Friday, June 09, 2017

The Hand that brought the Quail and the Hand that wrote the Text

By Professor Stephen Schecter

This parasha exemplifies how the Torah exercises such a hold on our literary imaginations. Events intermingle with injunctions, stories with teachings, to produce a timeless text that can be revisited and plumbed for all kinds of wisdom and wonder. It starts with instructions for lighting the candlestick, the very one that was lit once again a thousand years later to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, and the very one that shines on the Israeli coat of arms two thousand years after that. Thus does the word become flesh. Thus does the Torah become fused with Jewish national existence. But thus too does the Torah weave one book with another, the candlestick described in the parasha Vayakhel in the book of Exodus and mentioned in Emor in the book of Leviticus now recalled again after the heads of the tribes had brought their gifts to the sanctuary.

Why here and not at some other point, the reader may well ask? How does an author, even if he be the Master of the Universe, decide to put an event at one point in the story rather than another? One never knows. Even he may never know. But there is a logic to the process, and a rhythm, if the story is to succeed. Paradoxically, it is up to the reader to discover it. Which is why every story needs a reader, but only a well told tale deserves one. For only a well told tale is full of revelation.

The instructions to Aaron about the candlestick follow logically what has preceded them. They also lead nicely into the next piece of business, namely the consecration of the Levites who are given to Aaron and his sons as helpers in the work of the sanctuary. But in recounting how the Levites are separate from the rest of the children of Israel, the writer is also preparing the terrain for the revolt to come two parashot hence. The Levites, God instructs Moses, are to stand in for the first born among the children of Israel, who belong to Him in memory of the Exodus from Egypt. As ministers to the work in the Tabernacle they are to be exempt from military service. Such distinction will rankle, family jealousy will ensue, and the great revolt of Korach and his kinsmen will be the calamitous result. If we do not know that now, we will remember it soon enough. And to help us in that task, this parasha will end with another story of sibling rivalry, this one within Moses’s own family. Once again, the logic of the story-telling reveals itself in the cascade of recounted events of which this parasha is full.

The Levites consecrated, the story now returns to teaching. The subject this time is the observance of the Passover, specifically the obligations concerning the Passover for those who are unclean because they have come into contact with a dead body or are away on a journey. This matter disposed of, the story then turns to the journey of the Israelites. How and when are they to break camp? When the cloud of the Lord lifted from the Tabernacle the Israelites were to move on, but when it tarried they were to remain where they were. For the Lord stayed with them in their journey through the wilderness, a cloud by day and a fire by night, the Torah says, recalling the pillar of cloud and fire that separated the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. And when they break camp, the Lord tells Moses, the priests shall blow on the trumpets of silver he is to make, as they are to blow them when the Israelites go to war, and as they are to blow them to call the congregation to worship. And so begins the journeying of the Israelites.

From injunction we now move back to the story. In the second year since the Exodus, in the second month, on the twentieth day, the cloud lifted and the Israelites set forth out of the wilderness of Sinai and came unto the wilderness of Paran. We do not yet know of the perfidy to come in next week’s chapter, Shelach lecha, but the repetition of the word wilderness already plants the seed that the Israelites will be wandering for a while. Thus were the journeyings of the children of Israel according to their hosts, the Torah says, adding: And they set forward. But before they did Moses turned to the son of his father-in-law to persuade him to accompany them on their journey, for you know the wilderness, Moses told him, and can be our eyes. A deft touch, this, for the mention of his father-in-law’s name, Reuel, reminds us of the last time Moses consulted his father-in-law after their exodus from Egypt. Then his father-in-law counseled him to divide up the task of leading his people by appointing judges from among the tribes to rule over the less important matters. Lest Moses be importuned so much he will collapse under the burden. In another twenty-five sentences this tactic will be reprised by God when Moses becomes desperate in the face of the people’s complaints. We do not know that if we have not yet read the story. Or we do but have forgotten since we read it last. Be that as it may, the seed is again planted of trouble brewing in the wilderness. But the Torah suggests otherwise when it tells us that the cloud did lift, the Israelites set forth, and when it did, Moses rang forth with the words that precede every Torah service in every synagogue the world over: Rise up, O Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee. All will be well, we think, only to turn the page to discover the enemies could be found right in the Israelite camp.

And so we come to the rebellions and murmurings that recall the rebellions and murmurings of the Israelites a year earlier. It is only a second year since the Exodus, but already history is repeating itself. There were people in the camp who slandered the Lord and were devoured by fire. We know not what they said and how they perished, but the story recalls the two sons of Aaron who met a similar fate. But though the people cried out to Moses for respite and received it, they soon started up again. Would we were given flesh to eat, they started in on him once more, and as they complained a year ago, they turned Egypt into a veritable delicatessen – fish and cucumbers and melons, no less, whereas now all they had to eat was the manna of which they were sick.

When Moses heard this he was exasperated, turned to God to tell Him he was at his wits’ end. I cannot bear this people alone, he complained to God. If this is what I have to look forward to, kill me now, Moses beseeched his master. And the Lord told him to gather seventy elders and He will give them some of Moses’s spirit, that they may help him in dealing with this people. Furthermore, the Lord told him, tell the people to prepare themselves, for I shall be sending them meat until it comes out of their nostrils. And the Lord did as He promised. The seventy elders were gathered and the spirit of prophesy came upon them. And a wind went forth from the Lord and brought quail so numerous from the sea that the people gathered them in heaps until a plague broke out and put an end to their lust.

This little chapter deserves a commentary all its own. Its dialogue echoes another one at Sinai and foreshadows another one in Shelach lecha, though the roles God and Moses play are there reversed. What does not change is the backsliding of the Israelites. Once again we see the great truth of the Torah so starkly outlined in the family dramas of Genesis: how men goaded by their passions are quick to anger and hurt, slow to remember and express gratitude. But now the blindness unfolds on a national scale and the consequences are even more momentous.

And once again we are swept up in the drama. A candlestick’s lighting, the consecration of the Levites, the law of the Passover for those unable to be present at the season; God’s cloud by day and His fire by night, tarrying and decamping, trumpets and song, the slander of the people and the slander of a family; events, images, words deftly and brilliantly placed and juxtaposed to make this narrative that will extend far beyond its five books as seamless as it is memorable. Is the Lord’s hand waxed short? God said unto Moses. And the reader wonders: is the hand that brought the quail any less than the hand that wrote the text?

Shabbat shalom!

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