Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 11, 2016
Rabbi Meira Chmiel
The Zohar introduces in Parashat Bamidbar a newly completed stage in the process of God’s emerging template, the way the Divine continues by way of Utterance to emanate out of the heavens and construct the means by which manifestation of God’s Presence can take place within the square dimensions of our earthy world, our particular sector of the space-time continuum. God needs relationship. Interestingly enough, He starts with creating us. Why? Zohar connects the very opening of Bamidbar with the creation of a God-Man in Genesis, a radically alive spirit-being emanated from God’s very shape into material substance.
A carbon copy, you could say—almost! The blueprint used to create us leaves a trace behind that reveals what created us and becomes a blueprint of the Creator as well as of the created, like the tracing etched in the carbon film between two sheets of paper. And so we learn from the Zohar’s Talmudic sources that we humans evolved from a material life form with infinite capacity to transcend space and time.
Dr. Richard Moss, in his book, Black Butterfly—An Invitation to Radical Awareness writes: “Energy is fundamental to existence; everything is energy. In its pure and unobstructed form, it is Consciousness.. pure consciousness without an object and without a subject. Relative to this level of pure unobstructed consciousness, as we enter into more mundane awareness and our experience becomes particularized, energy gradually decreases… Our ordinary levels of consciousness, in which things appear concrete and real, are lower levels of energy..., lower levels of aliveness.” [p.50]
Zohar-Bamidbar opens: “YHVH spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first of the second month in the second year…saying, Count the heads of all the community of the children of Israel…” after which Rabbi Abba in the Zohar narrative quotes the verse in Genesis where Man is created in God’s image, and then adds, “Come and see: When the Holy One created the human being, He made him in the image of those above—[which are the sephirot, the divine attributes, and below]—the lower worlds. He was composed of all, and his light shone from one end of the world to the other, and all [the creatures] feared him.” [The Zohar, translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt, Pritzker Ed., vol 8, p. 250]
In this succinct quote we have allusions to Adam’s original cosmic height, his radiance extending out across the breadth of the world, his splendor and lordliness. According to the Bavli Talmud Hagigah 12a, [Ibid p. 251, n. 4]: “Rabbi El’azar said, Adam extended from earth to heaven… As soon as he sinned, the Holy One placed His hand upon him and diminished him, as it is said, ‘Behind and in front You formed me, and You set Your palm upon me (Psalms 139:5).’ ” Daniel Matt, in his commentary, [Ibid, n. 4] interprets this from the Zohar perspective, “In his pristine state, Adam pondered supernal wisdom. But when he sinned by eating the fruit of the tree.., the human and divine faces (or configurations) diminished, wisdom abandoned him, and he focused merely on mundane, physical matters.” His consciousness or energy level was diminished to the merely tangible things of life.
Regardless of the reduced situation, God continued His workmanship to establish the world He had begun: Cain and Abel were born. But these two could not “settle with one another in the world”, and after Cain killed Abel and was condemned to wander the world, Cain begot a human race that carried choice to the extreme, becoming chaotic and cruel, leading to its own annihilation—the flood. It was through the third son of Adam and Eve, Seth, that righteousness survived over the many generations before and after the flood. The world afterwards stabilized, societies began developing, and covenants between God and humanity became possible. [Ibid, text and commentary, p.251, n.5]
The Zohar tells us: “Even so, th[is] lower world [our world] was neither perfected nor complete nor fulfilled until Abraham came, after which it became established.” [Ibid p.252] Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob joined him and these three, each holding a unique covenant with the world’s Creator, enabled the world to “stand firm and not totter.” How? What does it mean—established, stand firm, not totter? Each of these patriarchs served as a pipeline channel with the heavenly template, the source of blessing from above, enabling the nourishing down-flow that Adam had cut off when he broke the channel. The earth now had three radio towers that could receive God’s signal. Three is the beginning of stability. It is for this that God needs humanity.
