Diverse But United
Our Gemara on Amud Beis informs us that each Jewish Tribe had in its portion in Israel with at least some land in the mountains, and some in the lowland, and some in the countryside, and some in the valley.
Why is this important for us to know? There is this idea that each tribe has a particular role and perspective within Torah observance. We may deduce this logically, because otherwise, unless each tribe’s culture and approach has something unique to offer the republic, what is the point in the heterogeneity of Twelve Tribes? This is alluded to in the flags assigned to each Tribe as related in the Bible. (See Bamidbar chapter 2 and Midrash Rabbah ibid.)
Related to this, Noam Elimelech (Beshalach 5) states that it is impossible for a person to properly fulfill all the mitzvos in the Torah, with each of their details and strictures. However, if a person decides to focus on fulfilling one specific mitzvah with all its details and requirements, when Hashem sees this good faith effort, He provides supernatural assistance in fulfilling all the mitzvos properly. This is what is meant when Rav Yosef asked Rabbah’s son, “Regarding which mitzvah was your father extra careful?” (Gemara Shabbos (118b) That is to say, it is theologically valid to focus on one specific mitzvah over others. Noam Elimelech does not say how that particular mitzvah is chosen.
Gemara Beitzah (11a) tells us that we cannot assume that a dove will return to its coop if it does not have a line of sight, even if it is within 50 amos. Thus, even a close-by coop that is around a corner would not attract the Dove back to its nest. The Ishbitzer (Beis Yaakov Vayechi 26), cites this Gemara, and compares the dove to a Tzaddik, and says that a Tzaddik cannot break his “line of sight” with a mitzvah that is tied to his Neshama, and thus may martyr himself even if it isn’t from the three sins that all must give their life for. He says every Jew has one mitzvah that is somehow tied deep to his neshama.
Likutei Halachos (Choshen Mishpat, Laws of Neighbor Damages 5.2) interprets the legal formulation of privacy rules metaphorically. Mishna Bava Basra (3:7) rules that a person may not open a window opposite another window. He explains that each person has a window open to the truth but cannot easily see the whole truth. Therefore, one might judge another person‘s observance as incorrect or imbalanced, but it is forbidden to look from your “window of the truth“ into another person’s window. Meaning to say, be careful how you judge and what you assume. In any case, this too seems to imply that different Jews legitimately have different foci regarding their service of God, and mission in life.
We can then understand our Gemara’s statement about each tribe in a similar light. Having every kind of terrain within their territory speaks to this issue. Even though every Jew, and especially every tribe, might have a particular focus and talent in service of God, there is enough of every kind of terrain within their territory, to allow them to at least understand, and benefit from all aspects of the Torah.
The Bitter and the Sweet
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph relates a Midrashic retelling of a Biblical story. The Torah (Shemos 15:22-25) states:
וַיַּסַּ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִיַּם־ס֔וּף וַיֵּצְא֖וּ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־שׁ֑וּר וַיֵּלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת־יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא־מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם׃
Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water.
וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ מָרָ֔תָה וְלֹ֣א יָֽכְל֗וּ לִשְׁתֹּ֥ת מַ֙יִם֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה כִּ֥י מָרִ֖ים הֵ֑ם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמָ֖הּ מָרָֽה׃
They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah.
וַיִּלֹּ֧נוּ הָעָ֛ם עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹ֖ר מַה־נִּשְׁתֶּֽה׃
And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”
וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל הי וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ ה׳ עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל־הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם שָׁ֣ם שָׂ֥ם ל֛וֹ חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּ֖ט וְשָׁ֥ם נִסָּֽהוּ׃
So he cried out to Hashem and Hashem showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There [God] made for them a fixed rule; there they were put to the test.
Our Gemara says it was not really water for which they thirsted, but actually Torah. This is why the rabbis established that there should be a public Torah reading every Monday and Thursday. Counting the reading on Shabbos, there never would be a period longer than three days without Torah.
Peri Tzaddik (Rosh Hashanah 5) develops this idea further in a fascinating essay. When the Jews were in Egypt, their souls were constricted and unable to comprehend and appreciate the beauty of the Torah. The Hebrew word for Mitzrayim shares the same root as the Hebrew word tzar, which means narrow. The Egyptian impurity of the soul created a constricting narrowing effect. Zohar (III:151) reads this same idea into the verse (Shemos 1:14):
וַיְמָרְר֨וּ אֶת־חַיֵּיהֶ֜ם בַּעֲבֹדָ֣ה קָשָׁ֗ה
Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor.
Zohar interprets “Life” as Torah, because of course to a Jew, Torah is life. The Egyptians with their constriction and oppression, took the life out of their Torah.
