Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            We all love a happy ending.  Sometimes we just love any ending, like while listening to a sermon.  Endings are important.  Our Sages tell us that everything goes by the ending (Brachot 12a).  The conclusion of a story can often finally help us see the true significance of the entire tale.  Movies, books, sporting events, and even lives are often best remembered when they have a blockbuster ending.  Mel Brooks noted this phenomenon in his farce History of the World, Part One.  He has the main characters riding in a chariot being chased by the bad guys, and they say that they're coming up on a really big ending, and there up ahead is an entire mountain carved into the words The End.  There's actually a fancy word, eschatology, for the study of how things end.  Now, usually philosophers use that term to describe the End of Time or the Messianic Era, but the idea is still powerful that we're mostly concerned for how things will turn out at the end.  I mention this idea at this point, because we complete the book of Numbers in synagogues throughout the world this Shabbat.  I'd like to discuss why the book ends the way it does.           

This week's parsha continues the trend at the end of the book of Numbers to have a variety of topics discussed.  We have legal material about making oaths, and the care with which we must fulfill our promises.  There is also the description of the portions allotted to each tribe, with special mention of the cities assigned to the Levites.  But the bulk of the space describes the 42 stops the Jews made during their sojourn in the wilderness.  Much is made of this list, because we believe that our own lives are journeys though the maze of this world.  The mystics talk extensively about the importance of making the best of whatever place we find ourselves.  We are where we are to find and release the spiritual sparks hidden in that location since Creation.  However, this week I'm concerned with the issue of why does the book of Numbers end here? 

            Our Biblical books (especially the Five Books of Moshe Rabbeinu) are composed in such a way as to maximalize their ability to transmit their eternal message.  The text accomplishes this in many ways, some obvious, other subtle.  We view the divisions between the different weekly readings and the books themselves as part of this endeavor.  Even though the ending of each of the five books of the Torah can be explained historically, we also notice a spiritual reality embedded in the choice of ending for each book. 

Let me illustrate this idea with the book of Genesis.  We understand that with the death and burial of Yaakov Avinu the Patriarchal Period of the Hebrews as a family or clan is over and now we're ready to enter history as a nation.  This is the end of a major division of Jewish history.  So, there is a clear historical reason for ending the book at this juncture.  However, Genesis isn't merely or even primarily a history book.  So, we'd like to find a spiritually inspiring reason to end the book at that point.  The answer I like (and wrote an article about) is the rectification or Tikun for the major spiritual flaw in the book of Genesis, namely sibling rivalry (Cain v. Abel, Yitzchak v. Ishmael, Yaakov v. Esav, Yosef v. everybody else, but especially Yehduda).  In the antepenultimate (I love that word.  It means third from the last.) chapter of the book, we have the story of Ephraim and Menashe.  Grandfather Yaakov gives the major blessing to the younger Ephraim, but Menashe doesn't go crazy.  He is happy for his beloved sib.  And from then on we bless our sons to be like them, and not kill each other for the throne (or whatever we have to bequeath our heirs).  Now we can end this volume, because we've been shown the proper way to resolve this very natural tension.  Someone (Menashe) has learned the lesson, and, therefore there's hope for us.

            Numbers is a very different kind of book, part legal treatise, part travelogue.  On the obvious storyline level, we can understand why the book ends here, because the forty year trek ends.  We even have a recap of the action by listing the 42 stops made along the way. It's an ancient version of going to the video tapes.  But what is the major spiritual conflict and how was it resolved?  The discomforts of travel brought out the worst in the Jews.  They became contentious complainers, even rebellious.  The adversity of the wilderness brought them to the point that their personal (and, sometimes, petty) needs eclipsed the larger picture of nation building.  I bet winter at Valley Forge was similar for many of George Washington's troops.  Sometimes momentous historical realities require us to suck it up.  Then we have two stories which buck the trend, and show us the way. 

            The first story is the daughters of Zelophchad.  They make a personal request, but ask for it in the most beautiful way.  They don't appeal for the inheritance of their father for themselves; it's for his memorial.  But that story isn't quite good enough because they benefit without sacrifice.  This week we go that example one better.  The leaders of Reuvain and Gad approach Moshe about remaining in the trans-Jordan because of the good pasture land for their abundant flocks.  Moshe is aghast.  How can they shirk their responsibilities to the nation, and selfishly settle the already pacified territory?  Have they learned nothing about sacrifice and altruism during the stay in the desert?  There's a misunderstanding.  These tribes never meant to let their brethren fight for Israel without them, and, not only that, they volunteer to be the first wave of shock troops (chalutzim).  Moshe is comforted, and the book can end because we have a repair or Tikun for the volume's major flaw.

            All too often readers get overly caught up in the Bible stories, and lose the real focus, to find the moral meaning in these awesome narratives.  Our lives are like these books.  We can only move on to the next chapter when we have understood and learned the message of the less mature previous episode.  May we succeed in reading our lives in this analytical manner.                 

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