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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat B'ha·alot'kha
Numbers 8:1-12:16
May 28, 1994     18 Sivan 5754

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The choosing of an epitaph for someone we love is excruciatingly difficult. That is, in part, because our minds are no longer stocked with literary associations and, in part, because we are humbled by the task of identifying the essence of a human life. Mercifully, the unveiling of the tombstone is customarily delayed till the first Yahrzeit, which gives us time to choose wisely.

The epitaph which adorns my father's tombstone is taken from this week's parasha. It is my paraphrase of Numbers 12:7 and reads: "A servant of God who felt His presence everywhere." You need to take a look at the verse to appreciate that this is my rendering of an enigmatic text. The original passage occurs as part of God's rebuke of Miriam and Aaron. In a moment of pique, they challenge the exclusive authority exercised by Moses. "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?" (Numbers 12:2) God responds decisively by informing them of how their experience of God differs from that of Moses.

When a prophet of the Lord arises among You, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses! (Numbers 12: 6–8)

In other words, God does communicate with Miriam and Aaron, but only in a single, imperfect medium, when they are passive and unconscious. As for Moses, there are many channels of communication open for him. He experiences God in a state of full consciousness free of interference; his revelation is marked by clarity and immediacy. In this context, the phrase I chose for my father's tombstone, "he is trusted throughout My household" seems to suggest a sense of at–homeness in a world filled with signs of God's presence. Moses had the rare capacity to find God in the ordinary and everyday. He did not need a miracle to unveil for him the miraculous in the mundane. He heard God's voice just as audibly in the silent glow of a bramble as in the eruption of Mt. Sinai.

And this is the essence of my father's life that I tried to capture in the epitaph. For he too, despite the ravages of the demonic that he witnessed and suffered in a lifetime that spanned the darkest decades of the twentieth century, never lost his awareness of the divine in the mystery of existence. Indeed, his rabbinate, born in the trenches of the First World War, became the outpost from which he fought against the surging tide of secularization. His rural origins had imbued him with a love both of Judaism and nature and a pervasive sense of wonder. His deep knowledge of science reinforced his faith. As for Kepler, it was for him a way of thinking God's thoughts. He revered Spinoza, Kant, and Einstein because the grandeur of their visions did justice to the glory of God. But, above all, he had the ability to catch sight of God in the prosaic and quotidian – in the laugh of a child at his pocket watch, in the feel of the earth as he planted his victory garden, in the comfort he could bring to a critically wounded soldier, in the silence of his bedtime devotions in memory of lost family and friends. A lifetime student of the language of God, my father was also one of its master teachers.

That language is encoded in all of God's creation, but accessible only to the preternaturally sensitive. It is not restricted to dreams or to the Tent of Meeting or to an arbitrarily defined realm of the sacred. To those touched by a primordial awe for the mystery of reality, God's presence can be felt in any place at any time. Heschel, for whom radical amazement was the soil of all true religious sentiment, would have surely agreed with Einstein when the latter wrote that "the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed." For expansive religious personalities, there is no conflict between science and religion. Their love of God is enhanced by their knowledge of the world.

Like Einstein, the rabbis spoke of Israel's lesser prophets as seeing through a glass darkly. In a remarkable talmudic tale of martyrdom, they have the tyrant king of Judah, Menasseh, try the prophet Isaiah for uttering prophecies that contradicted the teachings of Moses. For example, Moses declared that "no man will see Me (i.e. God) and live (Exodus 33:20)," while Isaiah began his career with an unvarnished vision of God: "In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple (Isaiah 6:1)." Isaiah despairs of defending himself against his malevolent prosecutor and judge and takes refuge in the trunk of a giant cedar. But the hiding place is soon discovered and cut down by the king's men. When the saw reached the mouth of the prophet, he expired. In this tale, the rabbis strain to justify the cruel fate of Isaiah because in that inaugural prophetic experience of his in the Temple, he impugned the holiness of God's people Israel by exclaiming "Woe is me; I am lost... I live among a people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5)." One wonders what prompted the rabbis to go to such lengths to defend the virtue of the masses against the impatience of their leaders?

But the initial and larger issue of the tale is the many discrepancies among the prophets, and on this score the rabbis assert the superiority of Moses. The glass through which he peered was crystal clear while that of the others was simply not. Rashi's gloss on the text brings out the paradox in their distinction. "The prophets thought they saw God, but really didn't. Whereas Moses, who had the benefit of a clear glass, knew he never saw God face to face." Moses's humility was a function of his greatness. Penetrating more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of things than anyone before or since, he was more acutely aware of his ignorance. As the Torah relates at Mt. Sinai: "Moses approached the thick cloud where God was (Exodus 20:18)."

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch 's commentary on Parashat B'ha·alot'kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.