Tuesday, May 26, 2009

BaMidbar: becoming like angels

Why does the Torah instruct to count the Jewish people (1:2) "b'mispar sheimos", according to the names, but in the count of the bechorim (3:40) it uses the term "b'mispar shemosam", according to their names? Far from a mere grammtical quibble, the answer to this question lies at the root of the entire parsha of degalim.

The Midrash (BaMidbar Rabbah 2) tells us that when the Jewish people saw the thousands of angels which descended with G-d onto Har Sinai all arranged in perfect order by degalim they too desired degalim. That wish was fulfilled by G-d in our parsha through the instruction of how to arrange the encampment. What was it about these angelic degalim that so captivated the Jewish people?

Everything in this world has a counterpart in a higher world, a more spiritual realm. As Chazal tell us, every blade of grass in this world has an angel above it telling it to grow. Those worlds of angels that stand between creation and G-d are the filter through which G-d expresses his will in this world. What appears in our world as random, chaotic events, devoid of order, are actually the result of the many "gears" of angelic clockwork precisely working together.

The Shem M'Shmuel (5672) writes that the thosands of angels which descended upon Har Sinai were the angelic counterparts to the Jewish people. The glimpse of their angelic counterparts allowed the Jewish people to see the "clockwork" -- to see how the world is not random and chaotic, but how precise order govern every aspect of creation. The angels were arranged by degalim; each had a precise and proper place.

The Jewish people desired and demanded that they too should have degalim -- they desired that the order and precision which was so clear in that world of angels should also be revealed directly in this world through them, without an intervening angelic filter and mask.

The Jewish people, writes Rabeinu Bachye, were counted not according to their names, but according to the names, meaning the identity of the angelic forces which they now embodied. The term "shem", as the Ishbitzer writes, is equivalent in gematriya to "ratzon", will. Each Jew could identify him or herself directly with the Divine will and mission that he or she was supposed to achieve in this world.

In light of this background we can perhaps suggest a different understanding of the debate between Moshe and the angels whether the Torah should be given to mankind (Shabbos 88). The angels argued that Divine order ceased to be visible in the depths of our world; there could be no Torah amidst the "messy" lives of people. It was only in the precisely ordered angelic world that Divine purpose could be read. Moshe Rabeinu, however, countered that it was precisely the transformation of humanity into something noble which most exemplified the Divine purpose.

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