Knowing our enemies
Beha’alotcha — Numbers 8:1-12:16
May 26, 2010
I shudder at military images. I shuddered, therefore, just by association, when I attended a Christian ordination ceremony and watched the march of ordainees headed by a standard bearer carrying an enormous cross. It reminded me of a medieval Christian army — Crusaders, perhaps — and a hymn that I still hear from time to time: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.”
This militant image, unfortunately, is as much Jewish as Christian: It comes from our own sedra, and I shudder at that as well. The Israelites too march off to battle, no cross (of course), but the ark of the covenant “going on before.” “Arise, Adonai, scatter your enemies” (Numbers 10:35), they shout. The word “arise” (kuma), says the JPS commentary, “signifies advancing or rising in order to attack.”
The rabbis must have shuddered also, because they converted this declaration of war into an affirmation of spiritual intent, by inserting it into our liturgy as a prelude to reading Torah, and following it with Isaiah 2:3, “Ki mitziyon teitsei Torah...” — “Torah shall come from Zion and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem.” Our concern ever after has been where Torah comes from, not where we have to get it to. We do not attend shul as campaigning Crusaders bringing truth to others, but as pilgrims finding wisdom for ourselves.
Because of the liturgy, it is now impossible for Jews to read Numbers 10:35 (“Arise, Adonai, scatter your enemies”) without thinking of Isaiah 2:3 (“Torah shall come from Zion and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem”). M’tsudat David says of the Isaiah verse, “The true Torah comes from Jerusalem; there is no other like it in the whole wide world.” But he has in mind the fact that Isaiah’s prophecy relates to “the end of days,” when we will all be gathered home to the Temple Mount. Until then, Torah radiates not just from Jerusalem, but from wherever Jews happen to live. Indeed, the 12th-century Sefer Hayashar deliberately paraphrases Numbers 10:35, saying of the great Italian Jewish centers of Bari and Otranto, “Torah shall come from Bari and the word of Adonai from Otranto.” Will people some day say of us, “Torah came from New York and the word of Adonai from Toronto”? or Chicago? or Kansas City? or anywhere else in this North American continent where we work so hard to plot a Jewish future?
The Numbers verse, “Arise, Adonai” leads directly into the request that God’s “enemies be scattered.” In the context of finding Torah for ourselves, we should wonder just who the enemies are: who, or what, prevents our renewing Torah in New York, Mobile, or Montreal today? The obvious answers — ignorance, apathy, and so on — are real enough: We should do whatever we can to overcome them. But a further impediment derives from a potential misreading of M’tsudat David. If we misunderstand him as referring to our own day rather than the messianic era, we may imagine that true Torah derives only from Jerusalem, or, if not Jerusalem, at least from sectors of society where people dress as if they are in Jerusalem, and live the kind of pietistic life that we associate with Me’ah She’arim.
Ultra-pietistic communities have no monopoly on being committed to Torah. The Chatam Sofer advises us all, everywhere, to begin our Torah service by standing before the ark of our own synagogue and saying, “This (!) is the abode of God and the gateway to heaven.” We need go neither to Jerusalem nor to Me’ah She’arim to find authenticity. Torah need not be medieval, limited, strict, and unbending. It can be modern, measured, liberal, and accommodating. Torah also goes forth from a Reform synagogue in Scarsdale, a modern Orthodox equivalent in Riverdale, a Conservative shul in San Francisco, and a Reconstructionist havura in Philadelphia.
It was our forefather Jacob who first proclaimed the words that the Chatam Sofer recommends. It followed his desert dream and the realization that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” When we next take out the Torah from whatever synagogue we frequent, we might consider that for us too, “God is in this (!) place” and we may just not have known it. “Arise, Adonai,” we say, as we stand there, “scatter your enemies,” especially our greatest enemy, nowadays — our tepid faith in our own Jewish selves. We lack the courage of our own Jewish convictions. We need only to regain our Jewish voice for us to see that Torah can go forth from our own sanctuary to fill the vacuum of our modern souls.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of 35 books, including the series “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His latest book is All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Jewish Lights).