on slaughter or corrupting the values of the community seem to lurk behind every rock.
On the other hand, the open and unbounded nature of the midbar can be a source of profound insight and creativity. It is the place where prophets go to have their most profound encounters with God–where Moses encountered the burning bush, where Elijah heard the “still, small voice” of revelation. It is the place where Sinai stands, where the descendants of Jacob made their pact with the Eternal. It is the place where we had to go in order to become who we are.
It becomes necessary, therefore, to strike a balance between the midbar and the camp, to find a way to live amidst the unbounded highlands of the spirit without becoming disoriented and drifting off, never to be seen again. This perhaps is why the first parsha of Numbers is called Bamidbar–because in its detailed enumeration of people by family, clan and tribe, and in its careful arrangement of space, arraying the twelve tribal camping grounds in a precisely delineated ring around the holy sanctuary like the numbers on a clock, we can catch a glimpse of the ways in which a wandering people made their peace with the wilderness, staking their claim at each new campsite to which God led them and carving out, however temporarily, a patch of order and stability amid the creative chaos of life. These are the terms on which the children of Israel were able to cope with their forty year sojourn in the wilderness, and they are not so different from the terms by which we are able to live today.
In recent weeks, my partner Emily and I have felt like our lives were being turned upside-down as we’ve scrambled to prepare for a series of journeys culminating in our upcoming year in Israel. Recently, Emily was feeling pretty overwhelmed by some packing she was doing. It’s something I’ve been feeling myself–the difficulty of knowing what to bring and what to leave behind, of how to fit your life into the smallest possible space so you can take it with you. In the end, the only way to overcome this anxiety and put the logistical and emotional problem into some kind of perspective was, funnily enough, to make a list.
Like the Israelites in parashat Bamidbar, we get by and face the challenges life throws at us by trying to impose a little order on what can sometimes be a terribly confusing world. In doing so, we can make a little ground for us to stand on, a place from which to reach out and engage with life in all its wild, creative glory.
The questions I put to the kahal when I gave this talk are the same ones I’ll put to you, my readers:
- The Israelites ordered their world by family and tribe, and by the organization of space, and by designating roles for the different groups to fulfill in attending to the needs of the community. What are some of the fundamental ways in which you order your life?
- In encountering the wilderness of the midbar, sometimes we feel opened up and exhilarated, freed to shake up old patterns and explore new things. Sometimes we feel anxious and unsettled, reaching out desperately for something stable and familiar. What are some ways you’ve reacted to change and the breakdown of old patterns in your life?
It’s a bit late, but here’s something I noticed in last week’s parsha (Emor) and in light of the monster of a post I did a couple of weeks ago about Jewish identity, I couldn’t resist writing about it.
At the very end of the parsha (Leviticus 24:10-23), there’s a narrative episode in which “one whose father was an Egyptian and whose mother was an Israelite” gets into a fight with “an Israelite.” The “son of an Israelite woman,” who isn’t actually identified except by the name of his mother, a woman named Shlomit of the tribe of Dan, utters God’s name “in blasphemy” and he’s taken into custody and brought before Moses.
The judgment that God hands down to Moses when he asks what to do about this situation is fascinating to say the least:
“Take the blasphemer outside the camp and let all those who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt. If he also pronounces the name HaSHEM, he shall be put to death. The whole community will stone him–stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the name, he shall be put to death.” (Lev. 24:14-16)
I mean seriously, where to start with this? How about the way in which the story elides the question of whether the blasphemer is to be regarded as one of the community or as an outsider? To be sure, the story never actually says that the man isn’t considered an Israelite. And yet, he is never explicitly identified as an Israelite but only at one step removed from the people: the son of an Israelite mother, contrasted with the Israelite with whom he is fighting. Even God’s pronouncement maintains this ambiguity. On the one hand, the law of punishment that is passed down in response to this incident is for one “who blasphemes his God,” not simply God, nor the God of the Israelites, but his God, the God with whom he is in relationship. It seems this presumption of connection with the God of Israel would carry with it the assumption of membership in the kahal. But on the other hand, the law finishes with the note that it applies to anyone, “stranger or citizen,” who has carelessly uttered the divine Name in blasphemy.
It’s hard to read this ambiguity as unintentional. Indeed, it is so carefully maintained throughout the episode that it seems to lie at the core of what this story meant to the one recording it. Why is it that the “half-Israelite” (as this passage is somewhat inaccurately translated in the JPS) is singled out? Is it, as a commentator in Etz Chayim suggests, that a child raised in a “dual heritage” household is less likely to have been brought up with a strong religious identity–and with the respect for the divine that would entail–and is thus more likely to blaspheme the name of God? It might be comforting to believe that, especially as it tends to confirm the prevailing narrative about the role of interfaith marriage as a corrosive influence on Jewish families and on the Jewish community as a whole.
But it’s important to remember that in the context of the narrative none of the Israelites were exactly coming from a place of strong religious upbringing. This was the generation, we must remember, who had themselves been suffering for their entire lives under the burden of Egyptian slavery, who had only recently been brought forth out of Egypt and who were still fully in the midst of the complicated, messy task of working out a collective national and spiritual identity. It’s hard to imagine a way in which belonging to a dual-parent household would make one any more likely to fail to respect God’s sanctity than anyone else in that crazy mixed up generation–which is also, just to be totally clear, our own generation.
Or is it, as I rather more think, that a “full Israelite”–that is, someone who is perceived by their fellows as a full member of the community, someone whose Jewish credentials are impeccable and whose Jewish identity goes unchallenged–is it that someone like this who might in an unguarded moment, caught up in the tension of perpetual wandering and the ungrounded existence of the midbar, lose control and utter words of blasphemy, but nevertheless somehow this fact might be overlooked by those around him, those who see their lives and their concerns mirrored in his, those who are not inclined to regard him as an “outsider,” perpetually under suspicion?
It could be that the blasphemer in the incident in question had to be an individual of dual parentage, because only a perceived “outsider” would be likely to be seized and brought before the authorities for what after all we might imagine to have been a relatively common shortcoming in that generation. If this is so, then God’s declaration that there be one law alike for a member of the tribe and for the outsider may be just, but is it fair? The ruling itself may be perfectly neutral in its formulation and yet it may be utterly impossible to find balance and fairness in its application.
I would like to believe that this is what is hidden in the stipulation that those who were witness to the blasphemy “lay there hands on his head” before he can be put to death. In calling forth those responsible for making the accusation, in forcing them to come to terms with what they were involved in, God was implicitly making room for those involved to back out, to reconsider their motives for singling out the outsider. It is significant, I think that this crucial moment is not included in the coda to the episode:
And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Lev. 24:23)
The crucial moment of responsibility, of reconsideration, is not included, and in this way a deep ambiguity is introduced into the chapter’s closing coda–“The Israelites did as the Lord commanded Moses.” This hint of irony carries with it an implicit commentary on the ethical failure of those who allowed the man known only as the “son of an Israelite woman” to be stoned, and a warning to us to be more careful about whom within our communities we choose to designate as “the outsider.”