Numbers Chapters 30-36 - Rosh Hodesh Av
by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
The Book of Numbers draws to a close with themes of tribes, journeys, and possessions, with the fight for survival, cities of refuge and vows, thrown in for good measure. Personal vows, which were very significant once, are extensions of the national covenant between God and Israel. The first was with Abraham and then expanded at Sinai and again before entering the Land of Canaan. A vow is a commitment, whether personal or national. This week's reading concerns the preparations for entering Canaan. The vows here are personal to stress the need to stand by one’s commitments. And the division of spoils of war also played an important part in cementing society by involving everyone both in the battles for survival and reaping the rewards to be shared fairly amongst everyone. Later on, the Torah refers to Cities of Refuge, which were towns to be established on both sides of the Jordan for individuals to flee to for sanctuary. Crucial to the civil legal system at a time when prisons were not considered an ideal solution to criminality. But also underlining personal responsibility.
On the other hand, there were social structures. The system of tribes, another feature that started with Abraham, was the foundation of Israelite life for over its first thousand years. It determined loyalty, it was the basis of administration, judicial life, and territorial possessions. The Tribe was the microcosm of the nation, but it was also its weakness. The constant division, rivalry, and warfare disrupted unity and stability.
The Tribal system ended with the Babylonian exile and its only role after that was of the priests in the Temple. But even before the tribes got to their land, material possessions and partisan interests endangered unity as the tribes of Ruben, Gad, and half of Menashe preferred to stay on the East Bank. If one wants an example of how Judaism has changed over time, these chapters illustrate how Moses had tried but failed to reconcile personal interests with national ones. And sadly this has been our history ever since.
These laws and traditions teach us what the essential elements are for a fair and equitable society. The need to keep one's word and personal integrity. Loyalty ensures that a society shares certain common values. And the obligation to establish rights and protections of individuals. The secret of success and survival is a balance between personal and national interests, and many of us still haven’t learned the lesson.
And may the month of Av turn from one of mourning to one of joy.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.