• Samuel Lebens

Mattot-Massei: Life Imitates Metaphor

In this week's double reading, we reach the end of the book of Numbers. As was the case last week, the occurrence of the events and the appearance of the commandments, in this week's reading, all belong precisely here, as Moses prepares the nation to enter the land of Israel without him. As with last week's reading, this applies to all but one section. Last week's passage regarding the daily sacrifices seemed oddly out of place, and really should have appeared in Leviticus, which is why we explored a Midrashic explanation of its occurring where it did. This week's reading begins with various laws concerning the making and annulling of vows, and once again, it's really not clear why this law comes here.

Nachmanides suggest that these laws come here as an addendum to last week's laws about daily sacrifices. A classic form of an oath or a vow is when a person swears to offer a voluntary sacrifice; and those sacrificial oaths were mentioned in passing in last week's reading.


This suggestion is a little underwhelming because the vows that we're talking about this week are not at all restricted to sacrifical vows. They include vows that make things prohibited, just a Nazir vows not to eat or drink anything derived from grapes, or a person who wants to distance himself from alchohol could use a vow to make alcohol prohibited to him. The Torah commands a person to be beholden to such vows (although it also makes provision for the annulment of vows). This has only a passing relevance to anything we read last week. Once again, these laws don't seem to belong here.


In general, the Rabbis took a dim view of making vows. The Torah obliges you to keep your vows. So, why put an obstacle in your path by creating new Torah obligations to obey? The Talmud says:

One who vows is considered as having built a 'bama' [viz. a private altar for offering sacrifices outside of the Temple; an act which is generally forbidden by Jewish law]. One who fulfills [a vow without instead seeking its annulment] is considered as having offered a sacrifice upon a bama.

But if the Torah has such a dim view of vow taking, why does it lend its legislative weight to the notion of a vow? Why does it command us to keep them? Why does it recognise their authority? According to Maimonides, the example I gave of the alcoholic is crucial. He writes:

If a person has made vows in order to adjust his characteristic traits and to improve his behavior, he is indeed zealous and praiseworthy. Examples: One who was a glutton forbade himself meat for a year or two; or one who was addicted to drinking forbade himself wine for a long time, or vowed never to become intoxicated. So too, one who ran after bribes, hastening to get rich, forbade to himself the gifts or the favors coming from the residents of a particular town. So too, one who became arrogant because of his good looks vowed to become a nazirite. Such vows are designed to serve God, and concerning them the sages declared: "Vows are a fence around self-restraint" (Mishna Avot 3:17).

Vows are generally looked down upon, but there must be cases in which it is praiseworthy to vow, otherwise the Torah wouldn't have lent its legislative authority to the vows that we make.

The cases in which it would be praiseworthy to vow are cases in which the prohibitions of the Torah are not sufficient for refining your character. My teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Nacham, once explained the view of Maimonides to me as follows. The Torah didn't want to prohibit alcohol to everyone. For most people, in moderation, it can be a harmless and pleasant phenomenon. For such people alcohol can even elevate religious experience. But frankly, there are some people to whom alcohol should be forbidden. The legislative authority given to vows means that some people are able to expand what the Torah forbids to suit their needs. Rav Nacham said to me: it's as if the prohibitions of the Torah are like an expandable suitcase that can grow to cater for your needs. And if vows are used (sparingly), in this way, for the express purpose of character refinement, then, according to Maimonides your vow is zealous and praiseworthy.


Given this attitude to vows (which is admittedly more Rabbinic than Biblical), one can start to explain why the laws of vowing appear so close to the end of the book of Numbers.


Judaism makes an important distinction between the Written Torah (principally the Pentateuch) and the Oral Torah, namely the collection of legal, ethical, and philosophical traditions that were passed down orally before they were codified in the Mishna and the Talmud and subsequent writings. The Written Torah is fixed. But the Oral Torah continues to grow.


Indeed, every text of Rabbinic literature from the Second Temple Period until today could be classified as Oral Torah. The combination of the Written and the Oral is what gives Judaism the ability to adapt to new circumstances and environments.


