Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat B'midbar 5754
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
May 14, 1994 4 Sivan 5754
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
When I was a youngster, Shavuot was the time for confirmation, a ceremony concocted in the nineteenth century along Protestant lines to replace bar-mitzvah and enhance synagogue attendance on the holiday, for Shavuot never enjoyed the popularity of Pesah. But a brief two days, it flits by without the elaborate ritual drama or stirring universal message of Pesah. The synagogue is its primary venue and there is little for us to do at home, except to enjoy the restful interlude with family and friends.
Precisely for this reason, the mystics of Safed in Israel in the sixteenth century tried to enrich the experiential side of the holiday by adding to it an opening night of group study (Tikkun Leil Shavuot) to prepare ourselves for the public acceptance of Torah in the synagogue the next morning. We come to Torah out of Torah. That in our day the confirmation ceremony has withered and the custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot has spread surely suggests that only those reforms made in the spirit of tradition will prevail in the end.
Nevertheless, because Shavuot still suffers from inattention, Pesah loses the closure it needs. Though separated by a period of seven weeks, yet linked by the daily counting of the Omer, the two holidays are inextricably related. Redemption culminates in revelation to harness freedom to a sense of national mission and to define a religious-ethnic identity. Without Sinai, the exodus from Egypt yields little more than a formless state of national disorder. It is neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Revolutionary War which gave final political form to the erstwhile 13 colonies of the British Empire, but only the brilliantly crafted Constitution protecting individual liberty while balancing states' rights with a strong federal government. Shavuot addresses the basic question of what we are to do with our freedom. The bloody history of the post-colonial era of the last few decades shows exactly how hard it is to handle that challenge with any degree of humanity.
Shavuot may repel some of us because we have lost our faith in literal revelation. Our modern critical stance can no longer accept a view that imagines Moses as God's amanuensis, diligently recording every word dictated from on high. But already the ancient rabbis, with whom we associate that view, dared to restrict it ever so modestly. There are two sets of blessings and curses in the Torah, which graphically depict what will befall Israel if it heeds or ignores God's commandments. We read the first last week, in chapter 26 of Leviticus, a reading that in fact is always recited in the synagogue just prior to Shavuot. The second set, a particularly long and grim list of imprecations, occurs near the end of Deuteronomy in chapter 28, and is always read just prior to Rosh Hashanah. So harrowing are its details that the Torah reader is obligated to lower his or her voice when reciting them.
Struck by the difference in length and venom between the two sets, the rabbis declared that only the first in Leviticus was the word of God, whereas the second in Deuteronomy came entirely from Moses. Moreover, they took the occasion to contrast divine and human anger. In Leviticus they noticed that God offers 22 blessings over against 8 curses, while Moses loses all self-control and delivers himself of only 8 blessings and 22 curses. The more compassionate of the two, God is far more eager to bless than curse. The net result, however, of this sensitive midrash is to render a part of the Torah human.The real challenge for us is not who wrote the Torah, but what we do with it. The text is only as good as its interpreters. An obtuse reader can mutilate even the most sacred of texts. Again, the rabbis were acutely aware of the crucial role that interpretation played in preserving or perverting the sanctity of the Torah. Notice what they did to a verse they found unpalatable.
In a moment of great pique, God has the prophet Ezekiel tell his exiled brethren of the relentless misdeeds of their fathers, which brought about their loss of the land. God insists at one point: "Moreover, I gave them laws that were not good and rules they could not live by (Ezek. 20:25)." The import of these harsh words is that God might just be the author of inadequate or even malevolent law, a proposition that flies in the face of God's goodness, love, and perfection.
Accordingly, it is suggested by the rabbis that this nettlesome verse refers to a situation in which "a person reads the Torah without music or studies the Mishnah without melody." Both texts, the twin pillars on which Judaism rests, were once recited only to the accompaniment of song to enhance their beauty and make them easier to memorize. To this day we never read the Torah in the synagogue without its ancient musical cantillation.
But note what has been accomplished by this exegetical twist. The holiness of the text has been preserved. Whatever blemish we may detect has nothing to do with the original power and beauty of the Torah, but derives solely from inferior mediation. Not the author, but the interpreter is at fault. The words are divine; the music is human, and the quality of the rendition determines the sanctity of the words. They don't speak for themselves: we need to bring them to life, give them voice and set them to music. Only then will we hear the poetry in the prose. If God has been guilty of laws that are unlivable, it is because the guardians of Torah have contaminated their purity and suffocated their meaning and significance. An incompetent conductor can destroy the best of Mozart.
Put differently, the charge of this midrash to us is to put Judaism to music, to make it a work of art. Torah can only be taught and transmitted through love, joy, and beauty. Blessings are more effective than curses. Coercion never breeds commitment, only resentment. According to the rabbis, "God's presence will never grace us in a mood of sadness or lethargy or levity or disrespect or idle conversation or distraction, but only in a mood engendered by the joy of performing a mitzvah." This is the challenge of Shavuot: not to carp over the likelihood of revelation, but to imbue and enlarge Torah with human artistry and ingenuity. Judaism has always conceived humanity as God's partner in the creation of cosmos out of chaos.
And partnership is the note which ends the magnificent haftarah from Hosea, read on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot. Reconciliation between the prophet and his wayward wife, between God and Israel, leads to betrothal and fidelity. God renews the covenant by retaking Israel as His bride with the following promise:
And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, And with goodness and mercy, And I will espouse you with faithfulness Then shall you be devoted to the Lord. (Hosea 2:21-22)
In shifting these lilting words to the morning service, the rabbis altered the choreography of the betrothal. Recited as we don our tefillin, they now connote our personal pledge of fealty to God to advance the divine work of creation, renewing the partnership on a daily basis.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,