Questioning faith in the parsha
Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim
The F*-WORD…[F _ _ _ _]…Questions, Conflicts & Connection of FAITH
CHEVRAH TORAH, 5772
WHAT does the Wilderness census teach us about being counted?
HOW do we live covenant so as to count?
P’shat…The TEXT—HEARING ECHOES
Remez…The CONTEXT—FORGING FAITH
V.2 Take a count of the whole community of the Children of Israel by their families, by their ancestral house, by the number of their names…
RASHI… Because the Children of Israel are dear to Him, God counts them all the time. When they went forth from Egypt, He counted them. [Ex 12:37] When they fell at the [sin of] the golden calf, He counted them. [Ex 32:35] …And here, when God came to rest the Divine Presence upon them, He counted them.
The LUBAVITCHER….. RASHI writes “He counts them all the time…” yet, as he points out, they were only counted three times in their Wilderness journey…When things are counted, they stand in a relation of equality. And since, as RASHI tells us, the counting was a token of God’s love, it must have been a gesture towards that which every Jew is equal. Not his intellect, nor his moral standing, but his ‘neshomah’–Jewish soul.
Me’AM LO’EZ… “Take a census,” but literally, “lift up the head…” God commanded Moses and Aaron to take a count of the Children of Israel because that which is counted cannot be lost without recognizing that it, or part of it, is missing.
V.3 You & Aaron shall record them, from the age 20 up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.
HaKTAV V’HaKABBALAH… “Tifk’du otam—number them.” The reason Torah does not use the more common verb “saper” for numbering is that they were not counted “by head.” The expression “tif’k’du” [from PaKaD] implies that Moses should take special care of each one.
AKEDAT YITSCHAK… They were not like animals or objects, but each one was counted having an
importance on his own, like a king or a priest. In the counting, each was rendered worthy Before God.
ETZ HAYIM… Literally “lift the head.” This prompted the comment ‘Let the Israelites lift their heads high as
they contemplate who their ancestors were.’ [Reb Nachum of Chernobyl] Though the purpose was to muster the
Israelites for battle, the Midrash uncovers another dimension, comparing God to a person who had a store of
precious jewels. From time to time He would take them out and count them, taking great pleasure in their
beauty and being reassured that they were all safely there. [MIDRASH RABBAH 4:2]
V.6 For Shimon, Shlumi-el son of Zuri-Shaddai
MUNK… The MIDRASH tells us that the prince of the tribe Shimon was the same person named further on [Numbers 25:14] who was later killed while committing an act of debauchery with a Midianite princess… The VILNA GA’ON explains that Shlomiel was but a descendant of Zimri, and that he was a righteous person. The potential for debauchery was, however, passed on to his children…
V.16 These are the elected of the assembly, the chieftains of their ancestral tribes, heads of the contingents of Israel…
MUNK… The names of the 12 leaders, as well as their fathers names, all contain the name of God—either directly as EL [9 times] as TSUR [ Rock, 3 times] or as SHADDAI [Almighty, 3 times]. This is very striking It denotes the nearness of each to God…We see that right from the very start, the leaders of Israel were imbued with the names of God…They are worthy leaders, aware of the responsibility that goes with authority.
R’ Jack RIEMER… If you look at the names of the princes of the 12 tribes, you will notice something strange. Eleven out of the 12 have religious names, by which I mean, names that have the Name of God within. Some have double names of God within their name, and a few have triple names of God. One even has a quadruple form of God’s Name: Shlomi El ben Tsuri Shaddai! This surely must be the most religious person any tribe could possibly have. Yet, strangely enough, these 11 princes who had the name of God as part of their names turned out to be not such a credit to god. They were cautious, some even cowardly, when it came to the service of the Sacred. The one with a quadruple name ended up not amounting to anything, and maybe having a name which is notorious! Among the 12, there was only one who turned out to be brave and noble: Nachshon ben AmmiNadav. Do you know what Nach’shon comes from? From “Nachash” which means snake. What kind of name is that for a nice Jewish boy? Go figure—the eleven that had pious names turned out to be not such a credit to God’s Name, and the worst name turned out to be the best. When the Israelites stood at the shores of the Red Sea, each one argued: After you! But Nachshon had the courage to jump into the waters, before it split, and because of him, the People were saved…So you can’t tell who is really religious by whether they claim to be or not, certainly not by his name.
