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The Great Unknown (Bamidbar)

The glass has been falling all the afternoon,

And knowing better than the instrument

What winds are walking overhead, what zone

Of grey unrest is moving across the land,

I leave the book upon a pillowed chair

And walk from window to closed window, watching

Boughs strain against the sky

And think again, as often when the air

Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting,

How with a single purpose time has traveled

By secret currents of the undiscerned

Into this polar realm. Weather abroad

And weather in the heart alike come on

Regardless of prediction.

Between foreseeing and averting change

Lies all the mastery of elements

Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter.

Time in the hand is not control of time,

Nor shattered fragments of an instrument

A proof against the wind; the wind will rise,

We can only close the shutters.

I draw the curtains as the sky goes black

And set a match to candles sheathed in glass

Against the keyhole draught, the insistent whine

Of weather through the unsealed aperture.

This is our sole defense against the season;

These are the things we have learned to do

Who live in troubled regions.

—“Storm Warnings,” by Adrienne Rich

Bamidbar: “in the desert.” It is the title of our Parshah, and the title of the fourth book of the Torah which we begin this week—and it beckons us into treacherous territory. The desert, after all, is fraught with danger. It is a place of blazing heats and howling winds; of scorpions and sandstorms; of drought and death. To enter it is to expose oneself to the extremes of the elements—to stake one’s very survival.

downloadWe wouldn’t know that reading this week’s Parshah, though. Open Bamidbar and it’s not nature’s caprice that confronts us, but precisely the opposite. That is because our Parshah is filled with logistics: census data, military preparations, camping formations, and a regimen of ritual responsibilities. In a sense, these measures all serve to combat the chaos that typically characterizes life out in the wilderness; they are all, as it were, strategies for asserting and maintaining control in the face of the unknown and unexpected. On its surface, then, Bamidbar strikes us less as the story of the “Desert,” and more, per Chazal’s intuitions, as “Chumash Pekudim”—“the Book of Numbers.” All calculations have been made; all variables have been reduced.

Yet dig a little deeper and you will discover that the sense of order projected by our Parshah is, in many ways, a façade—for while Bamidbar may speak of organization, it does so in a way that is quite disorganized. Thus, for instance, Hashem opens Bamidbar by commanding Moshe to take a census of “the entire assembly of the Children of Israel” (Num. 1:2), and to take with him “one man from each tribe” for assistance (ibid. 3). Upon identifying these tribal leaders, however, Hashem inexplicably leaves the tribe of Levi off the list (ibid.  5-14). Only at the end of the chapter—after Moshe has carefully and painstakingly counted the members of each of the other tribes, 603,350 in total (ibid. 46)—does the Torah offer a terse acknowledgment of Levi’s omission (ibid. 47), followed, at long last, by its rationale (ibid. 48-53). Even still, it does not supply us with the name of Levi’s tribal head; for that, we wait another three chapters (Num. 4:32).[i]

Meanwhile, in the course of clarifying itself, our Parshah actually obfuscates matters further. Outlining the unique role reserved for the tribe of Levi, Hashem states that its members “shall minister the Tabernacle” (Num. 1:50) and “shall encamp around it” (ibid. 53), while “the Children of Israel shall encamp, every man at his camp and every man at his banner” (ibid. 52). Very nice—but what “camp?” What “banner?” The Torah here refers to Bnei Yisrael’s camping formation and insignia as though its details were readily familiar; in fact, however, these details are not provided until the next chapter, rendering mention of them in our chapter largely inaccessible.

Nor does the announcement that the Levites shall serve as ministers of the Tabernacle arrive without problems of its own. True, it justifies the exclusion of the Levites from the general census; in so doing, however, it also ambiguates the status of the firstborns, who had ministered the Tabernacle until this point. Only after listing Bnei Yisrael’s encampment formations does Hashem address this latter quandary, by revealing that the Levites are to relieve the firstborns entirely of their sacred duties (Num. 3:11-13).

Yet this, in turn, raises the demographic issue anew: Are we to assume that there are exactly the same amount of Levites as there are firstborns? There are not, it turns out, but that information is not immediately forthcoming. First, Hashem (finally) commands Moshe to take that census of the Levites left out of the first chapter (ibid. 3:39); then, after the 22,000 of them are tallied, He commands Moshe to take a census of the firstborns (ibid. 40-43); and only then, after counting all 22,273 firstborns, is Moshe told how he ought to resolve the demographic discrepancy (ibid. 44-51).

