Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ambiguity and Mystery vs. Clarity & Display - Bamidbar

Robot with clarity, flag and rigidity
We crave clarity in an ambiguous world.

In the early 90's I struggled to decide on a vocation. Did I want to join the Chabad movement's team of “Shluchim” agents of the Rebbe to try to bring Jews back to observance or undertake some other path? As I sat at a tribute dinner to my grandfather Rabbi Joshua T. Kastel in Boston shortly after he passed away and heard how much he was loved and how he contributed as dean of the Lubavitch school there, I decided that I did not need to decide because the decision had already been made for me. I had to try to fill his shoes, this was my destiny and life's work. Except that it wasn't. Since 2006 my full time occupation is focused on the needs of the wider community and diversity education work[1]. 

Clarity vs. Mystery, flexibility and ambiguity
Clarity is sought in matters of the the spirit, purpose, identity and relationships between people and groups. I have watched in amazement and despair as groups lap up the “us good victims, them evil, evil perpetrators” discourse in speeches, print and Facebook, over and over again, like a toddler listening to a familiar bed time story. This week Jews read a section called “Bamidbar”, “In the wilderness”. It begins with a census displaying God's love[2] and clarifying the number of men[3] wandering in the uncertain landscape. Followed quickly by another step of clarity and display, the allocation of flags to groups of Jews[4].  Yet it ends with some holy objects being shrouded from view[5]. How do we navigate the balance between the desire for clarity, sense of place and pride and the flexibility, freedom and mystery that invariably come at the price of ambiguity?

This question plays out in the lives of so call “new economy” workers. These are people who work as free agents, constantly moving between short or medium terms jobs as well as between cities and countries, enjoying great freedom and flexibility. Some of these workers are now craving the sense of belonging and recognised identity they left behind with the company job. Some even work “alone, together” in a shared work space with other unattached workers. Others express frustration about not being known as they leave their reputation behind in one country and start work in the next[6].  

Desert Flags & Belonging
The unconnected worker is advised to build her own “personal brand”. For the Jews wandering In the desert, the approach was a more traditional one, with a tribal or collective “brand”. Every Jew belonged in a particular place in the camp, around a flag with known colours and images that related specifically to his group of tribes[7], or his tribe[8] or even his clan or family[9]. “In this way each would recognise his flag [10]”.

In this very ordered society, misfits are unlikely to do well. We are told the background story of the executed blasphemer. He was the son of a Jewish woman who was raped by an Egyptian[11]. He came to pitch his tent in the camp of Dan,
they said to him “what is your nature that you would pitch your tent in the camp of Dan?”
he replied,”I am the (son of one of the) daughters of Dan,
they said “it is written each man...according to their fathers houses
he went to the house of judgement of Moses where things did not go well for him, he then stood up and blasphemed”[12].   

His case aside, the flags expressed strength stemming from people knowing who they were. The evil prophet and sorcerer Billam who had sought to curse the Jews but was thwarted, is said to have looked at the flags and then remarked “who can touch these people who recognise their fathers and their families[13]”.  

Definite Purpose
Perhaps what really impressed Billam was that he saw “that each one stands in his place that is proper and corresponds to his strengths (as these are manifest) above (in the spiritual dimension)[14].

The idea that the flags relate to purpose is linked to a Midrash about the origin of the flags. When the Jews were at Mt. Sinai they saw Twenty-two thousand chariots of angels, each one decked out with flags, (that) attended the Revelation of the Torah. The Israelites immediately desired to have flags just like the angels [15]”.

The angelic connection is significant, because angels symbolise a fixed purpose. They are divine messengers created to fulfil one task, and cannot do any other task other than the specific mission for which they were created. Their flags, reflected this clear purpose.  Human beings, however are not limited to serving God in one particular manner[16]. For humans, a banner is too restricting; it does not reflect our true free and flexible spiritual essence. Still the Jews desired the flags and the clarity they represented. This was granted to them[17].  Perhaps they would have liked Mikey Jordan, a Sydney barista who has declared a belief in freedom from choice” and provides certainty in coffee, giving his customers no choice in the matter[18].  Interestingly, to the best of my knowledge these flags did not continue to play a part in the worship of the Jews in later times[19].

