Torah Study Notes 5-31-14

May 31, 2014
p. 923 – Numbers
4:21 The duties of the Gershonites under the direction of Ithamar, son of Aaron the priest. LL: Why are these various groups being created? It appear to be a caste system and anti-democratic. PG: Remember that someone has taken a group of stories and tried to make them into a coherent whole to promote a theme. Sometimes the account tells us what went wrong. This again is written post-exilic. The tribal system has likely disappeared but the priests and Levites remain. There is no hierarchy inherent in the tribes. The a-teleological reading is the tribe as extended families. But here they are no longer endogamous – marriages have taken place across tribes and they have lived as a people in Babylon. This recitation is less the issue of family than distinguishing out the priests and Levites. The tribes have become known as “Jews.” There is a military overlay here that is likely a residue from the ordering of the tribes out of Egypt. Here the clans are created “out of whole cloth.” Pre-exilic, there was a sharp division as to who should properly become priests – was it hereditary from the Aaronites or the role of the Levites? Here the Aaronites have won. SF: The underlying message is that everyone has a role in serving and loving God – in a structured and ordered fashion. PG: However, ultimately the tribes became the source of dissention and problems in Israel. SF: The tribal structure is just surface – the deeper meaning is how you approach learning to worship God. PG: There is a natural human tendency to social affinity. Leadership is exploiting those tendencies for a specific purpose. SF: But we no longer need the tribes – we have the playbook. AF: When you have a responsibility there is a concomitant assumption of authority – the necessary power and control to carry out that responsibility. PG: Here we will have kings, prophets, judges elders and priests – all interacting in a confused and messy fashion. Post-exilic we have just priests and they are stratified. Remember that it is the scribes – usually former priests – who are observing, recording and creating these writings. It might be that they were trying to preserve some of the pre-exilic “messiness” so as to create space for individual freedom while having the rudiments of order. There is always a balance to be achieved between order and freedom.
4:29 “As for the Mararites…” Duties are again described in detail for this clan. LL: All these duties are clearly ceremonial and don’t necessarily bespeak the role of the individuals in the larger world. PG: In some temples the various ceremonial honors are auctioned off as a fund raising mechanism. Vassar is a “free congregation” in that we do not allow this or the purchase of seats. Central Synagogue in New York still sells seats.
4:34 The size of the Kohathites, Gershonites and Mararites are set forth by number.
4:36 The number of the Levites. The total of Cohanim and Levites is generally representative of the number of the first born who will be redeemed. The numbers are constructed precisely for that purpose. There is a certain play with numbers here and elsewhere in the Torah in the sense of creating a cosmology through numbers. PG: Two of the great terms in mathematics are “irrational” and “imaginary” numbers.
5:1 Certain sick people are to be removed from the camp. LL: The entire issue of ritual impurity has been previously addressed – could this be medical? PG: Note that this instruction was immediately carried out. In this context the suggestion is that there was spiritual impurity behind the physical expression. Impurity could be ritually removed. The rabbinic literature is full of close examination of all of these rules – with numerous exceptions and caveats. SF: If one becomes impure in the process of doing a good deed that kind of impurity is easily expunged.

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