Between “Vayikra” and Bamidbar”

The book of “Vayikra” is characterized by permanence, holiness (the Temple, the Cohanim, the People, the Land), of static encampment around the Temple, and the world it represents of eternal and timeless values, ideals and goals.


By contrast, the book of “Bamidbar” is permeated by dynamism, change and fluctuation (both of the camp and of the People in their moods), the present and being constantly “on the move,” roving through the barren wilderness.


In the Ramban’s words on the verse in our parsha, Be-ha’alotecha: “If the cloud would linger upon the Tabernacle for a number of days” (Bamidbar 9:20): “This means around two or three days, and even if the People were very weary and weak [so that they would have preferred to encamp longer in their present location to rest longer], nevertheless they would do the will of God to walk after the cloud, as the verse concludes: “according to the word of Hashem they would encamp and according to the word of Hashem they would journey.”


Which is more important: the fixed ideals or the transient reality?


The late Rabbi Dr. Yosef Burg, one of the founders of the Israeli National Religious Party, was once asked by an Israeli journalist: which to him was the more important – “Religion” or “Zionism”?


His immediate response was – “the hyphen”!


Both are important, both contribute to the greater whole; or, to paraphrase Albert Einstein: Zionism without Religion is Lame, Religion without Zionism is blind.


Of course, we can never lose sight of the Sefer Vayikra idealism. “Our nation is a nation only through its Torah” in the words of 10th century sage and philosopher, Sa’adia Gaon (Emunot V’De’ot 3:7). Yet, we dare not see the proverbial cup only as being half empty.


There is a time to censure and criticize. Yet there is also a time to give thanks and celebrate. Whether we choose to go as far as one leading Religious-Zionist Rabbi, who, when asked whether he believed we had yet reached the “beginning of the flourishing of our redemption,” quipped: “No, we are in the middle of the flourishing of our redemption”; or another, who when criticized as to how he could take God’s Name in vain by reciting the b’racha of She’cheyanu on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, responded: “If on a new tie, an individual blesses She’cheyanu, shouldn’t this follow automatically for a new State for the Jewish people?!” – is a matter for each person to decide.


But, we cannot ignore the need to have a healthy sense of historical perspective. As my late Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital z”l, would often say: When we see, after two thousand years, children playing in the streets of Israel, in the squares of Jerusalem – this cannot be a natural phenomenon! This is the fulfillment of the simple, pastoral description of normalcy prophesied: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall yet again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem… and the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the Lord of hosts: If it will be wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this nation in those days, it will also be wondrous in my eyes, says the Lord of hosts” (Zecharia 8:4-6).  


“We have prevailed in worse times and we shall prevail now,” Rav Amital would stress. “But we have to know that without a strong sense of history we shall not be able to understand what is happening here. If we fail to take our past into account, we will not understand the future, and even our appreciation of the present will be perverted.”


And, yet, to see only the present, without a sense of historical perspective, is equally damaging. This was the sin of the Spies in next week’s parsha. In a revealing piece of psychology in the Spies’ demoralizing account, they state: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and [therefore] this is how we were perceived by them [the giant descendants of Anak]” (Bamidbar 13:33).


Let us not forget: the Children of Israel were on the verge of entering the Promised Land – just 11 days’ journey from Mount Sinai where they received the Torah (see Devarim 1:2)! Their clarion-call should have been in unison with Calev’s restatement of the Divine promise: “Let us go up at once, and take possession of it; for we are well able to overcome it” (13:30). Yet these leaders lost confidence in their own abilities, became enslaved by their hearts and their eyes, and do despaired of God’s assurance of victory.


“There is no such thing as ‘I can’t’, only ‘I don’t want’ runs one popular Israeli military idiom. A country cannot be won, a state cannot be realized, the ideals of holiness and purity cannot stand firm, without first being ready and willing to drain the swamps, to reclaim the land, to sweat and toil. The Spies failed to realize this, thus sealing the fate of an entire generation to roam as nomads through the wilderness in which they would eventually die, without reaching the land of their destination.


And, sadly, when the people did wake up to their sense of Divine mission, later on in next week’s parsha, and tried to make amends, with the belated sounds of “Let us go and ascend to the place which God promised – for we have sinned” (14:40), the Amalekites drove them back (14:45). They had missed the golden opportunity, which sometimes presents itself only once in a lifetime.


May we merit to integrate the ideals of Sefer Vayikra into the fluctuating world of Sefer Bamibdar.


Shabbat shalom!

By Simon Jackson

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Posted in: Hebrew Language Gems & Torah Insights

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