The Wexner Foundation Electronic Beit Midrash Parashat Pinchas Sefer Bamidbar: The Clash of Vision and Reality By Rabbi Fred Klein Fred Klein is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Class VI. He is the Director of Community Chaplaincy at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, and the Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. He can be reached at RabbiKlein@gmjf.org.
For millennia, philosophers have imagined what the ideal society might look like. These utopias tended to encapsulate the deep-seated values that the society held dear. It is therefore no surprise that the Torah offers its own utopia.
If we read the book of Numbers, we are essentially reading two books. The first half of the book constructs the ideal Israel. Like the Platonic republic, the camp of the Israelites is regimented and divides into tribes and classes, each with their unique roles. Recognizing the dangers of a system which does not address the spiritual needs of a unique few, God creates the Nazirite institution, which provides an innovative way for one to partially transcend his own role, through sanctifying himself to God in the same way a priest would (see Numbers 6:1-21).
Nevertheless, despite the fact that we are presented with twelve tribes as well as the ‘castes’ of Kohanim and Levi’im -each with their respective histories and roles, they all camp around the tabernacle, which contain the Holy Ark. Even when they travel through the desert, they travel in specific formations, which again place the ark in
According to the Torah, the Divine presence emanates from the ark, residing in the center of the tabernacle. The camp is permeated by clouds of glory and pillars of fire.
The message is clear: the people are united by a common core and purpose; they are the people of God and are a collective nation of priests. On a deeper level, the Jewish people of the first half of Numbers are seen not as a conglomeration of tribes and political interests, but are a spiritual reality. According to the 13th century commentator and mystic Nachmanides (RaMBaN), the camp of the desert was modeled after Ezekiel’s chariot, which has been classically understood to represent the Divine presence in history (see the intro of Nachmanides to Numbers). God assures the Jewish people that he will bless Israel, and ‘place My name upon them’ (Numbers 6:27).
The Jewish people are to become the Divine chariot. In Numbers 10: 35-36, we read two verses bracketed by two inverted nuns. Rashi states that they are in fact brackets, and quotes the Babylonian Talmud which states that the brackets are a Masoretic note to indicate that the verses are out of place! If so, why are they here? Many believe that they are meant to divide the book into two parts. What follows is an attempt to clarify the division.
The two verses in brackets are familiar to many, as they the former verse is recited when the Torah is taken out (Vayehi binsoa aron…) and the latter when returned to the ark (shuvah adonai). We are told that when the ark traveled, Moshe appealed to God to reveal his glory and scatter His enemies. When the ark rested Moses again prayed that God’s presence rest upon the multitude of Israel. These verses are in brackets because they reflect the idyllic conclusion to the Torah, the story that never happened. In that story, the people leave Egypt, receive the Torah, build the tabernacle which represents a continuation of the Sinai experience, encamp around God’s holy tabernacle, and leave the Holy Mountain to inherit the Holy Land. They are lead by Moses- not Joshua, and the Divine presence of God scatters their enemies. Not one soldier bears arms! Indeed, this is the triumphant ending for which we would have hoped We can almost experience this inspiring last scene, and the powerful crescendo as the last notes are played!
However, the book of Numbers does not end on this triumphant note. Rather, the book relates a period of forty years of aimless wandering in the desert. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, not one individual will step foot in the Promised and; every individual will die in an unknown grave in a no man’s land.
The epic saga abruptly ends after these two verses, and the Torah recounts a litany of complaints against Moses and Aaron, which dominate most of the second half of Numbers- they complain about the manna, they complain about the lack of meat, they complain about lack of water, they complain that Moses assumes power for himself, Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses, the scouts complain about the land of Israel. In almost every circumstance, God is tempted to destroy Israel, because this is certainly not a ‘Holy Nation of Priests’, but rather an unruly band of malcontents.
