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Bamidbar: Accessing the Divine Presence

Bamidbar (Numbers), this week’s parasha, begins the fourth book of the Torah, also called Bamidbar, giving a detailed description of the Israelites’ encampment surrounding the Mishkan, or Tabernacle.

The expression “The Foreigner who approaches will be killed” is repeated three times in this parasha and leaves no doubt: The Mishkan is the source of life, but it also brings death.

As we approach Shavuot, a holiday that emphasizes the importance of welcoming the foreigner and convert, Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes, focuses on our  relationship to the foreigner by drawing inspiration from our sages Hillel and Shammai, and finds this as an opportunity to welcome the converted people who come knocking at our door and that access to the Divine Presence is not merely an unconditional and inherited privilege.

Read the article below:

This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, contains a detailed description of the Israelite encampment in the desert. The Twelve Tribes surround the Levite camp within, and inside the Levite camp is the Tabernacle (Mishkan). The symmetrical arrangement of the encampment places a hereditary caste of Priests (Cohanim), who, at this point in time, are Moses and Aaron and Aaron’s sons, at the entrance to the Mishkan. Only the Cohanim may approach the inner sanctum. A foreigner, (the term used is Zar) who approaches the Mishkan, will be killed. By this definition, anyone who is not a Levite, including the rest of the Israelites, is a foreigner. The expression is repeated three times, “The Foreigner who approaches will be killed”, (והזר הקרב יומת) and leaves no doubt: The Mishkan is the source of life, but it is also brings death.

The detailed description of the Israelite encampment in Bamidbar also references the story of the Mishkan’s dedication in the Book of Leviticus, when Aaron’s two sons approached with a “foreign fire” (אש זרה – Esh Zarah) and were consumed on the spot. In other words, two people with the inner Levite bloodline entered the inner sanctum to dedicate it, and met the same fate as any foreigner, suggesting already that access to the Divine Presence is not merely an unconditional, inherited privilege.

This point is made in a series of folktales (midrashim) about the Sages Hillel and Shammai, found in the collection Avot D’rabbi Natan. They lived two thousand years ago, at the turn of the Common Era, when the Temple and its Priests were still the center of Jewish life. Hillel was famous for his patience and gentle ways in applying the Law, while Shammai tended to interpret the Law more stringently, and had a temper. In the series, people try to trip up Shammai and Hillel by testing their patience, setting untenable conditions for becoming Jewish.

The most famous of these midrashim has a non-Jew coming to Shammai, asking him to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. “Ridiculous!” responds Shammai, sending him away. The same man then knocks on Hillel’s with the same request, and is welcomed, “Do not do to others that which is hateful to you. That’s the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary – go study it!”

In another of the stories, a foreigner one day hears about the fabulous outfit of the High Priest, including his legendary breastplate, and decides he wants to become High Priest in order to wear it. He realizes that first he will have to convert, so he approaches Shammai, “convert me so I can be High Priest”. After Shammai throws him out he approaches Hillel, who responds to the man that if he wants to be High Priest, he will need first to learn how to observe some of the customs. The man begins learning. After a while he finds our Parsha at the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), and reads there three times that “the foreigner who approaches will be killed”. He asks Hillel, “even King David couldn’t have approached?” Hillel responds, “even King David”. The man quickly realizes that if even King David couldn’t approach the inner sanctum, then for him it would be hopeless, but of course by then he has already come under the sway of the Torah, and he blesses Hillel for having tricked him.

I find three very relevant and related messages in this story:

  1. It was a lot easier to convert to Judaism in Israel back then than it is today, and those in our Israeli rabbinate who think they follow Hillel should take a good look in the mirror, because I see them following  Shammai. They think they are protecting an inner sanctum, but the Jewish People are smaller and spiritually poorer for their extremism.
  2. Hillel demonstrates a rule of Jewish education that I first heard encapsulated in five words by an old friend, Rabbi Fred Benjamin, “Judaism isn’t taught, it’s caught”. Hillel recognized that for each person, the way into Judaism is different, and he seized on the opportunities to connect them, facilitating the arrival of newcomers to our People.
  3. In the Torah, the sons of Aaron, the most “connected” of the Israelites, bring a foreign fire to the Mishkan, and are killed, but in the story about Hillel, a complete foreigner finds protection under the wings of the Divine Presence. Someone who becomes Jewish has the same potential to contribute to the Jewish People as someone born Jewish, regardless of the initial motivation for converting.

If the Jewish People are more than a bloodline, and the Torah has something to offer everyone, then after having reestablished our nation and control of our destiny as a people, why haven’t we opened up and converted the people who knock at our door, as our great and founding Sage Hillel, did so long ago?

Eitan Cooper is the former Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. From January 1, 2024, he is a part-time consultant at Schechter. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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