Making room for the Divine

While on the one hand Bamidbar is a book of failure, on the other hand, it is the series of failures that births the growth of a nation.

May 29, 2019 21:54
Making room for the Divine

WHAT IS thought to be Mount Sinai today, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the construction of the camp of Israel with the Tabernacle in the center. While tedious in detail, it serves as a bridge between the end of the Book of Exodus, when the construction of the Tabernacle is described in all of its glorious detail, and Leviticus, in which the people are instructed on how to navigate the fragile boundaries between pure and impure in the world of Tabernacle, as well as the intersection between holy and profane on the outside.

The book we read from now, called Bamidbar in Hebrew, meaning “wilderness,” and Numbers in English, opens with counting of the people and the formation of the Israelite camp. As Rachel Haverlock writes The Torah, A Woman’s Commentary, “The Tabernacle complex with its collapsible borders and open space, creates a sense of order in the unfamiliar chaos of the wilderness. The Tabernacle helps orient the Israelites in the vast expanse of the wilderness... the contrast between the two titles [Hebrew and English] reflects a tension between order and chaos, culture and nature, obedience and rebellion that characterizes the book and drives its plot.”

In this book, the children of Israel will challenge God, and will themselves be challenged to reconcile individual agency with Divine will and collective punishment. By the end of the book, nothing is the same. Thirty-eight years have passed, and an entire generation of people has died, obliterated in the sands of the desert, completely replaced by a younger community born from the old. It is at the end of the book that another census will be taken. The counting continues. The formation stands at attention. Only now is the nation, with God at its center, ready for the next step.

On one hand, it is a book of failure. On the other, it is the series of failures that births the growth of a new nation better capable of understanding what is necessary to foster and maintain a relationship with God.

There are two more “failures” that mirror, to my mind, the capacity for rupture and reconciliation as vehicles of growth in our relationship with God that seem appropriate to recount as we begin Bamidbar and also continue the counting toward Mount Sinai, which will culminate next week on Shavuot.

The first is in the Garden of Eden. God creates Adam and places him in the Garden. Soon after, he and Eve sin and are summarily evicted, with no possibility of return, from the place which represented beauty and perfection. Life will now be filled with pain and toil as a consequence. However, they will no longer be passive visitors strolling through a magical garden but active participants in conquering and preserving the world. Sexual relations and birth only take place after they leave Eden, suggesting continuity and regeneration, all of which occur in the aftermath of their exile.

MOST TELLINGLY, God speaks first to Adam in the immediate aftermath of the sin, asking “Ayeka” – “Where are you?” It is only here, in the space made by the rupture of disobedience, that God reaches out to begin an ongoing relationship, one in which God seeks man and man seeks God. Eden was a temporary space in which God placed man to challenge and deepen the encounter of the human with the Divine.

There is a midrash that goes even further by stating that God actually had to seduce Adam into the Garden of Eden, suggesting that Adam recognized his fall was imminent if he entered the Garden but that God wanted him in the Garden in order to facilitate this rupture! The power of a potential relationship with God convinced Adam to enter. When he exits, the relationship is no longer the same as before but the power of the word Ayeka promises, nonetheless, resilience and ongoing connection.

A similar narrative opens up at Mount Sinai. The thick cloud cover, thunder and lightning suggest a return to the world before creation. The mountain is trembling. The children of Israel taken out of the slavery of Egypt are about to be reborn as a free nation chosen by God and united by His Torah. There are several midrashim that describe a visceral resistance on the part of the people to submit, as if they recognize that acceptance will only lead to future disobedience. In this narrative, seduction is not going to be enough to ensure submission. God lifts up the mountain and holds it over them, threatening to bury them under it if they will not accept His Torah. 

Soon after this seminal moment, under the cloud of Divine revelation, the people in fact shatter the connection by building a golden calf. It will test the very marrow of their relationship with God, bringing it to the point of utter annihilation before the tenuous and fragile work of reconstruction and reconciliation begins.

It is in this rebuilding, which is the most honest preparation for the future, that I believe the power of our relationship with God is focused.

This week’s portion teaches us that the ordering of the community allows for space for God at the center. It is the opening of a book in which there will many attempts to dismantle this formation, but in the end, the nation will emerge with a greater understanding of what is expected as they begin the final journey into independence in the Land of Israel. The frailty of the construct is also its ultimate strength. When they look back, they will understand that the structure embedded as a necessary precursor for encountering God is not in the actual formations described but in the detail of mitzvot. The resilience of this structure is the willingness of man and God to seek out one another in the aftermath of these ruptures, each side calling out Ayeka.

The writer teaches Talmud and Contemporary Halacha at Matan. She is also on the faculty at Pardes.

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