Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Two Close for Comfort

We were studying the second chapter of B'midbar in class, combing the repetitive text for any unusual features, the kind which prod the mind to deeper comprehension. But what can one expect to find in a passage that merely describes the manner in which the tribes of Israel were arrayed around the Mishkan? Four indentical descriptions, one for each of the formations corresponding to the four points of the compass, each formation named for its lead tribe, with two flanking tribes...

"Look carefully," urged Morah Nechamah. "For instance, can you explain why in each case, after the lead tribe of the formation is identified, its leader named and its census figures given, the text continues, "and those who camped next to them...", followed by the name of the first of the two flanking tribes, except in the case of the third formation, the formation led by the tribe of Ephraim, where the phrase reads, "and next to them..."? Why in this case has the word vhachonim ("and those who camped") been elided?

I was about to dismiss the suggestion to focus on this seemingly insignificant textual difference, when suddenly, it came to me, my hand shot up, and, acknowledged, it all came spilling out:

"Who are the four tribes chosen to head up the formations?" I asked rhetorically. "Are they not all, in some sense, first-borns? Reuven, the head of the second formation, is literally Ya'acov's first-born, son of Leah, his first wife. Yehudah, 4th son of Leah and the head of the first formation, is the functional first-born, have stepped into the leadership role for both the bad and the good when Reuven's leadership was ineffectual. Dan is the first-born of of the hand-maiden's sons and he heads up the last formation. And who is the head of the third formation, the one with the varient text connecting its leader with the subordinate tribes? Ephraim, the first-born of Rachel."

Everyone was shocked by my blatant error, so I quickly explained:
"Yes, of course, Yosef was Rachel's first-born son, and in fact, Ya'acov treated him in many ways as an entitled first-born, so much so that, when Menashe and Ephraim, Yosef's two sons, were brought to an aging Ya'acov for blessing, Ya'acov adopted them both, effectively doubling Yosef's portion in his heritage, a fitting gesture for the first born of the women who "should" have been Ya'acov first wife".

The confusion hadn't yet cleared, so I went on:
"True, Menashe was the first-born of Yosef, but when they were brought before Ya'acov for blessing, Ya'acov crossed his hands and blessing Ephraim with his right hand, making him the officially sanctioned first-born of Yosef.

"Ya'acov could have known better than to foment strife... after all, from the beginning of the world, Bereshit opens with the disastrous contention between two brothers jockeying for position, the one born to priviledge, with no concept of the possibility of a challege to WHAT HE IS, the other born into subordinance, with no concept that he might rise to a position of supremacy. Hashem throws everything into disarray by showing favor to the younger, and murder and exile follow. Such is the pattern over and over again throughout Bereshit: Avraham and Lot (son/heir of Avraham's prematurely deceased brother, Haran), Yitzchak and Yishmael, Ya'acov and Esav. Ya'acov has even already played his part in maintaining this tradition by promoting Yosef over his brothers, so why, oh why would he do so again with his own grandsons?

"Perhaps because of the following idea: Ramchal tells us that the revelation of the Oneness of the Divine can only come about when a perceived multiplicity is overcome. Physicality is inherantly generative of multiplicity, for there is extent over time and space. There is the possibility of two. Endow more than one being with G-d-like SELF-awareness, and you've already got the blueprint for the internecine chaos that characterizes human history. It's THAT which must be overcome. When the places of the first and the last are switched, SELF-identity MUST expand to encompassed the new reality, or die fighting it. Brothers should be one, yet nothing is so vicious as when they turn on each other.

"G-d's challenge to brothers whose personalities and characters, so carefully laid down experience by experience, are torn asunder by spinning the wheel of hierarchy: GROW! Become more, and, simultaneously yet ironically, become one. The oldest must learn subordinance, an impossibly difficult challenge for one raised with no concept of another; the yougest must learn to fully assert himself without fear of the specter of another who will push him down.

"Kayin and Hevel failed horrendously; each subsequent pair less so. Exile and estrangement, but no murder, and then even no exile, merely estrangement, and then, reconcilication, but remaining at a distance... until Ephraim and Menashe. They were able to move into new self-concepts not only without pushing off the other, but actually by drawing the other ever closer. Ya'acov sets the template for all subsequent blessings with their names: Y'simcha E-lokim k'Eprhaim u'Menashe. And when they are mentioned later, they are mentioned together. When each tribe has a leader introduced who will represent it in the census at the beginning of B'midbar, each tribe is alloted its own verse... except for "Bnei Yosef, Ephraim...u'Menashe". In Sefer Yehoshua (chapter 16-17), the territory is allotted to "Bnei Yosef", the complaint they issue is issued jointly, and Yehoshua responds to them jointly. The brothers have become well-nigh inseparable.

" 'And those who were camped" is used wherever proximity is offset by the perceived need for expression of distinction. Each formation in the desert was comprised of three distinct tribes, each zealously protective of its developing traditions and identities. Each is willing to be allied with another group, yet this must not be confused with a merger. No larger corporated entity is being created here, there will be no effacing of boundaries, no revelation of the One.

"Except for Ephraim and Menashe. There, they are too close to one another for such an expression of complete distinction. Menashe are not (separately) encamped next to Ephraim, they are just "next to", truly juxtaposed, ready to reveal the ultimate transcendant One.

"And note," I concluded, "that Degel Machaneh Ephraim is situated in the west, adjoining that part of the Mishkan which is the Holy of Holies, home to the indwelling presence of Hashem.

"When there is nothing between us, there is Hashem between us..."

I looked up at my students, and they had been with me all the way...

My students? Hadn't I been the student in Morah Nechama's class? Wasn't this an account of what came to me there?

No. I never had the priviledge of studying with Nechamah Leibowitz, but an older colleague had graciously given me years ago his copies of her "Gilyonot" from when he had been her avid student. And yesterday, when she came off the pages of her Gilyonot to prod me to think deeper, I sat in her virtual classroom for an eyeblink that was an eternity before I gave over what she had given to me.

{Note: the insight regarding the bechor status of the four leading tribes is a woefully inadequate rendering of a major thrust of a wonderful shiur by Rav Menachem Leibtag, which can be found here. I've also only virtually learned from him. The rest I don't recall seeing elsewhere - I'd love to be disabused of this conceit and recite, "Baruch shekivnani l'da'at hagedolim"}


At 11:06 PM, Blogger WanderingStu said...

Hi Rav Yehoshua. Great Teaching, and great Maftir today, thanks. I posted a cheeky response to your excellent catching of my typo over there in wanderingstu. and i had this sinister little notion that i would find a typo over here, in the eagle's eye, but then dismissed such a thought, because, after all, you are the Master Wordsmith, and wouldn't tolerate such mistakes.

But then, as quickly as you snatched the cli from me today before Birkat HaKohanim with a wicked smirk, I found myself on the edge of the priviledge of discovering your little error, and i leapt off into the wide open, wings spread....

Good luck!

At 11:14 PM, Blogger 'laizer said...

What happened to the blog? It's not like you've got a full time job or two, a whole ton of writing, and a wedding to take care of, or anything!


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