Five Easy (?) Pieces by Rabbi Zvi Grumet


Sandwiched between the careful description of the camp of the Jews in the first four chapters of Sefer Bemidbar Sinai and the lengthy description of the inauguration of the altar in chapter seven, the Torah informs us of five laws that apparently have little to do with the context in which they are set, or, for that matter, with each other.  What possible link could there be between the command to send the impure out of the camp, the instructions regarding one who steals from a convert, the laws of a woman suspected of infidelity (Sotah), the laws of a Nazir, and the priestly blessings?  Indeed, the Midrash was apparently bothered enough by this question to suggest linking two of the Mitzvot listed, yet a thematic linkage of them all is elusive.

Nechama Leibowitz, z”l, once suggested an idea that may be helpful in unraveling this mystery.  The overwhelming concern of the beginning of this Sefer is with the structure of the camp.  The critical questions relate to who belongs in the camp, who needs to be sent out, and what the nature of the camp is.  Presumably, all of the above serve to create an environment in which the Divine Presence “feels comfortable” dwelling within the people, in fulfillment of the imperative והיה מחניך קדוש, “Your camp shall be holy.”  A closer look at the Mitzvot yields valuable insight into what elements are necessary for our camp to be considered holy.

First and most obvious is the expulsion from the camp of those with impurities.  Aside from the obvious implications of this instruction, it is interesting that the Midrash notes that the impurities are part of Hashem’s response to those engaging in anti-social behaviors such as tale-bearing.  For the Shechina to truly dwell within the camp, the camp must be free of personal animus, Lashon Hara, and backbiting.

The very next Mitzva, however, adds an interesting twist.  In all the instructions for the organization of the camp, with every tribe having its appointed place, there is no mention whatsoever of the place of the convert.  Indeed, it is generally understood that the גר had no specific place within the camp, and given the tribal nature of the people he probably would have been left outside the camp (מחוץ למחנה), both literally and figuratively.  This could potentially lead the nation to believe that the convert could be treated as a second-class citizen at best, and likely with derision and scorn, as he was consigned to the very place that the social undesirables are sent.  To counter that perception, the Torah immediately offers a special command of protection for the גר, indicating clearly that any act of injustice to him is equated with an act of injustice toward Hashem Himself.

The first two Mitzvot, then, are designed to help establish a healthy, peaceful society.  Such a society, however, cannot exist without the backbone of society – the family – being intact, and central to the fabric of any family is the implicit trust that the two heads of the household must have.  When there is an air of distrust in a family, communication becomes garbled, and the family becomes dysfunctional, ceases to operate as a unit, and disintegrates into a haphazard and primitive orgy of selfishness.  The Mitzva of Sotah is designed to quash any accusations of infidelity and help restore the healthy trust within the family unit.

Yet just as peace within the camp hinges upon the building blocks of its member family units, שלום בית is contingent on the individuals within those families being at peace with themselves.  The institution of the Nazir, particularly as described by Rambam, serves primarily as a means for the individual to conduct a self-evaluation and as a corrective for those individuals who find that their sense of self has lost its center.

The net message of these four Mitzvot is reminiscent of the apocryphal story told of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who began his career filled with the idealism and drive to repair the whole world, only to successively scale his efforts back until at the end he came to recognize the difficulty in repairing even oneself.  While the ultimate goal is preparing the camp to enable the Shechina to dwell in our midst, we too must successively scale back our efforts to recognize that before embarking on such a grand mission we must be aware first of ourselves and the impact we have on others around us.

What, then, of the final Mitzva in this series, the priestly blessing?  Simply, it represents the benefit that accrues as a result of the hard work invested in the first four Mitzvot.  If we truly construct for ourselves a holy camp, based on the highest standards of interpersonal behavior and personal Midot, then we truly merit the Divine Presence reflected in the expanding blessing of the Kohanim.

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