It is in these parshiot that idealistic vision is tempered by reality. Unfortunately, utopia is never realized, because invariably they do not reflect the actual way people behave. Indeed, we would like a community to represent the ‘perfect union’ we envision. However, in reality a community is a conglomeration of competing needs and political interests. In no other parasha is that more apparent than in Parshat Korach, a parasha which is punctuated by struggle and conflict. Let us spend a few moments reflecting up
The parashah opens with a full-fledged rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Upon a critical read, one discovers that that there are at least four different groups who rebel against Moses and Aaron- Korach, Datan and Aviram, the Levites, and 250 chieftains. Like many political opposition groups, these groups coalesce into a coalition of discontent, although their exact grievances differ greatly. Korach seems to argue that all of the people should be given authority, as all are holy- a virtual invitation to total religious anarchy. The Levites seem to want to assume the priestly authority assigned to Aaron the priest. The chieftains feel that they have been robbed of religious authority, and want to serve in priestly roles. Datan and Aviram argue that Moses exhibits incompetent and despotic leadership, and has led them to a veritable wasteland instead of the Promised Land. In essence, the Divine utopian order of the first half of Numbers crumbles before our eyes.
While disheartening, this rebellion reflects the real way people behave. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, identified that the rebels had different goals and motivations (Ha-Emek Davar, Numbers 16:1). He notes that while Datan and Aviram were simply interested in resting power from Moses, the 250 people chieftains were God-fearing men who felt disenfranchised from the service in the Temple. They wanted an expanded role within Jewish life, an issue which in which our generation has had to contend. Probably the most conflicted character is Korach himself. According to the rabbis, Korach was interested in his own power, and there are various reasons to assume he had hoped to become chieftain of the tribe of Levi, if not high priest. Nonetheless, we are still confronted with his claim,” We are all Holy and God is amongst us. Why do you [Moses and Aaron] lift your self above us?” This seems to point to a theological dispute about how the community should be organized a serious question not to be dismissed summarily. The lack of clarity, the mixing of ‘sublime’ and ‘base’ motives is purposeful; it reflects the actual way people operate and think.
Ultimately the rebellion against Moses and Aaron raises important questions as to how we as a community mediate conflict. Korach and his followers pitch tent outside the tent, while Datan and Aviram refuse even to engage in any conversation with Moses. In essence, these groups secede from the community.  Moses responds through invoking a Divine ordeal, stating that the one rejected by God will die an unnatural death, and indeed that is exactly what happens. Datan and Aviram are swallowed up by the earth, and the 250 chieftains are consumed by a fire descending from heaven. (The fate of Korach is less clear in the text.) These actions however, far from inspiring confidence in Moses, reconfirms the image in the mind of the people that he exercises despotic power, and is killing ‘the nation of God’ (Numbers 17:6).
The episode ends with yet another plague, this time by God which consumes 24,700 souls. The entire episode seems tragic in nature, and in the end of the parasha God defines clear boundaries and responsibilities for both priests and Levites, and sets down the order for the way the camp should operate.
In reflecting upon these sad events, I think we need to ask a few difficult questions. Did these destructive events arise out unrealistic expectations of the community itself? Furthermore, did the initial utopian vision described in the first half of Numbers blind the people to the difficult project of community building? Is a community that sees itself in only ultimate and not relative terms bound to fracture and collapse? How do we act when our vision does not reflect that of the actual community? Just like we are sometimes internally inconsistent and conflicted within ourselves, can a community continue to exist even when not all decisions and policies seem to be equitable and fair? On the other hand, when challenged, do good leaders crush opposition, or engage them? None of these questions have easy answers. However, one thing is abundantly clear; both those who rebelled as well as the leadership failed, and the result was devastating for the community.
To accept a community that is Holy yet imperfect is difficult, for it requires us to sometimes let go of our utopian visions and hopes. In letting go of these visions however, we can appreciate what exists already. A realistic assessment of the potential and limits of community encourages us to engage in ways that are constructive, building consensus and understanding, as opposed to conflict and secession. While preserving the utopian vision as our ultimate goal, we do not use this vision as the yardstick for our active participation in community. This is a tall order, and requires responsible leadership. Leaders should not see themselves as invincible or all-knowing, but invite the active participation of all various groups. At the same time, those who participate in community need to take a more global view and realize that a community is indeed imperfect, and ultimately can never fulfill all our needs and expectations. That does not give us a right however, to secede. When the God wanted to make a new nation out of the progeny of Moses, Moses adamantly refused.
For an American Jewish community which is struggling with a declining commitment to peoplehood, these lessons need to be taken to heart. We are one, and we need to live that in our real lives, not our imagined ones.