There is a sense in which the book of Numbers traces the evolution of Jewish law from the Written Torah to the Oral Torah. Moses, more than any human being, symbolizes the Written Torah; the Five Books of Moses. But over the course of the book of Numbers, Moses has to prepare the people for a transition. At the beginning of the book, Torah is taught to the people directly by Moses. Over the course of the book, however, a council of seventy elders are appointed to assist him.


The Written Torah comes from God to man, but various laws presented in the book of Numbers seem to have started with humans: only after the people ask for a second chance to bring the Pascal offering, in the book of Numbers, does God legislate for such an opportunity; only after the daughters of Zelophehad raise their case with Moses does God address their legislative question. And thus, over the course of the book, we've been moving from the Mosaic paradigm of Written Torah to what will become the post-Mosaic paradigm of Oral Torah. But, let us not forget that the Oral Torah gets its authority from the Written Torah. To disobey the Oral Torah is to transgress the commandment in Deuteronomy (17:11), regarding the "judges" in any given age:

You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

Accordingly, the prohibitions of the Oral Torah are very close in nature to the prohibitions that a person creates when he or she makes a vow. They are prohibitions that are tailor made to certain situations; prohibitions that it would be inappropriate for the Written Torah to lay down for all times; but prohibitions which, in their time and place, can borrow from the legislative authority of the Torah itself. And thus the Rabbinic imagination, armed with its attitude towards vows, its conception of the Oral Torah, and conscious of the transition taking place in the book of Numbers, needn't be surprised at all at the appearance of these laws on the precipice of the Promised Land, and on the eve of the death of Moses. Vows carry the spirit of the Oral Torah within them.

After the laws of the vows, the Torah gets back to more obviously relevant matters. There is a war of retaliation to be fought against the Midianites. After the war and its aftermath, the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a request to stay on the Eastern bank of the River Jordan. Moses agrees on condition that they take part in the conquest of land on the West of the Jordan, and on condition that the tribe of Manasseh would straddle the river so as to create something of a communal bridge between the two banks.


The rest of the book is devoted to a delineation of the borders of the land of Israel, a delegation of authority to various Tribal leaders who would be involved with apportioning the land, a provision for the building of Levitical cities (since the Levites would be given no ancestral farm land), and cities of refuge, which would also be home to Levites but also to those who are exiled for the crime of accidental homicide. With all of these provisions made, and some discussion of marriage and land inheritance between the Tribes, the people are ready to enter the land. The book of Numbers has finished.


But there's one detail that I've skipped over. Before he laid out the laws about borders and cities and such, Moses was commanded to write an exhaustive list of all of the journeys that the Jewish people made in their forty years of wandering. It's a dry list of place names. It's long, and it doesn't make a riveting read. So why did it have to be included? This is a question that receives multiple answers in multiple Midrashim. But one answer brings us back to the nature of Oral Torah. Here's what the Midrash has to say:

"You led Your people like a flock" (Psalms 77:21): What is [the significance of the] flock [metaphor]? Just like one does not bring a flock under the shade of a roof (indoors), so too Israel when they were in the wilderness were not brought under the shade of a roof for forty years. Hence they were compared to a flock. Another interpretation of, "You led Your people like a flock": Just like a flock does not have storerooms collected for them but rather only graze from the wilderness, so too Israel for the forty years that they were in the wilderness were fed without storehouses. Hence they were compared to a flock. Another interpretation of, "You led Your people like a flock": And just like a flock follows to anywhere that the shepherd leads them, so too Israel journeyed to any place that Moses and Aaron took them, as it is stated, "These are the journeys of the Children of Israel" - in order to fulfill that which is stated, "You led Your people like a flock through Moses and Aaron" (Psalms 77:21).

I love the sensitivity of this Midrash to the way a metaphor works. There's a fascinating and ongoing discussion among philosophers about metaphors and how they communicate meaning. Very often a metaphor is literally false - no body actually has a heart made out of stone even though we call people stone-hearted. So, when we say such things, we're not trying to communicate the literal meaning of what we're saying. We're trying to convey something else. What?

