Saturday, May 31, 2008

Bemidbar: who counts? (2)

On the way to the Feast of Shavuot (Of the Week and the Giving of the Torah - Matan Toratenu) on June 9th / 6 Sivan, this week we start to read the fourth Book of Moses called "Bemidbar - In the wilderness of Sinai" in Hebrew and "Numbers - "Arithmoi" according to the Greek Septuagint translation). The reading portion is Bemidbar 1:1-4:20 and indeed begins with the census of the Israelites in the wilderness, of those who were 20 years-old. Thus, 603,500 grownups Bney Israel were counted as members of the "clans and ancestral houses - lemishpechotam leveyt avotam" (Num. 1:2).

There are different intriguing points in getting into this new Book. The Hebrew people were certainly the first nation that has been submitted to a systematic census in the history. This happened in very specific conditions, i.e. in the desert of Sinai, as they were on their journey to the Land of Canaan. Curiously, the number of Israelites is rather parallel to the amount of inhabitants who were dwelling in Eretz Israel in 1948 (803,000), all things being equal over time and space...

This means that the Israelites were rather organized. There were the fundamental tribes following the order of the names of Jacob's sons. The census was undertaken as a divine commandment given by God to Moses and Aaron. This should continue the first action conducted by Moses by the time of the exodus from Egypt. He had complied with the advices given by Jithro to appoint the "anshey hayil - advisers, judges" who were entrusted the task of governing the people with insights and wisdom. Similarly, the decision to count the members of the “multi-tribal nation” of the Israelites allowed enhancing the level of their protection. They had received to call to take care of the Mishkan - God's Dwelling place with the Ark of the Covenant, some pieces of the manna, the Luchot/Tablets. The census was also a sort of military accomplishment of a divine order. It concerned a rather large group of people that had lived in very settled conditions in Egypt. These people suddenly became again what their “avot – ancestors” had been: “wanderers and people of the wilderness”. The desert of Sinai is a very small part of the peninsula in the first biblical map and the way the Israelites moved for 40 years. The strange thing is that we don’t know much about what really happened to them during the 38 years they journeyed throughout the area, but not too extensively in the South. For us, the wilderness of Sinai is a much bigger space.

Somehow, the Jews are still living as “ancestral houses or mishpechot/family units”. Clans have always existed, mainly based on differences, disparity and distinctness. Of course, at that time, the Israelites did not leave Egypt playing Scottish-like bagpipes, eating herring, fish and chips, Viennese kneydlech, hamburgers or hummus. Today, we do not enjoy everyday some fresh desert quails or tamarisk natural manna. They might have spoken some dialects and developed their East side Nile Hebrew slang. With regards to the “tribe”, the word “shevet” is not used in the text. Names are very important. Names are also this week a strong reminder of the Hebrew name of the Book of Exodus. Thus, we continue to participate in the development of the spiritual move launched by God. And “shmot – names” are as important as “avot – ancestors”. They show a plenitude expressed by masculine words taking the feminine plural form /-ot/. So there are names “according to the sons of the clans of their ancestral houses”. There is, from the very beginning, the separation of another group: “the Kohathites among the Levites – bney Kohat mitoch bney Levi” (Num. 4:2). They will perform the tasks for the Tent of Meeting “which deal with the most sacred objects” (Num. 4:3). They are a special “clan and ancestral house”, the sons of Levi who will own no land properties in Eretz Israel and progressively ensure the sacrifices and the priesthood. The Book of Numbers/Bemidbar will give us new information and data about the Jewish whereabouts in time, space and divine connection.

A lot of genealogical websites exist at the present and Jews are indeed fond of their pedigree or family backgrounds, intermingled situations. Two “family trees”, one from Europe and the second from Baghdad show, at the Beyt HaTfutzot – Museum of the Diasporas in Tel Aviv, some sample of the development from ancient days till now of Jewish families (the same are on sale as posters). This prolongs somehow the “census”. Who are we? Where did our ancestors go? Yikhus / pedigree is a must, either fictive, real or someway interconnected. When Moses proceeded to the census, he certainly faced a rather similar social problem of rationalization as we have at the present with population statistics. But he might have been cooler about the statistical figures. It was a problem of management and functioning. Families were certainly split, social pressure was exercised with much power on women, girls, children but this kind of a structure was certainly not stable. People had to rely upon others and other clans. We have the same in our mishpachah system: “shafach = to join, unite, secure”. Genealogy shows interest in history. It also proves that links have been broken, family ties broke up, especially by the time of the Haskalah (say, Modernism) in Jewishness. This showed very clearly it became impossible, in a secular westernized society, to ban (cherem) upon individuals or communities, or even to take any real community decision toward them. In that sense, traditional Chassidic movements have preserved a lifestyle that other groups did try to imitate: the Amish, Mormons, Russian Orthodox Old Believers, inter alia. “Mishpachah” is more than any concept for a Jewish person: it means that everywhere in the world Jews would help and show warmth, give a hand or two, feed or allow to support intelligent (or messy) projects. When some years ago a famous Israeli bank advertised that “here is your mishpachah”, they did not notice that Christian and Muslim business establishments had used the same slogan because of the strong ties required for the coherence of the society. The Muslim “Umma – nation” has the same “clan of our ancestor houses” structure, as some Eastern Oriental Christians or new charismatic movements born in the West (though strongly rooted in the Oriental Christian traditions).

