A New Form of Authority / Parashat Nasso

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

The sages interpreted the Song of Songs as reflecting the relationship between God and the Jewish people. This working assumption has been a rich source of creative biblical interpretation because each verse in the book has to be reexplained in light of that interpretation as if it were uttered in a specific situation in the course of the relationship. As to the verse in which the male praises his beloved − saying, “Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirtzah” ‏(Song of Songs 6:4‏) − the sages see it in one of their homilies, in the midrashic Shir Hashirim ‏(Song of Songs‏) Rabbah, as a statement which God makes to his people in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Nasso.

After the instruments and other articles of the Portable Sanctuary have been fashioned, the Levites are commanded − in last week’s reading, Parashat Bemidbar, and in this week’s − to carry them during the trek through the desert toward the Promised Land. Each Levite family is responsible for a different item, which they must bear on their shoulders. However, in the last chapter of this week’s portion − “on the day that Moses had made an end of setting up the tabernacle” ‏(Numbers 7:1‏) − the princes of Israel come to Moses and bring a gift for the Tabernacle: six covered wagons and 12 oxen for conveyance of the utensils and other articles of the Temple through the desert.

The princes were not commanded by God to bring this gift; it is a spontaneous expression of generosity and is not part of the original plan for the Tabernacle’s construction. Despite − or perhaps because of − the spontaneity, the gift is welcomed, and God commands Moses, “Take it of them, that they may be to do the service of the tent of meeting” ‏(Num. 7:5‏). In deconstructing the word ketirtza ‏(“as Tirtzah”‏), which appears in the quote above from the Song of Songs and is difficult to comprehend, the sages see a combination of two Hebrew words: keshe’at rotza ‏(“when you want”‏). Thus, they interpret the verse as “Thou art beautiful, O my love − when you want.”

God thus praises the Jewish people for its beauty, which is revealed when it displays its desire to voluntarily offer a gift for the Tabernacle. The midrash adds an explanation of the term “when you want”: “When you want to do something, you do not have to ask any questions nor do you have to study any text. Who told them [the princes of Israel] to bring the wagons and the oxen for conveyance of the Tabernacle’s articles? They immediately brought them [of their own volition]” ‏(Song of Songs Rabbah 6:10‏).

This voluntary act does not involve making the givers ask whether they are performing a permissible or a prohibited action, nor does it require them to study a certain text or to seek authorization in any biblical verse. The beloved is beautiful when she wants to do something voluntarily, without being prompted to act by any external source.

In the literal interpretation of the verses in Numbers 7, the princes bring their gift, God instructs Moses to receive it and Moses says nothing. However, the sages choose to verbalize Moses’ reaction when he receives the gift, and thereby turn the scene into an illustration of a fundamental question that touches on the essence of the relationship between the Jewish people and God: “Moses became fearful at this moment. He said to himself, ‘Has the holy spirit been taken away from me and does it now hover over the princes? Or perhaps another prophet has arisen and has changed Jewish religious law?’

“God said to him, ‘Moses, if I had wanted to tell them to bring the wagons and the oxen, I would have told you to instruct them to bring this gift. Instead, I am saying, ‘Take it of them, that they may be to do the service of the tent of meeting.’ What does the term ‘of them’ mean? The gift came from them; it was an act of their own volition” ‏(Song of Songs Rabbah‏).

Moses knows of only one way for the Almighty’s word to be realized, for him to convey his will verbally: either via the holy spirit or a prophet. Until now, Moses thought he was the only conduit through which God’s word is conveyed. However, when he sees that his Creator accepts the princes’ gift, Moses begins to fear that another channel has been created; he begins to fear that there is now another prophet or individual to whom the holy spirit has been granted, and that God is conveying his will through this person. But God reassures Moses and tells him that there is no other prophet, and that, had he wanted to convey an authoritative message to the princes, he would have certainly done so through Moses.

This reassurance, however, is not really aimed at calming down Moses. What makes the princes’ gift acceptable is the fact that it is “of them” − in other words, of their own volition. They bring it not in response to any divine directive, but as the expression of a human initiative. The beloved is beautiful “when you want” and not when she is simply responding to what God commands.

The sages verbalize Moses’ feelings in this scene and present him as a conservative-minded leader, who regards the princes’ gift as the possible expression of an alternative source of authority. Through the granting of a voice to Moses as such a leader, the sages are exposing the anarchism inherent in the princes’ gift and the revolutionary potential inherent in the establishment of the human will as a source of authority which is of equal value to a divine command.

The human desire to renew and to add constitutes another kind of authority, a new kind that Moses is unfamiliar with. It is an authority that comes from below, bypassing known centers of power. It receives the approval of the supreme source of authority − God himself, who is very pleased to see this human authority and cites its beauty: “Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirtzah” − “Thou art beautiful, O my love, when you want.”

"Moses with the Ten Commandments," by Rembrandt van Rijn (1659)