Parashat Bemidbar 5778
Our Self Renovation program wrapped up this week with a two-day intensive meditation workshop. We engaged in a graded set of meditation practices from the kabbalistic and hassidic traditions and accompanying text study to access layers of consciousness and cultivate heightened, open and expansive awareness. Together with the able staff of Livnot U’Lehibanot, we had planned the complete program carefully and had a pretty good vision of our overall goals. Even so, I found myself continually surprised by new insights and revelations throughout the program, thanks to the thoughtful and seasoned members of the group, everyone contributing their unique wisdom. A mature and dedicated gathering of people working together for spiritual awakening is a powerful experience.
Group synergy is a key theme of this week’s parashah, that begins with HaShem’s command to take a census. Rashi states the purpose of the count:
רש”י במדבר פרק א פסוק א
כשבא להשרות שכינתו עליהן מנאן. באחד בניסן הוקם המשכן, ובאחד באייר מנאם:
When He came to settle His Presence upon them He counted them – on the first of Nisan the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyyar He counted them.
It’s not clear from Rashi, though, why the dwelling of the divine Presence with Israel depends in some way on the number of Israelites. The Gemara gives the minimum number of people necessary, based on the verse from Numbers 10:36 regarding what Moshe would say when the Ark and the nation would come to rest from one of their journeys:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף סג עמוד ב, סד עמוד א
ת”ר: ובנחה יאמר שובה ה’ רבבות אלפי ישראל – מלמד, שאין השכינה שורה על פחות משני אלפים ושני רבבות מישראל
The Rabbis taught: “And when it came to rest he would say ‘return, HaShem, to the tens of thousands and the thousands of Israel’ – this teaches that the divine Presence does not dwell upon less than two thousand plus twenty thousand of Israel.
The Rabbis interpret the verse in their accustomed way: the minimum of a plural term is two. “Tens of thousands” indicates a minimum of two ten-thousands, and “thousands” a minimum of two thousands, for a total of twenty-two thousand. Rabbi Yeshayah of Trani, a late Tosafist, notes that this is the number of men in the camp of the Levi’im that surround the camp of the Mishkan. Rabbi Bezalel Ashkenazi cites a Gaon who had a text variant of the Gemara that read “two thousand ten thousands,” twenty million people, as necessary for the dwelling of the Shekhinah – and that this was the total number of people, of all ages, women and children as well as men, present at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and in the complete Israelite encampment in the desert (Shitah Mekubetzet, Baba Kama 63).
This still doesn’t explain why the dwelling of the divine Presence should depend on a large gathering of Israelites, of whatever size. In fact, the Mishnah Avot presents what seems like a contrary opinion:
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג משנה ו
[*] רבי חלפתא איש כפר חנניה אומר עשרה שיושבין ועוסקין בתורה שכינה שרויה ביניהם שנאמר (תהלים פ”ב) אלהים נצב בעדת אל ומנין אפילו חמשה שנאמר (עמוס ט’) ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה ומנין אפילו שלשה שנאמר בקרב אלהים ישפוט ומנין אפילו שנים שנאמר (מלאכי ג’) אז נדברו יראי ה’ איש אל רעהו ויקשב ה’ וישמע וגו’ ומנין אפילו אחד שנאמר (שמות כ’) בכל המקום אשר אזכיר את שמי אבא אליך וברכתיך:
Rabbi Halafta of the village of Hananiah (just southwest of Tzfat) says that when ten people sit and engage in Torah the Shekhinah dwells among them… and even five… and even three… and even two… and even one person…
The Midrash Shmuel explains that even for Rabbi Halafta there are differences of degree in the fullness of divine revelation depending on the size of the group learning together. The larger the group, the greater the revelation.
