Ari Sacher

‘Meaningful’ Parashat Bemidbar 5784

The Book of Numbers begins with a report of the location and time [Bemidbar 1:1]: “G-d spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month [of Iyar], in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt”. The Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle (Mishkan) was only one month old. It still had that “new car smell”. This was Moshe’s new office and from here on, here G-d would speak to him.

Our Sages in the Midrash comment on the location of G-d’s conversation with Moshe [Bemidbar Rabbah 1:3]: “Before the Tent of Meeting stood, [G-d] spoke with [Moshe] at the burning bush… Then, [G-d spoke to him in the Land of Egypt]. He spoke with him in Midian… He spoke to him at Sinai… Once the Tent of Meeting stood, He said: Modesty  is preferable (Yafa hi ha’tzeniut), as it is stated [Micah 6:8]: ‘To walk modestly (hatzne’a) with your G-d’. From then on, He would speak with him only in the Tent of Meeting.” The Kotzker Rebbe[1] asks if when G-d spoke with Moshe at the burning bush and in Midian, was the conversation any less modest? If so, how? The Kotzker answers his own question by referencing the first Mishnah in the eighth chapter of Tractate Shabbat. The topic at hand is the prohibition of carrying an object on Shabbat[2]. “Carrying” is one of the thirty-nine categories of forbidden labour (melachot) that demonstrate man’s mastery over nature. Labour is forbidden only if it is produces some kind of benefit – otherwise there is no mastery. Hence, only if a certain “useful” amount of a particular substance is being carried is the action forbidden. For instance, the maximum amount of food that can be carried is slightly less than the size of an olive (kazayit). The maximum amount of (non-weapons-grade) uranium that can be carried is slightly less than the amount required to drive a nuclear reactor for some minimal period of time. The Mishnah adds that if a person carries even the most minute amount of a substance and then he proceeds to hide that substance away, it means that what he has carried is meaningful for him, and he is therefore prohibited from carrying it, even if it is less than the usual proscribed amount. The Mishnah uses the Hebrew word “Ha’matzniya” – “One who hides”. The Kotzker uses this “matzniya” to reinterpret the “tzeniut” described by the Midrash above: “Originally, G-d gave the Jewish People sanctity without boundaries. But after the Mishkan was built, a person is given sanctity only according to what he deems meaningful”. How did the definition of sanctity change after the Mishkan was built? And what does sanctity have to do with whether or not an object is “meaningful”? Either it is holy or it is not, regardless of its value.

In order to understand the explanation of the Kotzker, we will take a deep dive into the metaphysical definition of “sanctity”. In a talk given in Moreshet about fifteen years ago, Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein[3] described the difference between “sanctity” and “purity”[4]. The concepts of “purity” and “impurity” relate to the natural world. Purity denotes nature in its pristine, primal state, while impurity results from a corruption of the original state of nature through the death of a living being. Rabbi Lichtenstein asserts that purity is not a concept with positive content; rather, it is an absence: the absence of death, of corruption, just as darkness is the absence of light. The world as created by G-d is “pure”. Only with the introduction of some external element that damages its primal state of creation can something become impure. Accordingly, objects that are ritually pure are often found naturally in the great outdoors: an ocean, river, or a spring. This also explains why a ritually impure house is rendered pure by releasing a bird [Vayikra 14:53] “above the open field”.

The tension between the sacred and the profane is similar yet different. Rabbi Lichtenstein posits that the concepts of “sacred” and “profane” are inversely related. Sanctity is a positive state. It is not merely the absence of the profane; it is something that is actively created. The realm of the profane is not something negative or corrupt; it is a neutral absence of sanctity. The sanctified, on the other hand, refers to something that lies beyond the natural and neutral world of the pure-but-profane. Sanctity represents positive content that goes beyond the [sic] “Glory of Creation”. Consequently, sanctity must be tightly confined, lest the “positive content” escape. The holiest place in the world – the Holy of Holies – is completely concealed from human view. It is entered only on Yom Kippur and then only by the High Priest. Rabbi Lichtenstein summarises: “Sanctity and purity are generated in different ways. Sanctity does not exist in nature. It requires, by definition, a degree of severance from nature and a transition to an artificial world of human creation. Elevating something to a level of sanctity means removing an object from its initial, neutral state, and sanctifying it by human effort. Man cannot sanctify that which belongs to the natural world; he can sanctify only that which belongs to his world.”

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s thesis can be nicely illustrated by the mechanics of Jewish marriage. A marriage ceremony takes place in two phases. The first phase is called “Kiddushin”, in which the groom gives his wife a ring. Kiddushin is often seen as a parallel to “engagement”. The second phase is called “Nissuin”, in which the groom takes his bride under the chuppah, metaphorical for bringing her into his home. Nissuin is often seen as a parallel to “marriage”[5]. Recognizing that “Kiddushin” comes from the word “sanctification” and “Nissuin” comes from the word “elevation” can offer a beautiful layer of meaning. The goal of marriage is to unite the bride and groom as one organic unit, to elevate them from their previous existence. In order to do so, the groom must first “sanctify” the bride. He must set her apart, to sever her from all other women. He must tell her “It is only you that I desire, it is only you that I love, it is only with you that I will share my world”. Only after his bride has been thusly singled out can he elevate her by bringing her into his home.

Sanctification requires separation. There are two ways in which something can be physically separated – in time or in space. When G-d first appears to Moshe at the burning bush, He tells him that he is standing [Shemot 3:5] “on holy ground”. This holiness was bounded not by location but by time. After the revelation was over, the holiness dissipated. The only way to retain sanctity is to physically isolate it within four walls. When G-d appears to Moshe on the second of Iyar in the Tent of Meeting, the sanctity of the date dissipated but the sanctity of the location did not. The Mishkan was created for the sole purpose of housing the Divine and so it remained sacred as long as it stood.

I write these words on Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim). To most Israelis, unless you happen to live in Jerusalem, Jerusalem Day is just another day. But to the Religious Zionist crowd, it is a holiday – a “holy day”. We wear festive clothing and we recite the “Hallel” prayer. Until 1967, the holiness of the “Holy City” lay dormant. Only the Temple Mount retained a vestige of its original holiness. Since the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, Jerusalem has undergone explosive growth, of homes, roads, Yeshivot, and, of course, shopping centres. Each and every new construction site demonstrates our commitment to holiness, from the Hurva Synagogue to the new tram line to Teddy Stadium. We build in Jerusalem because Jerusalem holds for us unparalleled meaning. We build in Jerusalem because for the first time in two thousand year, we can build.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel

[1] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, better known as the “Kotzker Rebbe” or, simply “the Kotzker”, lived in Kotzk, Poland, in the 19th century.

[2] The laws of carrying an object on Shabbat are intricate. For the purposes of this essay, we’ll assume that the object in question is being carried in a locations where carrying is forbidden.

[3] Rabbi Lichtenstein, the son of Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein and the grandson of Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, is one of the Deans of the prestigious Har Etzyon Yeshiva.

[4] A version of this talk can be found here:

[5] In ancient times, Kiddushin and Nissuin did not take place at the same time. Nowadays, both phases are executed at one time under the chuppa.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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