Ways to Achieve Status of Real Worth

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Bamidbar

The Showbread Table

The end of Parshat Bamidbar describes the process of readying the Mishkan for travel, whenever the Cloud of Glory would rise to move. Among the steps, the Levi’im are told to spread a begged techelet, a blue cloth, on the Shulchan ha-Panim, 4;7. Whether that phrase should be capitalized (my Autocorrect did it) is exactly what HaKetav VeHaKabbalah claimed Onkelos and Yonatan b. Uziel got wrong. Since they are very authoritative translations, I took notice.

They wrote petorah de-lechem apaya, the table of the bread of faces (lechem ha-panim, the twelve loaves of bread placed on the Table next to the inner/incense altar, and switched out weekly; they were called lechem ha-panim because they were baked with a sort of “face,” an opening to help avoid their going stale). In their view, the Table is called the Shulchan Ha-Panim because it is where we find the lechem ha-panim.

R. Mecklenburg dislikes the idea of an implied word (the Table of thebreadof panim), when no bread is mentioned in the verse.

The Inner Table

Instead, he points us to Menachot 99b, where a Mishnah teaches us there were two tables in the Ulam, the vestibule, to the Mishkan/Mikdash, one marble and one gold. The kohanim bringing new bread would briefly place the loaves on the marble table, and when taking out the old bread, would place those on the gold table while the incense was inserted to its slots on the Table.

[Random information I found when trying to understand R. Mecklenburg’s idea: Rashi seems to think the only reason to place the bread on the marble table was to make the point of ma’alin ba-kodesh, we go up in levels of sanctity and treatment of items/people of sanctity, not down. The marble gives a baseline, from which the gold of the Table and of the outer table are a step up.]

Those two tables do not count as furnishings of the Mishkan, they were there for occasional momentary use, not long enough to rise to the level of deserving a techelet cover when the Mishkan was disassembled for travel. For R. Mecklenburg, the Torah is telling us the inner table was the one to cover. [A weakness I see in his claim: he seems to conflate bifnim, inside, with ha-panim, usually thought to refer to some kind of opening or face. He says it twice, so he was aware of what he was doing, that he wants shulchan ha-panim to mean ha-shulchan she-bi-fnim.]

I think most translations stuck with Onkelos and Yonatan b. Uziel, but it’s a remarkable display of commentarial confidence by R. Mecklenburg. Showbread Table, or inner table, your choice.

We Interrupt this Count

The third chapter of Bamidbar starts with the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, after two reviews of the count of the tribes, with the count of the Levi’im about to come. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the break, I’m not sure convincingly. Still, he makes interesting points.

Until now, we’ve seen the count of the people, will soon have count of the Levi’im, shomrei he-Edut, guards of the Tablets [I think; he may also means guards of the covenant attested in those Tablets, in that they are supposed to ensure Jews remember and adhere to the covenant].

Moshe and Aharon don’t fit in either group, because they are, first, the ones doing the counting, not being counted. R. Hirsch says it’s proper to stop here to take note of them, without explaining why it had to be now rather than after the count of the Levi’im. It might be because of the next point he makes, we need to be told Aharon and two of his sons, Elazar and Itamar, had been made into a group of their own, kohanim, to include all Elazar and Itamar’s descendants.] [It’s again not clear to me why this had to be here; perhaps he thinks the Torah wants us to know some Levi’im had been elevated, before we see the rest of them.]

No Nespotism in Moshe

A problem to which I think I do have an answer is R. Hirsch’s emphasis on how the bloodline of priesthood ran only through Elazar and Itamar. This could have been a reference to the tradition Pinchas was originally excluded from the priesthood and won his way into the kehunah with his heroic action against Zimri, but I think R. Hirsch’s comments about Moshe offer a better answer.

He points out the verse does not tell us the names of Moshe’s sons, in his view because these verses name only those with some special function. Moshe’s sons were neither kohanim nor heads of tribes, not “worth” naming.

R. Hirsch writes “however, the Man Moshe [a way of delineating an honored person in rabbinic Hebrew] did not place a mantle/cloak on his sons, no title on their shoulders, he left them to be unnoticed in the mass of the people, with neither title nor embellishment [that’s my loose translation, with apologies].

The Biblical text’s silence calls attention to Moshe’s divergence from many leaders, who give their sons a leg up in the world [like a luxury apartment in Miami when their country is at war, say]. Moshe’s sons got no such privileges. Even within Aharon’s privilege of kehunah, which was hereditary, two of his sons didn’t make it, nor their sons.

Maybe R. Hirsch thought the Torah paused after the count of the “ordinary” nation, before it got to a privileged elite, to show us those at the top of that elite, the ones who count rather than be counted, who take higher positions, still did not do it in a self-dealing way.

Count Am and Edah, Numbers and Families

Malbim reminds us of how our current count looked for more information than the one in Shemot, before the building of the Mishkan. There, the only goal was to know the overall number of Jews, so each Jew would give a half-shekel, no one took their names, families, tribes, or discussed their fit for military/public service. Our count here cared about all of that.

He relates it to a distinction he drew in Vayikra, Jews are only called Adat Benei Yisrael, the congregation of the Children of Israel, when they have elders leading them. Here, Hashem told Moshe to count adat, for which they needed to arrange themselves by families, batei av (fathers’ houses, not a concept in much use anymore), and tribes. From the more nuclear unit to the broader, says Malbim. Kiddushin 70b has a statement of R. Chama b. R. Chanina, the Divine Presence only rests on families of well-established lineage (meaning: everyone knows who their parents are, not that they have some claim to august status).

Family Structure and the Divine Presence

Our count here seeks to establish the Adat Benei Yisrael as a continuing entity, deserving of the Divine Presence of the Mishkan. The starting point for that edah are the families, to show they know their lineage. He adds a Midrash from Yalkut Shim’oni, other nations complained about the Jews’ special treatment, and Hashem challenged them to bring their sifrei yuchasin (which they could not do, the Midrash wants us to understand, because they were not aware enough of who had conceived whom).

It’s a point I think we often lose: The Torah and Judaism cared about clear knowledge of who was related to whom [for a stark expression, see Ramban’s comments on the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, the commandment to honor our parents, the prohibition of adultery, and compare it to our world today, where non-Jews repeatedly find unknown relatives, including siblings and parents, only through online genetic searches]. One way Jews are meant to be distinguished from those around us is those others’ promiscuity, their inability to identify biological relationships.

[It’s more complicated today with donor sperm, surrogate mothers of various sorts, aside from extramarital affairs. Some statistic online says one-third of people who take paternity tests discover their father is not, although they clearly had suspicions already. Others estimate 3%, more or less, of children grow up with a man they think is their father but who is not.]

To sharpen the point: it would be one thing to say Judaism cares about clear family structures; it seems to me a noteworthy new level to link it to our worthiness of the Divine Presence, our being thought of as an edah, a congregation, rather than just an am. Our count in Bamidbar confers a new status on us, as much or more than finding out our numbers.

A status week, the greater status of the inner Shulchan over the two outer ones, Moshe’s not using his status for his sons, and the Jewish people securing their status by arranging themselves in well-identified families.

About Gidon Rothstein

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