Some have argued that we use metaphors to convey a bundle of associations. One can certainly sense that idea in the successive suggestions of the Midrash. Being the flock of God conjures a whole network of associations: being outside, grazing in the wilderness, wandering from place to place, and so on and so forth.


Others have argued that a metaphor can convey so much that it's futile to ask what its meaning is. The philosopher, Donald Davidson, wrote:

When we try to say what a metaphor “means,” we soon realize there is no end to what we want to mention . . . How many facts or propositions are conveyed by a photograph? None, an infinity, or one great unstatable fact? Bad question. A picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number. Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture.

A metaphor encourages us to think in a new way. It doesn't say something so much as cause something. It causes people to draw their own potentially unending chain of associations. One gets a sense that the authors of our Midrash were sensitive to the wonder of metaphor. But there's more.

The final suggestion of the Midrash is mind-boggling. If you read it carefully, you'll see: God caused the Jewish people to wonder from place to place, and he caused Moses to write down the litany of place names, in order to fulfill or to give substance to what was written in the book of Psalms, that we are God's flock and that Moses and Aaron were his shepherds. But this is quite obviously to put the cart before the horse. The book of Psalms was written long after we wandered in the desert. According to the tradition, it was compiled by King David, whereas the book of Numbers, with this long list of place names was written by Moses. What are we to make of this obvious subversion of the order of explanation?

I want to make a radical suggestion. Readers of these posts will know that I'm very keen on comparing God's relationship with his creation with the relationship between an author and a novel. If you read E. M. Forster's A Room with a View, you'd be hard pressed to miss the fact that, in that story, having a window with a good view is a metaphor for being in some sense or other enlightened. Now, of course, in the world of the story, the distribution of rooms with good views, and rooms with lousy views, is a function of nothing more symbolic than the bureaucratic administration of hotel bookings. But outside of the story, it's true to say that E. M. Forster put certain characters in certain rooms in order to express a certain idea. Forster was guided by the metaphor even if the hotel receptionist wasn't.


The Midrash is making a very similar suggestion. The reasons that we went from place to place for forty years in the desert were manifold. Sometimes it was so as to avoid conflict, sometimes it may have had something to do with climate; moreover, had it not been for the sin of the ten spies, there would have been no wandering in the first place. But none of that undermines the fact that, from God's perspective, a perspective that transcends our world, God was orchestrating all of this wandering only in order to give life to a metaphor; that we are God's flock.

Central portions of the Oral Torah are dedicated to typological interpretations of the Written Torah; that is to say, interpretations of the Torah that relate to central characters, locations, or objects as metaphors or allegories or symbols. For example, any time you see the number 40 in the Written Torah, be it 40 days, or 40 nights, or 40 years, the Oral Torah will relate to that period of time as a period of rebirth or recreation; the number 40 is a symbol of rebirth because a fetus gestates for 40 weeks.


Any time a donkey is mentioned in the Written Torah, the Oral Torah is wont to see it as a symbol for base materiality (the Hebrew for 'donkey' and 'matter' share a root). In later eras of the Oral Torah, Abraham becomes a symbol of loving-kindness, Isaac becomes a symbol for strict justice, Jacob becomes a symbol for truth, and more.


But if you take these interpretations seriously, a question emerges. Was Abraham a human being who acted for his own reasons in response to his own situations, or was he a symbol for something; a metaphor in the hands of his heavenly author? Did the Jews wonder for 40 years because, as the Bible says, they were to be punished one year for each day that the ten spies were in the land of Israel, or was it 40 years in order to fit the symbol of rebirth? Our Midrash answers: it was both.

The Written Torah tells us what's going on in the world of the story. The Oral Torah (among other functions) reveals to us the meanings and the metaphors that God was expressing in the telling of that story. And so, Moses lists the names of all of these places in the Written Torah to give an anchor to the book of Psalms and to the Oral Torah to discover an aspect of the infinitely rich metaphor that we are God's flock.

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