Thursday, June 14, 2007

Questioning Moshe's Special Status - Ordeal by Fire -

I was looking this morning at the Parsha (Korach) where we read as follows:

לה וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה, מֵאֵת יְהוָה; וַתֹּאכַל, אֵת הַחֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ, מַקְרִיבֵי, הַקְּטֹרֶת. {ס}
35 And fire came forth from the LORD, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense. {S}

The punishment of death by “fire” from heaven is mentioned several times in the Torah. The first is with Nadav and Avihu when they offered incense on their own, without being ordered. The other is at the case of the mitonanim in Parshat Beha’alotcha Bamidbar 11:1

א וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים, רַע בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוָה; וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה, וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ, וַתִּבְעַר-בָּם אֵשׁ יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה.
1 And the people were as complainers, speaking evil in the ears of the LORD; and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and devoured in the uttermost part of the camp.

The Rabbis tie these two cases, Nadav and Avihu and the Complainers, together. During Matan Torah at Sinai, the nobles of the Jews and Nadav and Avihu meditated about God. They however did not reach correct conclusion and ascribed some corporeality to Him. The idea of First Cause is difficult to grasp in its totality (see the ongoing debate between RJM et al. and XGH et al). The most difficult is the idea of incorporeality and transcendence. Not knowing is not a problem but thinking that one understands and having an incorrect understanding is quite problematic. It affects the basic tenets of Judaism including Torah Min Hashamayim.

Prophecy is a function of meditation about God (according to Rambam as opposed to Kuzari). The greater the prophet understands transcendence, the more powerful his prophecy is. The difficulty with grasping the concept of immaterial “existence” is our experience with physicality. We understand what we sense and our senses operate in a physical environment. A prophet has to break with his material self and let his mind function in a non-physical environment, the world of concepts and abstract ideas. The impossibility of a human to grasp pure concepts is the basis for the allegorical descriptions we find in the Neviim. With all the heroic efforts, the prophet still “sees” physical images which he translates into abstract concepts. The only Prophet that was able to break completely from his physical self was Moshe. His prophecy was therefore very different and did not require interpretation. He was able to “see” ideas and concepts and it is with this kind of prophecy that he gave us the Torah. Panim el Panim – face-to-face communication - is that kind of prophecy where no interpretation is needed. The Torah tells us that Moshe was a unique person, a singularity, that was able to attain this level of prophecy and no other before or after will ever attain that. That is the meaning of TMS and what makes the Torah immutable.

When a person thinks that he has attained the highest level of understanding transcendence, when he does not realize that what he thinks is purely immaterial is really not, the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy is lost. That was the error of the Nobles at Sinai. Consequently, they minimized the difference between themselves and Moshe, placing his unique authority and therefore the Torah’s immutability into question. Nadav and Avihu did not accept that incense could only be brought by the Cohen Gadol inside the Kodesh Kadashim. The rest of the Nobles could not accept Moshe’s authority and became the Complainers. Nadav and Avihu and the complainers were punished with a fire from God.

But "the nobles of the Children of Israel" were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. Therefore it is said of them, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet," etc. (Exod. xxiv. 10); and not merely, "and they saw the God of Israel"; the purpose of the whole passage is to criticize their act of seeing and not to describe it. They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal--a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared. They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses, this fate was averted by God for the time. They were afterwards burnt at Taberah, except Nadav and Avihu, who were burnt in the Tabernacle of the congregation, according to what is stated by authentic tradition. (Midr. Rabba ad locum.)” (MN 1:5).

Korach and the 250 men questioned Moshe’s uniqueness. They made the same mistake not understanding that their idea of transcendence and “otherness” of God was not correct. They thought that they all were equals to Moshe. The 250 were punished with the fire from God.

The common thread in all these cases is the questioning of Moshe’s special status and the subsequent ordeal by fire. I have some ideas about the relationship and meaning of this ordeal. I will discuss it in my next post tonight.

For an in depth discussion of Moshe's Prophecy and Prophecy in general see my article . (link in Sidebar).

(More to come)

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