Kabbalah in Sefer BeMidbar by Moshe Papier


Sefer BeMidbar is a book of narrative, Halachot, travel records, and other assorted things, but when one looks closely at the different ideas portrayed throughout the Sefer, a unique theme emerges, especially when viewed through the lens of Kabbalah. While it is famously taught that Kabbalah should not be learned unless one has strong physical and spiritual anchors to bind him to reality, even by taking a cursory look at the book using Kabbalah, one can begin to appreciate many ideas in Sefer BeMidbar which would normally seem irrelevant. The theme of Kabbalah is widespread throughout the Torah, but its most fundamental ideas can be seen throughout Sefer BeMidbar.

In his book Practical Kabbalah, Rabbi Laibl Wolf emphasizes the importance of Kabbalah and how it affects every individual every day. He explains the nature of the Neshamah, the soul, and teaches the reader how to apply the practice of Kabbalah in his or her life. The book’s main purpose is to provide instruction in the application of Kabbalah concepts to the physical world and to the behavior of man, but I believe that it can significantly reconfigure how one perceives the Torah, specifically in Sefer BeMidbar. In the fourth and fifth chapters of Sefer BeMidbar, three fundamental ideas are discussed: Sotah, Nazir, and Birkat Kohanim. Many commentators disagree as to the nature of these ideas and the intent of their laws. Looking at these concepts through the lens of Kabbalah, one can obtain an understanding of the juxtaposition between these ideas, as well as a connection to what the Kabbalists call the Sefirot of the mind.

In total, there are ten Sefirot which transcend down from Hashem into our physical world. These Sefirot are separated into two different categories, but I would like to focus on the first category, which is the Sefirot of the mind, or Seichel (intellect). Seichel contains three characteristics of the mind, ChochmahBinah, and Da’at. Simply put, Chochmah is the infinite potential of the mind. It is the first spark of imagination and creativity. Chochmah is a very powerful force that initiates every single thought, but it is incomplete and requires something to pull it forward. This is where Binah is necessitated and is subsequently incorporated into Seichel. Binah controls and directs the erratic flow of Chochmah; while Chochmah is very powerful, it does not have a direction or purpose, so Binah directs it and gives it shape.

Chochmah and Binah are clearly complementary to each other, for without one, the other becomes something else entirely. On its own, Chochmah can be the source of misguided judgment, which leads to sin, whereas Binah without Chochmah leads to nothing, for no matter the amount of structure, without the creative spark, no thought can be formed. What keeps these two Sefirot together and in tandem? The answer is Da’at, which binds the Chochmah and Binah characteristics of the mind together. When in concert, Binah and Chochmah can achieve almost anything, but only Da’at can help achieve that unity. Therefore, ChochmahBinah, and Da’at are integral aspects of the human mind. However, what do they have to do with Sefer BeMidbar? To answer this question, we must delve deeper into the understanding of Sotah, Nazir, and Birkat Kohanim.

The convicted Sotah committed a great sin against her husband by committing adultery, one of the prohibitions of the Aseret HaDibrot. In doing so, she broke apart one of the most important and sacred institutions in all of Judaism, marriage. This directly correlates to the idea of unrestrained Chochmah — undirected and misplaced thoughts. While the Sotah’s actions were inexcusable and wrong, they came about because of a lack of Binah, or in other words, an overpowering sense of Chochmah. Too much desire placed in the wrong direction led the Sotah to commit a terrible sin, and to then pay dearly by drinking the distending potion (BeMidbar 5:27). Our understanding of the connection between the Sotah and the Kabbalistic concept of Chochmah can lay the foundation for a connection between the Nazir and the concept of Binah.

A Nazir is a person who does not shave any hair on his body, avoids drinking any alcoholic beverages, and refrains from consuming anything originating from grapes, among other prohibitions. The goal of a Nazir is to attain a closer relationship with God. When one leaves his personal desires behind, he can attain a greater appreciation for the spiritual world, which should be a positive development. However, at the end of his term of Nezirut, the Nazir is required to bring a sin-offering. The question is, why is this Korban necessary? If the goal of becoming a Nazir is to become closer to God, why apologize for it? What sin was committed here? The Talmud Bavli (Nazir 3a) discusses this question at length, but in accordance with the Yerushalmi (Nazir 1:5), the Gemara concludes that in fact a sin was committed. The Bavli explains that we are meant to enjoy what Hashem has provided us in this world. Obviously, taking advantage of what the world provides would be wrong, but by having too much Binah and completely structuring one’s thoughts so as to block out the rest of the world as well as one’s innate creativity, as is possible in the case of a Nazir, one can potentially sin without even recognizing it.

Finally, the idea can be extended to Da’at as it pertains to Birkat Kohanim. The Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah U’Nesi’at Kapayim 15:7) explains that the Kohanim, who are meant to bless the Jewish people, are not actually blessing the Jews themselves; rather, they are acting as “translators” for God, meaning that it is truly God who is blessing the Jews. Through the Kohanim as a catalyst of sorts, God blesses His nation. This is clearly the main focus of Da’at; God uses originality in crafting the Birkat Kohanim and structure in using the Kohanim as a conduit, using Da’at to intertwine the Chochmah and Binah aspects of the Sefirot of Seichel.

It is evident due to the juxtaposition between the ideas discussed in BeMidbar that there is some form of connectivity between those Mitzvot and the Kabbalistic conceptions of Chochmah, Binah, and Da’at. The Sotah’s actions clearly indicate an excess of Chochmah according to our analysis, and becoming a Nazir is connected to Binah. Finally, we have proven how close the mechanisms of Birkat Kohanim and Da’at are. By looking closer into the messages that are imbued in every section of the Torah, we can better ourselves in these crucial areas of Avodat Hashem.

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