In the interim, we are left wondering how to parse the scant job descriptions interspersed within the latest census data. “The charge of the sons of Gerson in the Tent of Meeting was the Tabernacle, the Tent, its Cover…” (Num. 3:25); “Their charge [the sons of Kohath] was the Ark, the Table, the Menorah, the Altars…” (ibid. 31); “The charge of the sons of Merari was the planks of the Tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets…” (ibid. 36). Upon tabulating the totals of each Levite family, the Torah records which sections of the Tabernacle its members would be responsible for, but, crucially, withholds the actual content of their roles. Only after ending its discussion of the firstborns does the Torah double-back to spell out the exact nature of the Tabernacle assignments which it vaguely alludes to here. And even then, its presentation comes piecemeal: while the assignments of Kehat appear at the end of this week’s Parshah, the Parshah (and the chapter) breaks abruptly in the middle, forcing us to wait until next week to learn the specific assignments of the other two Levite families.

Overall, then, our Parshah poses a profound paradox. On the one hand, it appears to promote order; on the other hand, its choppy literary style undermines that order at every turn. Indeed, the contradiction is glaring once observed. And yet it can hardly be accidental. No: if the details of our Parshah strike us as disjointed, that must be because they are deliberately so. Their form, in other words, informs their content; or, as McLuhan once put it, “the medium is the message”—and in this case, the medium messes with the message precisely because “messiness” is a central component of that message.

How natural it is, after all, for us humans to approach life’s “deserts”—those vast expanses along life’s journey characterized by high risk, little direction and frequent disturbance—seeking to structure them, to stabilize them, in a way that renders them neat and predictable. We can tolerate few things less than finding ourselves at the whims of chance and circumstance. Faced with this prospect, we do all that we can to wrest control back from the universe: to master its mysteries; to resist its randomness; to leave nothing unclear, nothing uncertain, nothing unknown.

So along comes our Parshah, purporting to provide us with precisely the order and predictability that we so desperately desire. Count this, it instructs us, and account for that. Tally this and tabulate that. Arrange yourselves like this, and angle yourselves for that. Do so before you venture deep into the desert, and you will find yourselves far less vulnerable to its vicissitudes. You will be better equipped to weather its storms. Your lives will indeed become simpler and safer, just as you hope for. Such is the great promise of Bamidbar.

Except, of course, that life is not that simple—and therefore, neither is our Parshah. Life is complicated and confusing—and so too, therefore, is our Parshah. Like life, Bamidbar tempts us, on occasion, into believing that we’ve got it all figured out. Yet at no point within this Parshah are all our questions laid to rest; every answer prompts two more questions, whose own answers are perpetually put off through the frustrating experience Deridda dubbed “différance.” Never are we rid of all doubt. Never are we immune to fresh disturbance. Certainty, clarity, control, order: Bamidbar dangles these just beyond our reach, inviting us to inch towards them, yet pulling them away just as we think they’re within grasp. So it is within the text, and so it is within the human experience that it mirrors.

C’est la vie. Try as we might, we can never eliminate all unknowns or prepare for all possible outcomes. Even the best laid plans go awry, after all, and while this should not prevent our laying them anyhow—indeed, our Parshah commands us to do just that—it should caution us against the hubris and folly of believing ourselves capable of determining, or even of understanding, every condition of our existence. So we follow the example of Bnei Yisrael. We count heads, and we raise banners, and we collect funds, and we assign tasks—but we know, as our ancestors did, that these efforts alone are not what carry us through the desert. Instead, we march into the great unknown with courage and confidence because we know that Hashem is there guiding us “in a pillar of cloud” (Exod. 13:21)—never revealing Himself quite clearly, but always there leading the way.

Shabbat shalom!


[i] Of course, we might account for the textual data compiled here and in the following paragraphs by invoking “אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה”—the exegetical principle which states that events recorded in the Torah do not necessarily appear in the order in which they occurred. Yet even if we posit that Hashem presented the details of our Parshah to Moshe in an order that created none of the ambiguities highlighted here, this would not explain why the Torah chose to present them in a different order. Indeed, it would actually accentuate the problem, for it would mean that our Parshah is “disordered” not only from a logical perspective, but also chronologically!


4 Comments

  1. benyitzhak says:

    Very nice! Shabbat shalom!

    Yaakov Elman yelman3@aol.com

  2. adelmanr says:

    Beautifully written, again. I loved your use of the Adrienne Rick poem. May I borrow it? I am writing on Be’ha’alotekha for the Huffington Post. You are a great writer!

  3. Thank you very much Dr. Elman and Dr. Adelman!
    Dr. Adelman: by all means, please feel free to use the poem 🙂
    Chag Sameach!

  4. Mike Shriqui says:

    Great essay Alex, sorry I took so long to read it. Enjoy life!

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