Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 23 May 2020 / 29 Iyyar 5780

Parshat Bamidbar

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

The Message of Torah Distancing

The opening command of this fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, is to take a census of the nation, as an “eidah,” a congregation. The word stems from the word ya’ed, meaning destination, and is related to the word yachad, together. It thus denotes a community united by a common calling. This uniting mission is, of course, the Torah.

This was given visible expression in the encampment in the desert, where the Tablets (and later a copy of the Written Law) were housed in the Ohel Mo’ed — the Tent of Meeting. This dwelling place of the Torah was the center point around which the people camped. But just as at the time of the Revelation at Sinai, when there were instructions for the people to remain at a distance and separate from Mount Sinai, during their encampments and journeys the people were likewise instructed to keep their distance from the “Camp of the Shechinah.” The Dwelling place was a separate center point, around which the Levites camped at a distance. The rest of the people camped at a further distance around.

This “Torah-distancing” was to serve as a constant reminder that the Torah did not emanate from the people, but was rather given to the people. The Torah is the lofty inviable ideal, which, by eternal Divine power, draws to itself the people of Israel. But the people can never draw so near to the Torah and stand so close to it as to lay our hands on it and control it.

The sin of the golden calf demonstrates how the Torah clearly did not emanate from the people, and at the same time shows the dangers of a people attempting to take the

Divine into their own hands. The non-sequitur of such blatant betrayal after clear revelation demonstrates that the people were so far removed from the truths and requirements of the Law that it is nigh impossible that the Law emanated from the people. Where all other religious codes emanated from the people, as a product of its spirit and the spirit of the time, the Torah stands alone as the code that was presented to the people. To a people so distant from its core teachings that it could abandon them in the blink of an eye! Had Torah emanated from the people, such immediate and radical departure from it would have made no sense. That would have been akin to the founding fathers of the US establishing a tyrannical dictatorship a month after ratification of the Constitution. Clearly, the Law was presented to a resistant people, who had not yet accepted its fundamental teachings.

The wayward act itself was an attempt by the people to make for themselves a divine “Moshe figure” of their own devising — precisely what the Torah is not, and can never be.

But there was one tribe that remained faithful to G-d and His Torah, defending the inviolability of the Torah against the rest of the nation. Thus, the Levites are now appointed as guardians of the Torah. They are to remain apart from the community and are not counted in the census. They have the honorable role of guarding the sanctity of the mikdash and of the Torah, symbolized by their encampment between the camp of the Shechinah and the camp of Israel.

  • Commentary, Bamidbar; 1:48, 5:1; Shemot 32:1

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