Inclusiveness, Second Chances, Kindness, and Protection

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban’s comments to this week’s parsha allowed me to get back to my original plan, to find a range of comments from different parts of the portion, to see whether they coalesce around some central ideas. Here, it seems to me they did, around the idea of selection, choosing carefully what to include in various categories, and why.

Bamidbar-Only Age Requirement

8;24-25 allows a Levi to serve only between ages twenty-five and fifty. Rashi thinks age disqualified only in the desert, when carrying the disassembled Mishkan to the Jews’ next encampment. Older Levi’im could perform all the other services, such closing the gates of the Mishkan, singing as part of the service, or loading the wagons when the Mishkan traveled.

The Sifrei Rashi was citing did not specify singing among the services older Levi’im could perform, which Ramban thinks means they could not sing. If they could still be part of the singing, Ramban does not understand why they would be excluded from the census (which stopped at fifty). In addition, the families of Gershon and Merari worked solely in areas where age was not a factor (loading the wagons); especially if they could also sing, why not count them?

Ramban thinks the whole issue starts with Hashem’s decision to restrict the carrying of the Aron Kodesh, the Ark of the Covenant, to those under fifty.

A Census with the Same Rules for All

Once the descendants of Kehat, the family privileged to carry the Aron, were disqualified from one service, Ramban thought they also could not sing, the essential service of the Levi. In his view, singing showed one to be a full Levi, allowed to perform all services of one’s family; since the Kehat family could not carry theAron any longer, they were also removed from shirah, singing.  

Once one group of Levi’im had an age requirement, Ramban thinks a meaningful census had to work within those age parameters. I think he means to remind us of the complications of a census number where different groups had different rules for being counted. Were some families to have stopped counting at age fifty and some not, what would the number tell us?

[We could think of responses. For example, had the Torah given us each family of Levi’im’s number with the different age rules for each, we would have had the total of Levi’im qualified for service, each in their way. But Ramban works from his perspective, so let’s follow him).

For all other services, however physical, such as closing the gates and/or loading the wagons, age did not matter.  

Chullin 24a reads 4;47’s reference to avodat avodah and avodat masa, service of service and service of carrying items, as teaching us these rules only apply when parts of the Mishkan are being carried on people’s shoulders.  Since Rashi told us avodat avodah means singing, Ramban thinks Chullin included singing in the age-related disqualification, but only in the era when the Mishkan moved. 

For Ramban, the census ends up conveying narrower numerical information than we might realize: carrying the Aron on shoulders forced one group of Levi’im into retirement at fifty; the Torah then decided to count all Levi’im only within the age range when every Levi could serve; and disqualification from any service also stopped Levi’im from participating in the singing, the central service of the tribe.

How Far is Far

Parshat Beha’alotecha lays out the rules for Pesach Sheni, the second-chance opportunity to bring a Paschal sacrifice. Among those eligible, 9;10 refers to one who was be-derech rechokah, far away. Strangely, Rashi interprets far to include anyone outside the Azarah, the courtyard of the Temple, during the first Pesach, the view of R. Eli’ezer in the Mishnah. Halachah usually follows the view of R. Akiva, however, who limited “far” to someone farther than Modi’im.

Ulla in Pesachim 93b explains Modi’im as how far one could walk to reach the Azarah in time for the sacrifice.  Ramban thinks his view offers the simplest reading of the text as well, which counts as “far” anyone who could not make it to the courtyard when starting walking at the beginning of the earliest time for the sacrifice [I have always been surprised at how little preparation the Torah seems to require—here, the person seems to bear no responsibility to leave in advance; only once the time for the sacrifice arrives does one have to check whether s/he could make it to the Beit HaMikdash in time, with no consequences or ramification for the failure to travel there earlier].

A Second Chance for All

The Torah mentions the ritually impure or physically distant as candidates for Pesach Sheni, but anyone who did not offer a first Pesach could participateIn fact, a sinner who deliberately refrained from the first—whom we might have thought would be excluded– must offer a Pesach Sheni to avoid karet liability. Someone who physically could not participate in the first but empowered others to offer a Pesach on his/her behalf could still offer a second one, in order to be able to partake of aPesach.  

In Ramban’s view, the sacrifice makes room for those denied the first, offers redemption for the malicious, and provides better possibilities for those who had had to be satisfied with the minimal.

