In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89), God commands Moses to send beyond the boundaries of the Israelite camp all lepers and any other people who are considered to be ritually impure. The reason given for this commandment is, “that they defile not their camp, in the midst whereof I dwell” (Num. 5:3).
The impurities borne by these individuals must be sent far away so that they will not contaminate the place wherein God dwells; his very presence in the camp necessitates such an act to ensure that anyone who is tainted will not inflict damage on him or the other inhabitants.
The midrashic work Sifre presents a surprising homily, in which the above verse is interpreted in a manner that runs completely counter to its literal interpretation: “It is written, ‘in the midst whereof I dwell.’ God loves Israel; even when they sin, the Shekhina [divine presence] remains in their midst. It is written, ‘that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleanness’ [Leviticus 16:16], but it is also written, ‘that they defile not their camp’ and ‘And you shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit’ [Num. 35:34]” (Sifre Bamidbar; section 1).
According to this reading, the divine presence remains in Israel’s midst even when they are ritually impure. Thus, Numbers 5:3, from this week’s Torah portion, is regarded not as a text presenting a condition (namely, if the camp becomes ritually impure, God will abandon it), but as something entirely different – as an assertion that the Almighty will remain in the Israelite camp no matter what. Moreover, though Israel must be strict about maintaining their ritual purity because of his presence, God will not necessarily leave their midst if ritual impurity is found there because, “God loves Israel.” In this homily, therefore, description of the condition required for there to be a divine presence in Israel’s camp becomes a declaration of unconditional love.
The above midrash adds two verses from the Torah to prove its point. One is from Parashat Aharei Mot, in Leviticus, in which Aaron the priest is instructed to sprinkle the blood of a goat on the kapporet [mercy seat] of the Holy Ark, to atone for the ritual impurity Israel inflicted on the sacred sanctuary because of their sins: “and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleanness” (Lev.16:16).
The last verse cited in the midrash comes from Parashat Masei, at the end of the Book of Numbers, where the Torah warns its readers to avoid bloodshed: “And you shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel” (Num. 35:34). This verse, like the others, is interpreted by the sages as a declaration that God will continue to dwell among his people regardless of their state of purity. Although Israel must be careful to keep the Promised Land ritually pure, God will not abandon that land even if it becomes tainted.
The midrash does not explain why the interpretation it offers is in essence light-years away from a literal reading. The polemical significance of that interpretation becomes clear from its mention during a dispute conducted between Rabbi Hanina and a heretic, which is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud: “It is written, ‘that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleanness’ – even if they [Israel] become ritually unclean, the divine presence remains with them. The heretic said to Rabbi Hanina: You are ritually impure, as it is written, ‘Her filthiness was in her skirts’ [Lamentations 1:9]. Rabbi Hanina replied: As it is written – ‘that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleanness’ – the Torah has testified with regard to us that, even when Israel is ritually impure, the divine presence remains with them’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, page 56b, as it appears in Ms. Munich 6).
In the Book of Lamentations, which is recited in synagogue on the fast day of Tisha B’Av, Zion is compared to a woman who has been deserted by her children: “Jerusalem hath grievously sinned, therefore she is become as one unclean; all that honored her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness; she herself also sigheth, and turneth backward. Her filthiness was in her skirts, she was not mindful of her end; therefore is she come down wonderfully, she hath no comforter” (Lam. 1:8-9).
Jerusalem, which is now bleeding and from which God has distanced himself, is compared to an impure, menstruating woman whose “filthiness was in her skirts.” In his commentary on this verse, Rashi explains: “that is, her menstrual blood can clearly be seen on the borders of her clothing.”
Reading these verses, the heretic – who also knows that God commands Israel in Parashat Naso and other places in the Torah to ensure that ritual impurity is kept at a distance from the Holy City of Jerusalem – concludes that because of that impurity, the divine presence has actually abandoned Israel. Countering the heretic’s Christian argument, Rabbi Hanina presents the interpretation that appears in the above midrash: that God has not abandoned Israel but has remained with them despite their lack of purity.
When Israel journeyed through the wilderness to the Promised Land and dwelled there, their perception of their relationship with the Almighty was based on the principle, “Your actions can either draw you closer to God or can distance you from him.” Whereas when Israel led a stationary existence, residing in the ancestral homeland, God’s presence was mobile and was understood as being either present or absent, depending on the behavior of his children.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, there was a need for a different theology. The two options presented by the heretic and Rabbi Hanina, respectively, are binary possibilities that actually relate to the same need: to provide a new interpretation regarding the presence of God, who can no longer react to the conduct of his people by remaining or abandoning the Temple, because his dwelling place in Jerusalem is now in ruins.
“God has abandoned you,” claims the heretic, “precisely as he promised he would.” With this statement, the heretic implies that the Temple’s destruction spells the end of biblical theology. However, in providing a new reading to the above-mentioned verses from the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Hanina argues: “God did not promise that he would abandon Israel, but rather he has presented his children with a challenge: to live up to the high moral standards that now exist and which stem from his absence from the Temple. God loves Israel and thus, if they are incapable of meeting those standards, they will suffer but he will not abandon them.”
Basing himself on this new textual interpretation, Rabbi Hanina declares, in God’s name, the extent to which the Almighty loves Israel: Although God’s presence in the Temple depends on his promise, because that vow is rooted in the Torah’s verses, it can be reinterpreted, reconstructed and phrased in a manner that is different from what might be ordinarily assumed.
The fantasy of the abandoned son causes the father to return through a creative, radical reading of the text and also causes God to declare his altruistic love for Israel.