Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Mattot-Mas'ei 5760
July 29, 2000 26 Tammuz 5760
Lists are the most rudimentary type of historical evidence. To us they are lifeless and repetitive, devoid of narrative and significance. Yet, for the historian endowed with imagination, they often become the building blocks for first-rate economic, social or political history. Lack of meaning lies in the eyes of the beholder.
The Rabbis were not historians. But, they did not make light of lists. Since they revered the Torah as wholly divine, every verse, word or letter, no matter how inert at first glance, was potentially rife with profundity. For them too, imagination served to transform dry literary shards into mines of meaning.
This week's sidrah provides a grand example of their imagination at work. I focus on it not only for its inherent value, but also because it drives my project to write a reflection each week, or as often as the constraints of my job permit, on the Torah portion.
The particular list in question is brief. It consists of the names of nine towns in Transjordan, northeast of the Dead Sea between the wadis of Arnon and Jabbok. This is terrain recently conquered by a renascent Israel at the end of its forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. A new generation, unscarred by the degradation of slavery, is ready to take control of its destiny. Several tribes, laden with belongings, prefer to take possession of this fertile land rather than proceed across the Jordan to invade Canaan. Though their request for religious and political leadership appears to give up on the final destination of Israel and even to jeopardize its unity, the midrashic comment I have in mind is solely concerned with the opening gambit of the dialogue, which I need to quote in full:
The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. Noting that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle, the Gadites and Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said, "Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealah, Sebam, Nebo and Be'on — the land that the Lord has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us," they continued, "if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan." (Numbers 32:1-5)
A late-third, early-fourth-century Palestinian rabbi, the head of the rabbinic academy in Tiberias, Rabbi Ami, cited the above list of nine towns to make a far-reaching point: "One should always complete one's private reading of the weekly Torah portion, that is, twice in Hebrew and once in an Aramaic translation, by the time that it is ready publicly by the congregation in the synagogue, including a verse like Ataroth, Dibon, etc." (BT Berakhot 8a).
In other words, we are not to come to the synagogue on Shabbat unprepared. The public reading of the parashah is to be preceded by us at home during the course of the week by our own three-fold review of the text. The inclusion of one reading in an Aramaic translation, often interlaced with commentary, reflects the dislocation of Hebrew by Aramaic as the spoken language of Palestinian Jewry. Early on in the post-Temple synagogue, the weekly reading of both the parashah and haftarah was accompanied by a verse-by-verse translation in Aramaic (Tosefta Megillah 3:20 ), not necessarily identical with our printed version named after Onkelos, which was probably authored in third-century Babylonia.
The gravity of Rabbi Ami's prescription is underscored by his reference to the nine towns in Transjordan. In our weekly preparation, nothing is to be skipped, even a list as seemingly superfluous as this one. In his comment on the passage, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein points out that the proper names bring nothing to the argument of the spokesmen for Reuben and Gad. To pass over them would not have disrupted the flow of the drama in any way. The narrative had already designated the region by name. And yet, we are not to ignore the added specificity of the proper names of the nine towns. Everything is equally sacred in the Torah. (Torah Temimah Numbers 32:3).
Or, to put it in my own words, the Torah is the national heirloom of the Jewish people, its extended reaction to the presence of God in its midst. We are no longer able to identify the human and divine strands in this dialogue, yet there is nothing which is not capable at some point in our lives to erupt with transcendent meaning. This is why we read it all. To select only that which we fathom at the outset, precludes growth. By wrestling sequentially with the unexpurgated text each year, we allow life experience, new knowledge and outbursts of imagination to illuminate ever more swaths of darkness. To read seriously, makes us part of an ageless conversation.
In due time, Rabbi Ami's counsel became custom and epigram,"Sh'nayim mikra ve-ehad targum, twice in Hebrew and once in Aramaic." Its wisdom is that we will never feel the power of the Torah reading or experience the mystery of Sinai, if we have not studied the parashah before setting foot into the synagogue. The public reading of the Torah is, above all, ritual set to music. An ancient chant is what marks the rendition of a sacred text conveying a sense of its apartness. In the synagogue, the Torah is to be heard, rather than studied, experienced rather than intellectualized. To overwhelm the ritual with instruction is to dilute the holiness of the synagogue, to turn it into a classroom.
Two things are required of us if we are to restore the Torah reading in our synagogues to its maximum religious potential. First, we need to absorb ourselves with the contents of the parashah during the week. The Torah is the adult curriculum of Jewish life. Centuries of commentary have related it to every aspect of Judaism and much of Jewish culture and history. That is the purpose of my weekly comment, to promote an understanding of a passage of Torah in its own context (peshat) or in terms of its afterlife (derash). No less important, I wish to show the Torah's vast expanse, veritably an exegetical tree sprouting ever-new branches and foliage.
Second, we need to raise the quality of the reading in the synagogue. The ritual works only when done well. For me, the triennial cycle, like late Friday evening services, is a temporary compromise. Ironically, its introduction has often ended up lengthening our services. We need to mobilize the growing number of young Jews in our midst who are products of serious Jewish education, so that they constitute a cadre of expert Torah readers. In tandem, continuous personal study and proficient Torah reading will not only elevate our services spiritually, but also contract them in length. The key to capturing the sanctity of Shabbat is preparation during the week.