A Pause Between Troubles

10;35 mentions what Moshe would say when the Aron was being moved, words we echo every time we take the Torah out to read. Inverted nuns bracket those verses in the Torah, which Rashi took as a sign these verses belonged elsewhere. They were moved here to interrupt pur’anuyot, tales of the Jews’ misdeeds (the word means “punishments,” as Ramban will discuss).

He’s building off Shabbat 116a, which identified the second of the two pur’anuyot as the beginning of chapter eleven, where the people complain, and the first as starting at 10;33, where the people leave Mount Sinai. R. Chanina interpreted “leave” as “they strayed from Hashem.”

Ramban dislikes Rashi’s reading, and instead cites a Midrash which portrayed the Jews as schoolchildren, fleeing before the teacher assigned more work (in our example, before the Teacher, Hashem, added mitzvot).

Since chapter eleven starts with two cases of the Jews’ acting badly (general complaining and then the demand for meat), the Torah did not want three such episodes in a row (the Gemara mentioned only two pur’anuyot, so Ramban seems to be adjusting the idea). We might have thought his first example cannot count as a pur’anut since there was no punishment (the meaning of the word pur’anut), but Ramban thinks once it’s a sin, it’s a pur’anut (deserving of punishment whether or not it comes right then).

Perhaps without their rush from Sinai, he says, the Jews would have gone to Israel immediately. He does not explain any further, but seems to be linking the Jews’ disastrous reaction to the spies’ report to their generally poor frame of mind regarding Hashem and mitzvot—were we only less resentful of obligation, we might have gotten to Israel right away, putting Jewish and world history on much better path.

The Supernatural is Only Kind

Tanna’im debated what Moshe meant, 11;23, when he questioned whether all the livestock in the world would be enough to satisfy the Jews’ demands for meat. Ramban thinks R. Akiva’s reading, Moshe in fact doubted the possibility, best fits the text, but appreciates R. Shim’on’s complaint— how could the man 12;7 will describe as the most faithful in all Hashem’s house doubt Hashem’s ability to produce a month’s worth of meat?

The answer lies in the nature of miracles, which Ramban thinks only upend the natural order when they will perform a kindness for the Jewish people or will express the Divine Attribute of full justice. Here, Hashem is going to give them what they asked, so it’s not punishment, yet they’re going to end up disgusted by it, so it is also not a kindness.

In such circumstances, Moshe knew (correctly) no supernatural event would occur (as Sanhedrin 59b says as well), so he could not understand where all the animals would come from.

Leaving aside Ramban’s textual inference for how Moshe could also have known no miracle was planned, we can understand his disbelief: in a desert, he could not see where livestock, cattle, or fish could be gathered in sufficient numbers to supply them for a month.

The answer was, just watch. Even within the bounds of the natural and ordinary, Hashem can do more than we expect or allow.

Prophets as Protectors of the People

After Miriam and Aharon complain about Moshe, Hashem (12;6) upbraids them, and lists ways in which Moshe was exceptional. All other prophets experience Hashem only in a vision.  How Moshe differs—speaking to Hashem mouth to mouth, as it were—interests me less here than Ramban’s citation of Yirmiyahu 15;1, where Hashem says even Moshe and Shmuel could not change Hashem’s attitude towards the nation (Tehillim 99;6 also speaks of Moshe, Aharon, and Shmuel, as if they are comparable).

Since our verse makes clear Shmuel could not have been equal to Moshe in prophecy, Ramban says Hashem groups them together (and singles them out for mention) because both protected the Jews from troubles. Moshe defended the people both after the Golden Calf and the sin of the spies, where I Shmuel 12;17 tells of Shmuel’s bringing rain in the middle of the summer.

Shmuel rivaled Moshe in helping/saving the people. Hashem’s including him in Moshe’s league for his success in bringing rain teaches us a prophet’s broader functions than just obediently bring Hashem’s messages to the people. No other prophet reached Moshe’s level of receiving communication from Hashem. But prophets do more, and in one of those areas, Shmuel earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Moshe.

What’s In and What’s Out

The census, Pesach Sheni, the Jews’ attitude towards mitzvot, the bringing of meat to respond to their complaints, and the different roles of prophets all offer us examples of weeding, by age, by distance, and so on, a reminder of how much of a difference a small difference can make. The difference between being counted or not, getting into Israel or not, deserving a miracle. Or not.

About Gidon Rothstein

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