The Jewish communities lost a great number of members throughout centuries. Today, secularization, getting out of shtetlech/villages, the pogroms and the two world wars created a major crisis. In consideration of some historic viewpoints, the Shoah has just ended for a part of the European Jewries, and continues to quake along all calendars and agendas. But, how many youths, young families can truly attest that they are really Jewish? Then does the tremendous task to revitalize Judaism in its various “clans” is a challenging concern lining with the first census in the TaNaCH.. “Yad vaShem” (to provide a burial stele and a Name memorial” as mentioned by Prophet Isaiah) has been the perpetual combat of Jewish memory against the evil forces already shown in the wilderness. The census confirmed names and identities, functions and numbers. It allowed getting some sort of knowledge of the society. We continue to live in similar conditions as a “wilderness wandering people en route to the Land with God’s guidance”

A census also implies the ability to count. God said to Moses and Aaron to take a census “listing every male, head by head” (Num.1:2). This sounds a bit “male power”. Well, nobody could expect a matriarchal census of the Israelites in the wilderness, by listing some women. It seems that the system did not appear to be so relevant in some African, Indian tribes. Moreover, it is not Jewish even if today, the Chassidic way including one mother’s name (Avraham ben Chavah vs Avraham ben Baruch) is en vogue. “Take a census = se’u et rosh kol adat bney Israel” means in fact: “count every head”. It is linked to “count, calculate, define the number”, i.e. two Hebrew roots: “safar = to cut, mark, write (record), count”. It is linked to “sefirah” as we do it right now with the “sefirat Omer, i.e. a precise measure, meaningful to God, the counting of grain measures till Shavuot”. True, the census is a “sippur – an account, a story, a recorded document (which may presuppose some distance with reality or the choice of specific inhabitants as basic elements). “If someone were to be willing to count the mighty deeds of the Lord, he would be ruined (Berachot 9:12d – cf. Job 37:20). This means that God’s acts are too numerous and marvelous. In return, He did a wonder when He promised to Abraham and His descent that they would be as many as the sand and the stars. This first and promising census of the wilderness Israelites underscores the value of each being, each head. Each human corresponds to a sable grain or a star. It is frail and vulnerable. Indeed, it is easier to make a census of “heads” rather than “bellies”. “Heads” can be cut (misparah = hair cut, as “safar”) but in Hebrew and Aramaic “rosh = head, heading, beginning” is connected with “rash/rosh”(written without the alef) that means “poor, needy”, because “the rich can be dispossessed of property, i.e. lose what he owns if he does not learn the Torah”(Vayikra Rabba 34).

There are a lot of points in the reading portion of this week. It is a repeating pedagogical process that should allow us not to grow eggheads. To keep the simple wilderness mishpuche / mishpachah clan emotional look and ties that fit us so well. Are we called to be so numerous as the sand? We have time to reach such a huge amount, some thousands years after Moses made the first the first census of our daddies. There is something similar in the Gospel: “Jesus saying: are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet, not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s (God’s) knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31).

This Thursday, all the Christian Churches have celebrated the feast of Ascension of Jesus, as his disciples saw him ascend to heaven and disappear from the human realm, forty days after his resurrection. This is a rich series of praying services performed once a year in a mosque at the top of the Mount of Olives, each Church celebrating under tents. This recalls Jesus’ Ascension and the Churches proclaim their faith that Jesus will come a second and final time in glory. This is parallel to the Jewish expectation to see the Messiah coming in glory in our days and speedily (Sukka 52a).

During the ten days that separate Ascension from the Pentecost, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not invoke the Holy Spirit (next Sunday and following Monday) in the expectation of the Spreading of the Holy Spirit “Who comes and makes her Dwelling in us”, as the Mishkan was guarded in wilderness.

Alexander Winogradsky-Frenkel

May 31, 2008 – 26 deIyyar 5768

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