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Michael Carasik

Naso: Numbers and Pierre Menard

In America, where I’m still based for the time being, a second day of Shavuot will give us twice as long to eat cheesecake. Here in The Times of Israel, I intend to use the Israel calendar, so we can get straight to Parashat Naso. Those who need an extra week to think about Num 4:21–7:89 can wait for the longer Substack version of this column, which will follow the Diaspora calendar.

V. 89 is the last verse of Numbers 7, and not a moment too soon. There are 89 verses in that chapter, because that’s the chapter in which the leader of each of the 12 tribes brings an offering for the dedication of the altar, and each offering takes six verses to list, making 72 verses in all. Then there are another five verses to give the sum total of the dedication offering.

With very slight differences, each of those sets of six verses is exactly the same; the offerings themselves are precisely the same. Here is the first one, Num 7:12–17, in the NJPS translation, giving pride of place to the tribe of Judah:

12 The one who presented his offering on the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah. 13 His offering: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; 14 one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; 15 one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; 16 one goat for a sin offering; 17 and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs. That was the offering of Nahshon son of Amminadab.

The Torah is very careful to make sure to balance the ticket with a leader from each tribe:

  • from Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar (v. 18)
  • from Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon (v. 24)
  • from Reuben, Elizur son of Shedeur (v. 30)
  • from Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai (v. 36)
  • from Gad, Eliasaph son of Deuel (v. 42)
  • from Ephraim, Elishama son of Ammihud (v. 48)
  • from Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur (v. 54)
  • from Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni (v. 60)
  • from Dan, Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai (v. 66)
  • from Asher, Pagiel son of Ochran (v. 72)
  • from Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan (v. 78)

Yes, it is Shelumiel, the chieftain of the Simeonites — clearly an extremely important man at the time — who gave us the Yiddish word schlemiel ‘a screw-up’. Sorry, pal.

What it is like for us to absorb all 12 of these repeated paragraphs one after another?

In biblical poetry, the second poetic line often repeats the meaning of the first line in different words. James Kugel pointed out in his book The Idea of Biblical Poetry that even if the second line repeats exactly the same words, it can never strike us exactly the same way, simply because it comes afterwards. You’ve already heard those words once, so the experience of hearing them or reading them or thinking about them a second time is different.

I thought I would bring an empirical model from another kind of literature, one that I’ve always found very amusing. This is the first short story ever written by Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer and one of the great writers of the 20th century. It appears in his book Ficciones and it’s called “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote.”

The story is about a French 20th-century writer whom Borges made up. Pierre Menard’s goal in life was to rewrite Don Quixote in exactly the same words used by Cervantes. He didn’t manage to rewrite all of it. but he did rewrite some of it and, yes, in exactly the same words as Cervantes had used centuries before:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor—are brazenly pragmatic.

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard—quite foreign, after all—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

I am not going to try to rewrite the 12 repetitive paragraphs of Numbers 7 in exactly the same words originally used in the Torah. I am going to ask this question: What happens when we read exactly the same paragraph not once, not twice, not three times, but 12 times?

Not just reading it … not just listening to it … even writing it must have been exhausting. They did not have a copy & paste function in Torah times. What are we supposed to do with all that repetition?

You may remember that in the Zohar R. Shimon bar Yohai is quoted as saying that there must be a esoteric level to the Torah, because if the Torah was as superficial as it sometimes seems, anyone could write a better Torah than what we have. Certainly if I were writing the sacred text for a great world religion I would not have repeated all of these goats and rams and oxen and ladles and bowls 12 times. I certainly would not have used the little adding machine function at the end that does the arithmetic for you.

It seems to me that if we’re to understand the Torah properly, we have to think very hard about what the Torah is trying to do to us by repeating those paragraphs over and over again. We somehow have to reconcile this extreme example of repetition — and its potential to numb the mind — with the astounding verse that follows:

89 When Moses would go into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice speaking to itself [מִדַּבֵּ֣ר אֵלָ֗יו] from above the cover atop the Ark of the Covenant, in between the two cherubim. Then it would speak to him.

This special verb of speaking, in the Hitpael binyan (more on binyanim in Lesson 15 of my Hebrew course) does not occur anywhere else in the Bible except twice in the book of Ezekiel, 2:2 and 43:6. This verb, and Num 7:89, most certainly deserve a column of their own — a column which will be deficient unless it tells us why we are lulled into a state of stupefying monotony before this last verse drops its bombshell. One day I hope to write that column too.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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