This is also the opinion of Rabbi Yosi haGalili in the Gemara Berakhot regarding the practice of Zimun – the invitation to Birkat haMazon, the blessings after a full meal:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף מט עמוד ב
משנה. כיצד מזמנין? בשלשה – אומר: נברך, בשלשה והוא אומר: ברכו, בעשרה אומר: נברך אלהינו, בעשרה והוא – אומר: ברכו; אחד עשרה, ואחד עשרה רבוא. במאה – הוא אומר: נברך ה’ אלהינו. במאה והוא – אומר: ברכו, ובאלף הוא אומר: נברך לה’ אלהינו אלהי ישראל, באלף והוא אומר: ברכו, ברבוא – אומר: נברך לה’ אלהינו אלהי ישראל אלהי צבאות יושב הכרובים על המזון שאכלנו, ברבוא והוא – אומר: ברכו, כענין שהוא מברך כך עונים אחריו: ברוך ה’ אלהינו אלהי ישראל אלהי צבאות יושב הכרובים על המזון שאכלנו, רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר: לפי רוב הקהל הם מברכים, שנאמר: במקהלות ברכו אלהים ה’ ממקור ישראל.
How do we invite to the blessing after a meal? For three people say “let us bless…” For ten say “let us bless Elokeinu…” For one hundred say “let us bless HaShem Elokeinu…” For one thousand say “let us bless HaShem Elokeinu Elokei Yisrael…” For ten thousand say “let us bless HaShem Elokeinu Elokei Yisrael Elokei Tzevakot Who sits upon the Keruvim for the food we have eaten…” Rabbi Yosi haGalili says: according to the multitude of the congregation they bless, as it says “in the congregations bless God, HaShem from the source of Israel (Ps. 68:27).”
According to Rabbi Yosi haGalili, interpreting the plural “congregations” in the verse, each larger increment adds a divine name to the invitation. Though halakhic practice does not follow his position, we still want to know why a larger group receives a more full revelation of God.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook addresses this issue in his commentary on the Gemara Berakhot. He is explaining the statement of Rabbi Eleazar in the name of Rabbi Hanina, that Torah scholars increase peace in the world – yet Torah scholars are notorious for their wide diversity of opinions and robust culture of argument and critique. Rav Kook explains:
There are those who mistakenly think that world peace can only be built through unanimity of opinions and behavior. If so, when they see Torah scholars investigating wisdom, and the investigations lead to a multiplicity of sides and approaches, they think this causes arguments and the opposite of peace. But in truth it’s not so, for it is impossible for true peace to come to the world except precisely through a multiplicity of peace. The multiplicity of peace is that all sides and all approaches to wisdom be seen, and that it be clarified how all of them have a place, each according to its value and issue. And on the contrary, regarding those matters that seem superfluous or contradictory, when the true wisdom is revealed on all its sides, they’ll see that only through the gathering of all parts and all details, precisely through this will they see the light of truth and justice, knowledge of God and fear and love of Him, and the light of true Torah. Therefore “Torah scholars increase peace in the world,” in that they expand, clarify and give birth to new wisdom in a variety of facets, with multiplicity and diversity, and in this they increase peace. (Ein Ayah, Berakhot, vol. 2, p. 397).
The truth of Torah is not human truth, it’s God’s truth. This is what we celebrate on Shavuot – that God has given us His Torah. Even though the rabbinic tradition has methods for decision-making in practical matters of halakhah, we should not imagine this reduces the infinite and eternal Torah to human scale. In the Talmudic discussions on any and every given issue, even those leading up to a decision, a wide range of views are presented and honored. This is the meaning of the Bat Kol, the heavenly echo, that affirmed the contradictory opinions of the schools of Hillel and Shammai saying “these and those are the words of the living God (Eruvin 13b).” It takes the best efforts of every one of us all together to even begin to get a sense of the fullness of divine revelation and divine Presence. This conveys an attitude of sincere intellectual and moral humility and an openness to listening to others.
It’s a spirit our suffering world needs more of, a spirit not usually found among our Middle Eastern neighbors, and found less and less in the West, least of all on many college campuses, infected with a political conformism to vapid moral relativism that has raised closed-mindedness to a perverse virtue.
Rav Kook was aware of this totalitarian attitude and was speaking out against it. He was also aware that a large group does not guarantee honesty in the search for truth and goodness – it can devolve into narrow group-think. The divine Presence dwells among a large group – a group of good-hearted, open-hearted people, respecting diversity, searching sincerely for divine truth.
We are grateful to have experienced such spirit here in Tzfat, among our group gathered for Self Renovation. May this spirit be shared among more and more people so we all help each other sense God’s infinite, all-embracing Presence together.