Friday, May 18, 2007

Bamidbar and Shavuot: Becoming a Chariot

The book of Bamidbar starts this week. Now that the Jews have freedom, Torah and a Mishkan, the only thing left to do is to make Aliyah. It turns out that that last step is a lot easier said than done.

Getting from Sinai to Jerusalem is a bit of an ordeal. Due to some unfortunate “mistakes,” it will take the Jews 40 years to get to Israel and another 440 will pass before King Solomon builds the First Temple. (For those of us with time management issues, it is helpful to know that things often take a lot longer than people expect.) But all of this is in the future. Right now, we stand at the beginning of the book and all systems are go. The sky is clear and the Jews are preparing to march.

Moving millions of men, women and children across a desert is a logistical nightmare. Just one year earlier they were making bricks and now the Jews had to organize in a way that would challenge a trained army. Complicating matters further, each of the thirteen tribes needed to keep its members in formation. But the Jews were no ordinary people and this was no ordinary hike. There would be no chaos. In the center of their camp stood the Mishkan and it held two tablets and the Glory of G-d.

Getting to Israel is one thing; bringing G-d to Israel is quite another. The journey ahead is not simply a matter of traveling from point A to point B. With the completion of the Mishkan, the Shechina entered the camp and the Jewish Nation became the escort of G-d – a responsibility and a privilege that until now had been the exclusive domain of the administering angels. Strange as it sounds, G-d does have a divine entourage in Heaven. Here’s an eyewitness account.

I was among the captives on the river Chebar when the heavens opened and I saw visions of angels…
I saw, and behold a stormy wind came from the north, a great cloud and a flashing fire… From its midst was the form of four Chayah-angels, their appearance was that of a human form. Each one had four faces and every one had four wings. Their feet were straight, the soles of their feet were like those of a calf’s foot, and they shined like a vision of polished copper… The form of the Chayah-angels had the appearance of burning coals of fire…
The form above the heads of the Chayah-angels was that of a firmament, looking like a fearsome ice spread out above their heads… And above the firmament that was over their heads, like a vision of a sapphire, was the form of a throne…
Then the spirit lifted me up and I heard behind me the sound of a great noise, “Blessed is the glory of G-d in His place.”

Yechezkel the Prophet described his vision in the first chapter of his book, but human language and the mortal mind fail when they attempt to image G-d’s divine “chariot.” (Paintings are even worse!) It’s just too removed from physical reality.

In contrast, our parsha tells us exactly how it looked when the Jews traversed the Sinai Peninsula 3300 years ago. Spread out across the desert flats like divisions of a massive army, twelve tribes stand in formation around the Levite camp. Banners snap in the wind. Trumpets. Clouds of Glory. And in the center of it all, a majestic palace – the Mishkan – shines in the sun. These are images we can well imagine. At that point in history, the Jews were no less divine and no less the chariot of G-d than all the fiery, multi-winged angels of Yechezkel’s vision.

The Jews of the desert and the angels of heaven make for a fascinating contrast. In fact, the two match each other quite neatly.

In the same way that G-d created the four directions of physical space, He also surrounded His heavenly throne with four angels… And G-d organized the flag-bearing [Israelites on earth into four divisions] to match them.

Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 2:10

How do people get the job of angels? Why are the Jews escorting the Shechina? Because the Shechina is in the Mishkan.

…Moshe completed the work [of constructing the Mishkan]. The cloud then covered the Tabernacle and the Mishkan was filled with the Glory of G-d.

Shemot 40:33-34

But questions remain. Why did the Shechina descend to earth? Why would G-d abandon the celestial angels for a tent of wood, gold and animal skins? What is so special about the Mishkan? The answer is not hard to figure out; it sits quietly in a box in the Holy of Holies. The answer is the Tablets of the Law. It is the presence of the Torah that imbues the Mishkan with sanctity and transforms it into the ideal sanctuary for G-d. This should help us better appreciate the words of the Ramban (1194-1270):

Now the Mishkan in the desert was bordered just as Mt. Sinai [was bordered] when G-d’s Glory was there (cf. Shemot 19:12). G-d commands, “Any unauthorized person who enters [the Mishkan] shall die” (Bamidbar 18:7) just as He said earlier [regarding Sinai], “…he shall be stoned” (Shemot 19:13). G-d commands, “They will not come and see the sacred [furniture] being packed and die [as a result]” (Bamidbar 4:20) just as He warned earlier [regarding Sinai], “…they must not cross the boundary in order to see the Divine, because this will cause many to die” (Shemot 19:21). G-d commands, “Let [the Levites] be entrusted with guarding the sanctuary and guarding the altar” (Bamidbar 18:5) just as G-d said earlier[regarding Sinai], “The Kohanim, who come near to G-d, must also sanctify themselves… the Kohanim and the people must not violate the boundary…” (Shemot 19:22,24).

Ramban, Introduction to Bamidbar

Simply put, all the rules and regulations of Sinai are present in the Mishkan. Why? Because the very Divine Presence that was manifest at Sinai has now transferred over to the Mishkan. It’s not hard to understand. Where the Torah goes, G-d goes.

This is why we read the first chapter of Yechezkel on the morning of Shavuot. Now that the Torah is in our hands and the Shechina rests in our community, we need some on-the-job training from the pros. The angels may have had the job first, but now G-d is our responsibility.

1 comment:

  1. The word "Midbar" (desert) is the same root as "to speak" (medaber) in Hebrew. I read an interpretation that the silence - typical of the of the desert - speaks. We just have to listen

    We can not do our job, as you describe, G-d is our responsibility, without listening to silence and without seeing what is not visible to the eye.

    Miha Ahronovitz