The opening verse of the Book of Numbers is a normative exposition: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying... ” (Numbers 1:1). Even before the content of God’s words is conveyed, this exposition provides an immense amount of information to the reader, who knows where and when the words were uttered, and where Moses was at the time. Then comes the content: “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls” (Num. 1:2).
The sages explain the theological context in the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar (Num. 1:1-4:20) via a parable: “’And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai’: As it is written, ‘He hath not dealt so with any nation’ (Psalms 147:20), and ‘he hath lifted up a horn for his people’ (148:14). We think of the parable of a king who marries one woman without writing a ketubah [marriage contract], and divorces her without a get [bill of divorce]. He does the same with a second woman and a third. Upon seeing a poor young woman, an orphan, with illustrious ancestors, he decides to marry her too, but he tells his best man: Do not treat her like my other wives. She is modest in conduct and pure in thought and deed. Write a ketubah, specifying the date and location, as is written about Queen Esther: ‘So Esther was taken unto King Ahasuerus into his house royal in the tenth month, which is the month of Tevet, in the seventh year of his reign’ (Esther 2:16).
“Similarly, when God created the generation of Noah’s Flood, he did not write when he did so, and he transferred them from this world without writing specifying when. Instead, it is written: ‘On the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up (Genesis 7:11). God did the same with dor hapalaga [the ‘generation of disunity,’ which built the Tower of Babel], and with Egypt; in both cases, he did not write when they were created or when they died.
“However, when the Children of Israel stood proudly before him, God told Moses, ‘I will not conduct myself toward them as I did toward others that preceded them. These are descendants of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Draw up a ketubah for them, and write what date, in which city and which land I lifted up a horn [raised their stature]. I will bestow upon them lofty status.’ Thus, it is written, ‘And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai’ – we are told where it was written; ‘in the tent of meeting’ – this is the exact location; ‘on the first day of the second month, in the second year’ – this is the precise time. Why is it written, ‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel’? To fulfill what is promised in the words, ‘He hath not dealt so with any nation.’ What did God do? ‘He hath lifted up a horn for his people’” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:5).
Along with the location and date specified in the opening of Numbers, the sages juxtapose two verses from Psalms that stress the uniqueness of the Jewish people among all others. This juxtaposition is intended to help identify and extract from that verse a concealed meaning.
In the parable, the king marries and divorces without a ketubah or get; that is, the marriage and divorce ceremonies provide the wives with no economic rights. However, when the monarch decides to marry an orphan with illustrious ancestors, he calls for a ketubah to be drawn up, which will anchor her rights in writing. The example in the midrash is Queen Esther. A time and place is mentioned with respect to her appearance before King Ahasuerus, but she receives no ketubah (for as of yet, he has not chosen her to be queen). The precise legal process that grants her future rights is conducted by the text itself; it documents her story and conveys chronological details. In the sages’ view, the text of the Book of Esther essentially becomes a ketubah. They similarly regard the first verse in Numbers as the ketubah granted to Israel to guarantee its rights.
However, the contrast the midrash draws between Israel and the rest of the world’s nations requires an explanation. The Pentateuch begins with the universal story of the creation of the world and of man, and the purpose of this quickly becomes clear: to tell the story of one family that evolves into a nation. At no stage in the Torah do the Jewish people “compete” with any other nation over the right to be chosen as God’s people.
In a literal reading of the text, the generations of Noah’s Flood, the Tower of Babel and Egypt are not on a par with Israel, nor are they generations that God selects as his chosen people and then abandons. Rather, these are nations that are part of the Torah narrative and play a certain role in it.
The midrash compares Israel, with its uniqueness, with other nations, which are created and then disappear, without the precise time and place of such occurrences being mentioned. Thus, Israel’s entire existence, in terms of the reader, is like a flashing light in the text that lacks substance; the people’s existence entails no commitment on God’s part. Whereas the conjugal relationship between the Creator and those nations lacks both a ketubah and a get, according to this week’s reading and the midrash, Queen Esther and the Children of Israel are referred to together in the framework of specific, dramatic references to time and place.
Thus, argues the midrash, the biblical text “becomes” the ketubah of Israel. And yet, it should be stressed here, this ketubah cannot guarantee that God will never abandon his Chosen People. Quite the contrary: It seems obvious to the sages that he will abandon Israel just as he abandoned the generations of the Flood, the Tower of Babel and Egypt.
The midrash was created in a specific political climate, and expresses a specific theological position. The sages exist in an era characterized by a grim political reality: Their national center is in ruins and the Jews’ mythological relationship with God has changed. In such a generation, when God seems to have concealed his face and is ignoring Israel’s dire plight, and when the Jewish nation has been stripped of its rights – the sages interpret the opening verse of the Book of Numbers as a legal document, a ketubah. It is as if they seek to remind God that he promised not to treat Israel like any other nation, and that it has been prophesied that his people is destined to have a prestigious status. It is as if they are demanding that, if God abandons Israel, he should at least provide a ketubah and a get.
Moreover, it is as if the sages are demanding their ancestral rights, as descendants of the patriarchs, since they identify a fearsome similarity between Israel’s grim situation and the respective fates of the generations of the Flood, of the Tower of Babel and of Egypt, which vanished from history completely. The sages seem to find in the Torah's verses the promises that, if Israel is also be abandoned, it should at least be divorced in an official manner.
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