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The Gathering Cloud

  • The Gathering Cloud

    B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1−12:16
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

  • Then, as the rear guard [m'aseif] of all the divisions, the standard of the division of Dan would set out, troop by troop. (Numbers 10:25)
  • The riffraff [hasafsuf] in their midst felt a gluttonous craving. . . . (Numbers 11:4)
  • Then the Eternal One said to Moses, "Gather [esfah] for Me seventy of Israel's elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people. . . . (Numbers 11:16)
  • "Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered [yei-aseif] for them to suffice them?" (Numbers 11:22)
  • Moses went out and reported the words of the Eternal to the people. He gathered [vaye-esof] seventy of the people's elders and stationed them around the Tent. (Numbers 11:24)
  • Moses then reentered [yei-aseif] the camp together with the elders of Israel. (Numbers 11:30)
  • The people set out to gathering [vayaasfu] quail all that day and night and all the next day—even the one who gathered least had ten chomers—and they spread them out all around the camp. (Numbers 11:32)
  • "Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days; and then let her be readmitted [tei-aseif]." So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted [hei-aseif]. (Numbers 12:14-15)

D'var Torah

How do we build community? How do we embrace its marginal members? And how do we encourage individuals to care for the larger good? These are some of the questions that are addressed in our parashah through subtle verbal clues.

Indeed, one of the aspects of biblical narrative that I find most intriguing is the way meaning is conveyed through wordplay and repetition. The Bible's style is terse, every word seemingly carefully chosen for maximum meaning. Numbers 11 and 12 are a case in point. As Richard Elliot Friedman points out in his translation and commentary on the Torah (Commentary on the Torah [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001] p. 466), these chapters contain "an elaborate chain of puns" based on the root asaf (alef-samech-pei), meaning "to gather." In fact, the verb or its root appears nine times.

The play on asaf takes us through a range of meanings, from the self-absorbed concerns of complaining troublemakers to the embracing generosity of a concerned community. The first instance of asaf in Numbers 11 is the Hebrew for "the riffraff," hasafsuf (11:4), which Friedman translates as "a gathered mass" (p. 460), thereby incorporating the asaf root. Here the word has a sinister connotation, involving people coming together to rebel against Moses's authority. Three other instances in chapter 11 (in verses 22 and 32) have negative connotations. They refer to the people "gathering" enormous portions of quail, which they set to eating immediately. An explanation for "and they spread them out" (Numbers 11:32) can be found in Etz Hayim: "In the sun, to cure them by drying. It is also implied that they ate the meat uncooked. They were so lustful for meat that as soon as they slaughtered the birds they gorged themselves on the raw flesh" (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, ed. David L. Lieber [New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001], p. 832).

The five other instances of asaf in chapters 11 and 12 have a positive connotation. Two relate to the gathering of the seventy elders (Numbers 11:16, 11:24) to share the burden of leadership with Moses by receiving some of his ruach, "spirit" (Numbers 11:25). The third refers to Moses reentering the camp following his consultation with God (Numbers 11:30). As Robert Alter points out in his translation and commentary of the Torah, the use of asaf here is unusual, for "he does not return to or reenter the camp but is 'gathered back into the camp'" (The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary [New York/London: Norton, 2004], p. 735). The author of the Bible appears to have deliberately selected asaf, perhaps because it nicely parallels the last two instances of its use in referring to Miriam being gathered back (tei-aseif and hei-aseif, translated as "readmitted") into the camp following her punishment in Numbers 12:14-15.

What are we to make of these repetitions? Friedman suggests that through these "variations on the root letters, we are brought from the crisis that is generated by the 'gathered mass' [hasafsuf in 11:4] to resolution when Miriam is 'gathered back' [hei-aseif in12:14]" (p. 466). We might go a step further and say that the anger and egotism of a disgruntled group have been transformed into solidarity and communal wholeness. This raises the question, how do we move from one to the other? I believe that the series of wordplays offers us a way.

To understand this, we need to go back one chapter to Numbers 10, where the first instance of the root asaf in this parashah occurs. The Israelites begin their journey from Mount Sinai, tribe by tribe. In Numbers 10:25, the last tribe in the marching order, the tribe of Dan is referred to as mei-aseif, "rear guard." Rashi explains that Dan's task was to gather up lost objects, returning them to their owners. They also gathered individuals who had become lost or had fallen behind.

Now we see an interesting pattern emerge. The first and last appearances of asaf are positive and refer to acts of gathering that are generous, compassionate, and inclusive. At one end is a tribe ensuring that no one is left behind; at the other, a community that reintegrates an outcast (Miriam, in Numbers 12:14). These bookends envelop the various permutations of asaf. Between them are the "gatherings" of self-centered people, demanding that their needs be gratified, ungrateful for the blessings provided by God and Moses, causing God's anger to flare. Intermingled are positive occurrences of asaf. I would suggest that the community is preserved through the spirit of loving-kindness that penetrates and surrounds outbursts of resentment and selfishness.

One might draw a parallel between this verbal pattern and the cloud of God's presence that envelops the Tabernacle. Just as the cloud keeps the Israelites safe and guides them on their way, the spirit of generosity and inclusiveness maintains the cohesiveness of the group, nullifying, in a sense, the hostile and self-centered impulses of divisive individuals. The message seems to be one of compassion: reaching out and drawing people in trumps ingratitude and disaffection.

By the Way

  • [On why the tribe of Dan served as the "rear guard," gathering up lost objects and straying individuals:]
    One source suggests that the tribe of Dan was chosen for this role because, even though its members were weak in religious faith (the territory of Dan would later become a site of idol worship), they were strong in their love for their fellow Israelites. (Etz Hayim, p. 825)
  • [On the image of God as a cloud:]
    The function of religion is often to intrude a cloud on our bright days, reminding us of suffering in the world . . . and to send light into our darkest nights, keeping us from despair. (Ibid., p. 821)
  • Even though they may have been exhausted or even if they . . . wanted to proceed further, they disregarded their own wishes and guided their movements by the cloud. (Ramban)
  • People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
    Love them anyway.
    If you are good, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
    Be good anyway.
    If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
    Succeed anyway.
    The good you do today, will be forgotten tomorrow.
    Do good anyway.
    Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
    Be honest and frank anyway . . .
    What you spend years building, may be destroyed overnight.
    Build anyway.
    People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
    Help people anyway.
    Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

(Kent M. Keith, Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments: Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2001], pp. 16-17)

Your Guide

  1. Though not known for its religious fervor, the tribe of Dan operates, nonetheless, in an ethical manner. Does this suggest that there are different, but equally valid ways of expressing our faith? For example, if a Jew is involved in social justice, but does not belong to a synagogue and does not pray, is that person any less of a Jew?
  2. Commentary in Etz Hayim states, "The function of religion is to intrude a cloud on our bright days. . . ." In the same vein, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is purported to have said that the purpose of religion is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Do you agree? Why?
  3. The cloud helped the Israelites move in step with God, keeping them unified. How can we, b'tzelem Elohim, "in the image of God," help guide the community toward cohesiveness rather than divisiveness?
  4. The Keith poem maintains that despite disappointing human behavior, one should continue to behave in as honest, trusting, and generous way as possible. Is this a wise philosophy? Does this provide a way to enhance a positive community spirit?

Rabbi Suzanne Singer is a rabbi at Temple Sinai, Oakland, California.

6/18/2005
Reference Materials: 

B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868