The story of the journeys of the Children of Israel seems prosaic, for example,
“They encamped in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num. 33:15).
We already know that Sinai was a stopping place. Why remind us?
Yet if you slow down you ask the question: They stopped at Mount Sinai, certainly: but didn’t they have a great experience there? Wasn’t there a Divine Revelation, a “Mattan Torah”? The verse has not a word about it. What happened to the Revelation?
The answer is probably that the list of stopping places is merely a geographical record. What happened at each point is told elsewhere; here more detail isn’t necessary. But there is a psychological aspect to the question. We often find ourselves on the sidelines of great events, like Israel at Sinai. The big events pass us by if we focus on banal details.
When I was a seminary student there was a residents’ meeting when the college warden told us,
“You boys think this place is here for you to learn Torah. For the janitor, it is doors, floors, bathrooms and bedrooms… and he has been complaining about how dirty you leave the bathrooms!”
At Sinai there must have been people who were only interested in the beds and the food. The spiritual events left them unmoved.
DEATH OF THE PRIEST
There were several cities of refuge where an inadvertent killer could seek asylum until the death of the kohen gadol, the high priest (Num. 35:25). Abravanel says that the death of a high priest was such a tragedy for the people that everyone was subdued. People would repent to such an extent that the avenger of blood would have no heart to pursue the killer.
Yet everyone, including a high priest, is bound to die some time, so why see it as an extraordinary emotional event?
It all depends on who the high priest was. There was a stage before the destruction of the Second Temple when high priests, generally political lackeys, followed one another so often that hardly any had a following amongst the people. In their case there was a sense of relief when one of them died and there was very little mourning at his death.
The Torah, however, is not thinking of kohanim of dubious character but good, pious, devoted men whose death, even in old age, shattered the people and led to the feeling, “We shall not look upon his like again”.
ALL OVER AGAIN
With this week’s sidra we reach the end of the fourth Book of the Torah. It’s exciting to complete a task, even the reading of a Biblical book. Joining in the declaration, “Chazzak chazzak v’nit-chazzek” – “Be strong, be strong, let us strength each other”, is a moment of celebration.
The first time you do it can never be forgotten – but how about the umpteenth time, when you have been a regular synagogue-goer all your life and you have been following the Torah reading for more years than you can remember?
It is possible to say you’re bored and it’s all deja vu. But not if you are like one of my teachers whom I quote often. He used to follow the Torah reading each year through the eyes of a different commentator. This year might have been his Ibn Ezra year, last year it could have been Rashi and next year it might be Samson Raphael Hirsch. He reached old age and presumably never ran out of commentators.
I must admit that though I try to follow his method I do not always succeed, but I certainly find something new each year which I did not notice the year before. I call this the Ben Bag Bag way. At the end of chapter 5 of Pir’kei Avot, Ben Bag Bag (the word “Bag” may be an abbreviation for “Ben Ger”, “the son of a proselyte”) is quoted as saying, “Turn it (the Torah) and turn it again, for everything is in it; contemplate it, wax grey and old over it and do not stir from it, for you can have no better rule than this”.
Every time we encounter a given verse or teaching our circumstances have changed; we are different people and it is a different world. Every time we read a parashah we inevitably “turn it and turn it again”, and it speaks to us with a new message.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com