When the Jews were finally rescued and experienced the miraculous events at the Red Sea, the Midrash teaches us that they were catapulted to a high level of prophetic insight. “A maid-servant beheld at the Red Sea what even the prophets never saw (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 15:2:2).” However, since this was not a state that they attained through hard work, they lost it immediately after leaving the Red Sea. Even though earlier, they found the Torah and encountering God’s will as pleasant, it reverted back to being bitter again. That was the bitter water that they encountered in verse 23. However, Moshe was able to guide them and teach them to recover their spiritual sensitivities, to the point that they could appreciate the Torah and no longer find it better.
Hoshea (14:10) states:
מִ֤י חָכָם֙ וְיָ֣בֵֽן אֵ֔לֶּה נָב֖וֹן וְיֵדָעֵ֑ם כִּֽי־יְשָׁרִ֞ים דַּרְכֵ֣י ה׳ וְצַדִּקִים֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔ם וּפֹשְׁעִ֖ים יִכָּ֥שְׁלוּ בָֽם׃
The wise will consider these words, The prudent will take note of them. For the paths of GOD are smooth; The righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them.
This underlines an important quality of Torah. When you are healthfully immersed in the system, Torah is experienced as sweet and life-giving. However, if something happens and you become alienated and feel like an outsider, what is sweet in the Torah starts to feel bitter. The path back can feel difficult and elusive for some.
Miscarriages of Justice
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph derives from a verse that the Divine Presence does not rest upon the Jewish people if they number fewer than 22,000. However, the way this idea is illustrated by the Gemara is difficult to understand.
דָּרֵישׁ רַבִּי דּוֹסְתַּאי דְּמִן בֵּירֵי: ״וּבְנֻחֹה יֹאמַר שׁוּבָה ה׳ רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל״ – לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁאֵין שְׁכִינָה שׁוֹרָה עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל פָּחוֹת מִשְּׁנֵי אֲלָפִים וּשְׁנֵי רְבָבוֹת. חָסֵר אַחַת, וְהָיְתָה אִשָּׁה מְעוּבֶּרֶת בֵּינֵיהֶם וּרְאוּיָה לְהַשְׁלִים, וְנָבַח בָּהּ כֶּלֶב וְהִפִּילָה, נִמְצָא זֶה גּוֹרֵם לַשְּׁכִינָה שֶׁתִּסְתַּלֵּק מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.
With regard the prohibition of raising dogs, Rabbi Dostai from Biri expounded: It is written in connection to the Ark of the Covenant: “And when it rested, he said: Return, O Lord, to the myriads of the thousands of Israel” (Numbers 10:36). This verse serves to teach you that the Divine Presence does not rest upon the Jewish people if they number fewer than two thousand and two myriads, where one myriad is equal to ten thousand. The plural form of “myriads” and “thousands” indicates at least two of each. If they are lacking one individual from this total, and there was a pregnant woman among them, who was fit to complete the number by giving birth, and a dog barked at her and she miscarried as a result of the fright, this owner of the dog is found to have caused the Divine Presence to depart from the Jewish people.
The Gemara’s logic seems out of tune. If one was careless regarding a barking dog, and it scared a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry, that is tragic enough. Does the Gemara need to add to the deterrent by informing the person that this causes the divine presence to depart? It’s like saying, “Shooting someone is a terrible thing. The spilled blood might cause someone to slip.”
Let us study the idea further. Ben Yehoyada says this number of 22,000 is a multiple of 22, which are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Similarly, there is another tradition regarding the 600,000 letters in the Torah, which correspond with the Jewish population census in the wilderness. The Torah itself and the Jewish people are connected in some fundamental manner, using combinations of letters, which represent dimensions of expression. Zohar (Acharei Mos 299) says that Hashem, the Jews and the Torah are intertwined. How can we understand this idea? Each person as he or she lives, expresses the will of God. The Torah, along with the letters, represent a written version of God’s will. When the chosen nation fully manifests itself, represented by that number 22,000, comprising the sum total of every positive human dimension of God’s will, the Shechina.
The barking dog represents the impulses toward impurity, and the sudden miscarriage represents the disruption of the potential positive cognitions and actions. Notably, Yoma (21b) reports that in the Second Temple, the fire on the altar no longer assumed the shape of a lion, but rather that of dog. Not coincidentally, the Gemara also reports that the Shechina was not present in the Second Temple. I believe the Rabbis were alluding to the idea that the collective Jewish people at times acheive a critical mass of embodying God’s will in all dimensions, so as to cause a manifestation of the Shechina. Yet, even one disruptive cancellation of a single person’s spiritual expression can topple the apple cart. As we saw in the Psychology of the Daf blog post (Bava Kamma 81), each Jewish soul has a mitzvah or aspect that connects to him in a special way. The shechina can only come when each individual type of soul finds its proper form of expression.