A person may flaunt his piety, and not be religious at all. A man may claim not to be “religious”,
yet when he is tested, may turn out to be truly religious just the same…
Drash…Confronting Chaos—Finding FAITH
Rabbi Michael MARMUR…[HUC-JIR, V. Pres of Academic Affairs]
…I am a modern liberal Jew. For me, the prospect of abandoning Judaism is inconceivable: I strive to live a rich and intense Jewish life. I find it neither plausible, possible, or necessary to express this commitment by taking on a traditional halakhic lifestyle. It is not plausible because the claims to exclusivity and ultimate authenticity made by contemporary exponents of Halakhah do not persuade me. It is not possible because a number of the social and cultural assumptions of this traditional halakhic approach are hard for me to bear. And it is not necessary to assume that only by engaging in metaphysical acrobatics and legal fictions can I make a meaningful Jewish life.
Thus far my liberal manifesto. But I have a problem believing that a vigorous Jewish life, a religious life, can be attained for individuals and in community without some Halakhah in its broadest sense. Halakhah as law, form, lifestyle, precision, argumentation, debate, praxis. This term should always be seen alongside its partner and counterpart, aggadah, denoting interpretation, inwardness, narrative, speculation, poetry. There is a beautiful and important essay by Haim Nahman Bialik in which the relationship between Halakhah and Aggadah is described in these broad terms: “Halakhah without aggadah is dead. Aggadah without Halakhah is wild.” Now, Bialik did not have in mind a small definition of these terms. Rather, he was talking about the interplay of two key life forces.
I agree with Bialik. Despite all my rejection of a traditional halakhic approach as implausible, I am alarmed at the prospect of an unanchored liberal Jewish sensibility floating on the seas of contemporary life and being tossed about by the waves. I am convinced that without some Jewish praxis, some way or ways of doing things and being in the world, we are left with lofty pronouncements that sound more significant than they really are.
What should liberals who strive for a theology of Jewish commitment do? One way to begin is to reclaim and of course, reinterpret the tradition term neder. Neder is a vow I make freely. Once I have made it, however, my words have consequences. My private commitment takes on a communal resonance…
I see myself as commanded in general terms to seek out ways of being good and holy in the world. Brought up in a certain household with certain norms and practices, I am heir to a heritage. Beyond these general and biographical dimensions, I am commanded to choose.
Let’s be specific and practical: I may commit this year to rise every morning and pray,
or to read a chapter of the Tanakh, or a tractate of the Mishnah. That is a specific expression of a general commitment, and I want to see it in terms of neder, a vow freely made. Now I would never want to see neder police, checking up on my performance. On the other hand, we live in communities of n’darim, where our commitments are pooled together. I even have a suggestion for when this moment of vowing may take place—the festival of Shavuot. That’s when the Dead Sea Sectarians celebrated this festival as a renewal of the covenant, and I suggest we revive the practice. A celebration of Shavuot oaths, alongside the festival of Shavuot, counting the weeks from Exodus to revelation.
I want to live in a community in which personal commitments are taken with great seriousness and in which the communal and the personal intertwine. As a Jew, I seek a religious context in which this trial and error can have resonance beyond the confines of personal search. It may be that in the coming generation our discussion of mitzvot will have to involve a discussion of n’darim—the vows we make and take on to live out our covenant of faith.
[Excerpted from Toward a New Jewish Theological Lexicon, Jewish Theology In Our Time, Jewish Lights]
Sod…The REVELATION—RESPONDING to SINAI
Rabbi Burt VISOTZKY……[ JTS, Prof of Midrash & Inter-Rel Studies, Head of Finklestein Institute]
Who counts in our Jewish community? Does one have to be a certain age…a certain gender? Does one have to donate a certain minimum to count? Need one perform the right mitzvot to be counted? Do we count those Jews who visit the elderly, who make beds in shelters, who staff soup kitchens? Do we only count straight Jews, or only Jews who can study a classical text?…It matters a great deal whom we count and how we count them. Numbers matter; budgets matter…It matters how the Jewish community is surveyed and what is counted as Jewish practice. It matters whether we attend a synagogue and whom we count in our minyan….This coming week we will once again stand at Sinai. It matters that every single one of us is there, from our chieftains to our water-drawers, from our mothers and their children to us. It matters that at the infinite moment of revelation, God saw us as one people. We need to learn to count one another, each and every one—as God counted us, so we can learn someday to count on one another.