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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat B'midbar 5765
Numbers 1:1 - 4:20
June 4, 2005     26 Iyyar 5765

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

Order is critical to the establishment of a just and productive society. It is no wonder then that the book of B'midbar details the meticulous arrangement of the Israelite encampment. Numbers 2:2 instructs, "the Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting." The parashah then continues to list the exact placement of each tribe in relation to each other. Given this attention to organization in the Israelite camp, one might expect the journey through the desert to move along flawlessly. Yet, more than any other book of Torah, B'midbar attests to the waywardness of the Israelites. How could a people blessed with Torah, the details of the sacred service of God, and now the precise map of their camp - all designed to create an orderly and meaningful society - devolve into such chaotic ways?

In his commentary on Torah, Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen turns to the insightful thought of a past chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Moshe Avidor Amiel. In answer to our query Amiel writes, "when Israel was marching through the desert, arguments and conflict proliferated against both God and Moses. One need only look at the great cry in the portion of the spies (Numbers 14:1); the revolt of Korah and his cohorts (Numbers 16:1); the mixed multitude that cried out, 'who will feed us meat?' (Numbers 11:4); the idolatrous clinging to the daughters of Moab (Number 25:1); and the fight over water (Numbers 20:11). All of these negative phenomena occurred after the giving of Torah. So, the meaning we derive from this is that despite the Israelites receiving Torah, they were still wandering aimlessly because they were not occupied with establishing the world, creation, or building, but rather were living in a desert of desolation. This connects perfectly to the teaching of our rabbis: "Torah is beautiful when combined with a worthy endeavor, for the pursuit of both of them lead to the avoidance of sin." Only when there is a combination of Torah and a productive life can a people guard its stature and aspirations" (Avigdor HaCohen, Likrat Shabbat, 141).

Rabbi Amiel's words ring true even today. Torah divorced from practical contributions to society leads to a life of intolerance and fundamentalism. One need only remember the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai who during the Roman persecutions sought refuge in a cave. There, he and his son studied in isolation for twelve years until the decree against him had been annulled. When he went out and saw people plowing and sowing (engaged in the routine affairs of the world), he exclaimed, 'These men forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!' And so, whatever he cast his eyes on was immediately destroyed. God then demands that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai return to his cave (as found in BT. Shabbat 33b-34a). Clearly, Rabbi Bar Yohai is an example of the danger of Torah without roots in the world. So, too, the opposite holds true. To pursue one's profession or pleasures without being attuned to Torah and an ethical way of living leads to a life of self-centered materialism and emptiness. Both extremes condemn one to life in the desert. The sacred challenge for each of us is to find the golden mean between the learning of Torah and engagement in the material affairs of the world. Only then will we, as individuals, and as a nation, truly reach the Promised Land.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of "A Taste of Torah" commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.