May 8, 2013

BeMidbar: The Holiness of Sinai

Our sense of holiness and closeness to God is not constant. There are special times when we experience a heightened awareness. These moments reflect a kedushat sha’ah, a transient holiness.

Also in the life of the nation, there are special times of kedushat sha’ah. This is the central theme of sefer BeMidbar (Numbers), which recounts Israel’s unique experiences during their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai desert — a time when bread fell from the heavens and water spouted from rocks, a time of Divine protection and unparalleled prophetic revelation.

The book opens with the words,

“God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert in the Communion Tent….” (Num. 1:1)
The phrases ‘Sinai Desert’ and ‘Communion Tent’ are motifs repeated throughout BeMidbar. They call our attention to the special kedushat sha’ah of that generation.

Unlike Jerusalem’s permanent holiness, the holiness of Sinai was temporary, for the duration of Matan Torah. Unlike the permanence of the Beit HaMikdash — a bayit, a permanent structure — the Communion Tent was provisional — an ohel, a tent. And unlike the 613 mitzvot that apply to all times, the mitzvot that God commanded the Israelites in the desert — how to encamp, the signal blasts, the order of transporting the Tabernacle — were only for that generation.

One should not think that kedushat sha’ah is on a lower level than permanent holiness. On the contrary, it is precisely because of its lofty nature that this holiness cannot last forever. The deficiency is not in it, but in we who experience it. We are unable to maintain this level of holiness on a permanent basis.

One example of the temporary holiness of BeMidbar was the use of special banners for each tribe in the encampment. The Midrash explains that these flags were the result to Israel’s desire to emulate the angels. Angels appeared at Matan Torah in chariots bedecked with flags, and the Israelites desired to have similar flags. These flags represent the singular holiness of Mount Sinai and Matan Torah. They express the lofty holiness of angels, a holiness that the human soul is unable to fully attain.

Moses and Aaron

The dichotomy between temporary and permanent is reflected in that generation’s leaders: Moses and Aaron. Moses served as the kohen during the Tabernacle’s dedication — a priesthood of kedushat sha’ah that lasted one week. Aaron, on the other hand, commenced a lineage of kohanim for all generations. Even today, kohanim emphasize their connection to Aaron’s permanent holiness in their blessing, ‘Who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron.’

The foundation of the Jewish people required both types of holiness. They needed both Moses and Aaron, both kedushat sha’ah and kedushah la-dorot. BeMidbar was an era of Divine providence and miracles, the historic revelation at Sinai and Moses’ unparalleled prophesy in the Ohel Moed. But it was also the time to establish the foundations for Israel’s permanent holiness, to set down the Torah and mitzvot that would guide all future generations.

(Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah 5689 (1929).)


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