There is plenty of merit in making our unique contribution, best suited to our talents and interests. The tension here is between a quest for a predestined purpose which is then followed somewhat rigidly and what I think is a more dynamic on-going exploration of what I can possibly do today or in the future that is the most appropriate and useful.

Coverings and Smoke
The reads ends with another expression of the question of display and mystery. The Levite tribe whose task it was to carry the holy objects of the portable desert temple were forbidden to see the objects that they carried[20]. The holy ark was covered by Aaron and his sons who were Cohanim (a separate religious class) with two coverings[21]. The effect of this was that the holy objects would remain “Symbolic objects, subjects for the mind, for thoughts, not much as actual tangible objects, and so all the more fill their minds with thoughts of their meaning[22]”. The space where the ark was kept was only visited once a year by the high priest and even then he was enveloped with a cloud of smoke[23].   

There is comfort, value in definition and clarity, and in finding ones place and purpose. How attractive it is for many people for everything to be as clear about it all as the angels. Equally, there is potential for still greater achievement by embracing the infinite possibilities inherent in being human, and I think the stress of uncertainty is a fair price to pay for this. I suggest that this is true both in the the way we relate to the divine and our fellow human beings, including those whose beliefs, ethnicity or perspectives on certain conflicts are different to our own. It might be harder, but it is the more promising path.

[1]    I still do my bit for the Chabad movement, teaching Bar Mitzvah students on a Sunday morning and teaching adults on Saturday afternoon. Monday-Friday, I lead the “Inclusive, multi-faith based”, Together For Humanity Foundation.
[2]    Rashi
[3]    Numbers 1:2
[4]    Numbers 2:2, 34
[5]    Numbers 4:5-20
[6]    Delaney, B, The Community of the Office, Sydney Morning Herald, 21.05.11, p22
[7]    Abarbanel states that his view is that there were only 4 flags, but that the commentators said that there were twelve.
[8]    Rabbenu Bchai, also strongly implied in Bamidbar Rabba 2:6
[9]    Haemek Davar
[10]  Rashi, on Numbers 2:2
[11]  Leviticus 24:10, with commentary
[12]  Torah Kohanim Emor Parshata 14
[13]  Bamidbar Rabba 2:3
[14]  Etz Yosef commentary on Bamidbar Rabba 2:3, see the Ramban on 2:2, who links the tribe of Judah to kingship, Yissachar to Torah, Zevulun to riches, Reuben to Teshuvah etc. The Klei Yakar has additional roles, Shimon were teachers, scribes and paupers in whom humility is more common, and Gad is charitable.
[15]  Bamidbar Rabba 2:3, God's response was that he “swore that by their lives”, they will have flags too. Generally an oath is made to overcome resistance. While God granted their request, it would seem that in a sense they would have done better without the flags.
[16]  See Nefesh Hachaim1:10
[17]  Morrison, C, 2006, based on the teaching of Rav Kook, in Gold From the Land of Israel, pp. 227-229. Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 24-25), this article also makes the link between the Midrash linking the flags with the song of songs (2:4) “he brought me to the wine house and his banner over me is love”  and the idea that  “when wine enters the  secrets come out (Talmud Eiruvin 65a) in that both the flags and wine reveal the inner character.,
[18]  Sydney Morning Herald, 21-22 May 2011, p3
[19]  although the colours continued to be displayed on the chest of the high priest, the Cohen Gadol
[20]  Numbers 4:5-20
[21]  Bamidbar Rabba, states that even the Cohanim did not look at the holy objects, instead lowering the cover bit by bit
[22]  R. Samson Raphael Hirsh, commentary on Numbers 4:17
[23]  Oznayim LaTorah, cited in Nachshoni, Y (1991), Studies in the Weekly Parshah Bamidbar, Artscroll, Brooklyn NY,  p.932

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