Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
May 29, 1999 14 Sivan 5759
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
We modern readers have little patience for repetition. To us it marks the absence of novelty and we hurry on. The end of this week's parasha is a particularly trying instance: an extended list of twelve tribal chieftains dedicating the Tabernacle cult each with his own gift. But the gifts are absolutely identical: "one silver bowl and one silver basin, each filled with choice flour and oil for cereal offerings, one gold ladle filled with incense and the same number and kind of sacrificial animals (Jacob Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers, p. 53)." Individuality expresses itself barely in the fact that each leader is duly named and allotted his own day for bringing his gift. But the Torah feels obliged to repeat with relentless persistence the details of each gift, adding up to a numbing total of 76 verses of unrelieved sameness (Numbers 7:10–86).
The same portion is read again during the eight–day festival of Hannukah, which only compounds our consternation. The rough arithmatic equivalence seems to warrant the choice. But returning to the list a second time each year doesn't help us lift its pall of impenetrability. Why is so much space devoted to a body of material endlessly repetitive?
The answer, I believe, lies precisely in the sameness of the gifts. The dedicatory celebration is not an occasion to rank tribal leaders by the birth of their eponym or the size of their tribe, but by their location in the military formation that protects the camp when journeying. The list does not betray that some tribes are privileged or more important. The uniformity in giving conveys rather an extraordinary sense of national unity. Through the person of their leader, each tribe in the Israelite confederation gives voice to the same level of commitment to the national mission and mores accepted at Mount Sinai. The completion of the sanctuary temporarily eliminates any expression of dissent.
As usual, the midrash amplifies the uniqueness of the moment. At Mount Sinai, God's presence transformed Israel into a wholly united nation. This is the import of the change in the final verb in Exodus 19:2 from plural to singular: "Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain." While the first three verbs are in the plural, suggesting a divergence of views on many subjects, the last verb appears unexpectedly in the singular, implying a temporary cessation of all internal conflict. Quoting the midrash, Rashi comments that Israel approached Sinai "as one person with one heart, unlike all other encampments in the wilderness, where they were always engulfed in noisy controversy (ad loc.)."
Similarly on the introduction to the gifts by the chieftains: "On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle (Numbers 7:1)." The midrash notes that the verb "kallot" [to finish] resembles the noun for bride "kallah" and observes "like a bride about to enter the huppah, the bridal chamber (Rashi ad loc.)." Again, the point is the unity of purpose which transforms Israel into a spouse about to join her divine mate in the Tabernacle. The initiation of the cult effects an experience of transcendence that briefly surmounts all contentiousness.
The meticulous repetition of each gift by the Torah is thus intended to underscore an ideal portrait of national unity. Tribal leadership has attained a rare instance of consensus and cohesion. The narrative that follows later in the book of Numbers recounts the interminable dissension that marks the wilderness sojourn. The fault lines may vary in each new challenge to Moses's leadership, but the pattern of internal division remains constant. The request by the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan is a harbinger of splits to come (Numbers 32).
According to the first chapter of the book of Judges, the promised land was not conquered collaboratively in a single grand campaign but infiltrated over time by individual tribes with only the loosest of ties to each other. When the prophetess Deborah vanquished Sisera, the general of a mighty Canaanite kingdom, she fought without any support from her neighbors, the tribes of Reuben, Dan and Asher (Judges 5). The tribe of Benjamin was nearly annihilated by a coalition of Israelite tribes instigated by a brutal act of inhospitality reminiscent of Sodom and Gemorrah (Judges 19–21). The final sentence of Judges, which recapitulates the plot of the book, depicts a confederation ever on the brink of chaos: "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased."
But alas, the creation of a powerful national kingdom under David and Solomon did not long heal the deep tribal and regional rifts. The impressive construction of a new capital in Jerusalem with a Temple to centralize the cult could not offset the strains from excessive taxation that only served to exacerbate older antagonisms. The kingdom united by David that joined the twelve tribes for the first time in a single, strong national government lasted less than 80 years, never to be resurrected. Indeed, periodic bouts of civil war punctuated the bitter relationship between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms which survived the rupture (I Kings 15: 6, 7, 16, 32).
In sum, I choose to read the repetitive gifts by the tribal chieftains against the backdrop of a blood soaked history of political chaos. The vision of a holy people with a universal mission was never to be translated into an effective body politic. For this very reason the Torah tarries at the moment of inception when individual egos and tribal agendas are submerged in common allegiance to a greater good.
And why read this portion again at Hanukkah? Not because twelve gifts can easily be apportioned among eight days of Torah reading or because, according to one of the medieval codes, because the building of the Tabernacle was finished on the 25th of Kislev [the date of Hanukkah] (Tur, Orah Hayim, 785). But rather because the story of the Maccabees is yet another instance of domestic turmoil, this time between Jews who sought eagerly to embrace the Hellenistic world and those who remained fiercely loyal to their ancestral ways. While the Syrians were drawn in to support the Hellenizers in Jerusalem, the victory by the Maccabees did not terminate the process of appropriating Greek values and practices by traditional Jews. How fitting then to read in the synagogue on Hanukkah a portion of the Torah that celebrates a momentary vista unmarred by crevasses and controversies. The ideal is what makes the real tolerable.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,