But the Zohar goes on to point out: “Even so, [the world] did not take root until [Jacob] engendered twelve tribes and seventy souls, and the world was firmly planted. Even so, it was not perfected until the blessed Holy One gave the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the Dwelling, the Mishkan, was erected. Then worlds were established, and those above and below became fragrantly firm.” [Ibid pp.252-3]
On reflection, we can see how the bringing down of Torah was vital to the continued existence of the world. Just picture what would have evolved without it! In BT Shabbat [88a], Resh Lakish tells the works of Creation: “If Israel accepts the Torah you will endure. If not, [God] will return you to chaos and void…” And Rabbi El’azar says in Pesachim [68b] “Were it not for Torah [which must be studied day and night], heaven and earth would not endure,” and he quotes Jeremiah, “Were it not for My covenant with day and night, I would not have established the laws of heaven and earth [33:25].” [Ibid p.253, n.7]
The Zohar now brings us up to date with the cosmic significance of the event described in Bamidbar. “Once Torah and the Mishkan were established, the blessed Holy One wished to count the forces of Torah—how many troops of the Mishkan. Come and see: Every entity that needs to be settled in its place does not settle until it is mentioned by mouth and enumerated… Therefore their forces are enumerated, to be recognized by them—” [Ibid p.253] And so Israel was told, “Count the heads of all the community of the children of Israel…” [Ibid p.250, n.1] In other words, you have to be given your assignment, your role in the community. What is your post, your squadron, your watch?
But there’s a hazard point here, our scriptures warn of it, and BT Ta’anit [8b] says: “Blessing is not found in anything weighed, measured, or counted, but only in that which is kept hidden from the eye.” [Ibid p.255, n.17] Exodus 30:12 gives us God’s directive to Moses on Sinai regarding this: “When you take the poll, the census, of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall every man give a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you count them, that there be no plague among them when you count them.” From this we learn about the half-shekel ransom, an atonement offering for each soul. The Zohar [Ibid p.255-6] describes: “Come and see: Blessing from above does not settle upon anything counted. Now, you might say, ‘How were the people of Israel counted?’ Well, a ransom was taken from them, as has been established, and no counting took place until the ransom was collected and totaled up. First Israel was blessed, then that ransom was counted, and then Israel was blessed once again. Thus Israel was blessed in the beginning and at the end, and no pestilence touched them. Why does pestilence pertain to counting?.. Blessing does not settle upon anything counted. As soon as the blessing departs, the Other Side can settle there and can inflict harm. Therefore in counting, a redemptive ransom is taken, to avert pestilence.”
Now God directs Moses to orient the tribes in camps around the now newly erected Mishkan, the Dwelling place of God’s Presence, according to a particular formation. They will march as well as camp always in this formation, forming an array. Numbers 2:2 describes it: “The Children of Israel shall camp according to his father’s house, every man with his own standard, according to the sign or insignia of his father’s house. A good way off shall they pitch their tents around the Tent of Meeting.” And in the midst of the array, the camp of Levites forms an inner circle around the Mishkan, guarding its sanctity.
God prescribes the specific layout of the twelve tribes camps in the outer array, like a giant four-cornered square around the Levitical camp. Three tribes guard the east: these are Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. They head the whole array when the camp is on the move. The three tribes assigned to the south are Reuven, Shimon and Gad. They form the right arm of the array. To the west are Rachel’s tribal group: the two sons of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh, and his brother Benjamin. They form the rear guard. And the three tribes to the north are Dan, Asher, and Naftali. They form the left arm of the array.
This array of the twelve tribes reflects, mirrors a heavenly array, says the Zohar, the chambers or sephirot of the upper worlds, all reflecting the image and likeness, the exalted qualities of God. God has now brought forth in the lower worlds a society in the image of God. Jewish mysticism of the earliest centuries of the Talmudic period, especially in Palestine, reflects these scriptural influences. Especially midrashic writings on the Song of Songs, as well as the Shiur Komah and the Heichelot hymns and the Descent into the Merkavah, Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot. Later, an emerging Kabbalah incorporates these same themes and associations, giving rise to the Zohar during the late 1200’s and influencing numerous versions of the siddur that come down to us today. Especially those of the Sephardic and Eastern congregations.
Ceremonies like shaking the lulav and etrog according to the minhag of the Ariz”l, Rabbi Isaac Luria from the late 1500s, reflect that array of 12 tribes in the wilderness. The four letters of God’s Name are expressed in the heavenly array, mirrored by the priestly choreography of the sacrifices. The Zohar [3:118b, see Matt, Ibid, p.261-2] describes four archangels that accompany the tribal array on its journey, guardians of the traveling Mishkan, leading the troops of each quadrant of the four directions.
A song about that journey with the four archangels comes down to us in our bedtime prayer as we deposit our soul with our Creator and prepare ourselves for its nightly ascent. It goes like this, and you can sing along….
(See the words on p.784 of the Birnbaum Siddur.)