Boundaries vs Personal Spiritual Growth
The opening parts of the book of Bemidbar are about the encampments of the Jewish people. Each tribe was assigned to a specific camp with the camp of the Levites being in the center of the other tribes, and directly adjacent to the Mishkan. The Levites were tasked with a very important role of breaking down, transporting, and then assembling the Mishkan and its holy utensils.
The camps of the Jewish people were divided into three sections:
The holiest camp of all was called the Machaneh Shkehinah, this was the camp of the Mishkan. It was at the center of the entire camp and was for the most part restricted to kohanim, who themselves were only allowed to enter when they were in a state of ritual purity.
The next camp radiating outward was the machaneh leviyah, the Levites camp. This surrounded the Machaneh Shekhinah and was restricted to people who were more ritually pure than those of the regular camp.
The last camp was called the Machane Yisrael: the Israelite camp. This was the most accessible of all the camps, but there were still people who were not allowed in this camp: for example, the metzorah and the zav (Bemidbar, 5:2).
What if a person was not a Levite and still wanted to serve. Lets say the person said: “I don’t like being excluded from the role of the Levites. I want to serve in the Temple even though I am not a kohen.”
Well, about this the verse is pretty explicit. Says the Torah, ve-hazar hakarev yumat, and the non-kohen who “comes close [breaks through the boundaries of the camp] shall die” (Bemidbar 1:51; 18:4).
In other words, one who tries to say these boundaries are not fair; I am feeling excluded; I want to be a kohen or a Levite and serve in the Temple. The Torah doesn’t seem to have sympathy for that approach. Such a person shall die.
Indeed, the Talmud says about this verse: “afilu david melekh yisrael, even David, King of Israel” (Shabbat, 31a). Even if King David wanted to serve as a Levite he would not have been allowed. He too would have faced death as a punishment for violating the boundaries of the camp.
At first glance the talmud’s approach to this commandment of the Torah seems absolute. There is no room for flexibility when it comes to boundaries. There are clear bright lines. You are either in or you are out.
Taken in the context of our modern lives many might choose to read this text as a statement against flexibility as it relates to pre-defined roles in the community. Men do x. Women do z. Kohanim do Y. And if you dare to suggest that roles should shift over time, remember, “even David, King of Israel could not puncture the camp of the Levites.”
And yet, the full context in which this teaching about King David appears in the Talmud tells a much more complicated story:
This quote, “afilu David melekh yisrael,” appears as part of a larger and intriguing story. Here is the story:
There was an incident involving one gentile who was passing behind the study hall and heard the voice of a teacher who saying: “And these are the garments which they shall make: A breastplate, and an efod” (Exodus 28:4)…. The gentile came before Shammai and said to him: Convert me on condition that you install me as High Priest. Shammai pushed him with the builder’s cubit in his hand.
He came before Hillel; he converted him immediately [see R. Akiva Eiger (s.v. be-maharsha); Tosafot to yevamot 24b, s.v. lo]. Hillel said to him: Is it not the way of the world that only one who knows the protocols [takhsisei] of royalty is appointed king? Go and learn the royal protocols by engaging in Torah study. He went and read the Bible. When he reached the verse which says: “And the common man that draws near shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51), the convert said to Hillel: With regard to whom is the verse speaking? Hillel said to him: Even with regard to David, king of Israel. The convert reasoned an a fortiori inference himself…all the more so that this applies to him, as well! The convert came before Shammai and told him that he retracts his demand to appoint him High Priest, saying: Am I at all worthy to be High Priest? Is it not written in the Torah: And the common man that draws near shall be put to death? He came before Hillel and said to him: Hillel the patient, may blessings rest upon your head as you brought me under the wings of the Divine Presence. The Gemara relates: Eventually, the three converts gathered together in one place, and they said: Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.
Parts of this story really speak to me because I feel like it encapsulates a lot of the tension that I feel in my own rabbinate as it relates to egalitarianism and full participation of everyone in the service.
Many times I am placed in a position of hearing from people that they would like to lead a service or play a role when the boundaries of our tradition seem to limit that role.
In this particular case we see two approaches: Hillel and Shammai.
Shammai’s approach makes no space for this man. In his view there is no room for flexibility as it relates to boundaries. On the other hand, Hillel seems more flexible.
According to the story he converts the man right away even though the man has made a stipulation that is entirely inconsistent with Jewish law.
How could Hillel do this? What about the boundaries of Jewish law?
Hillel is not saying boundaries are not important. Rather, he is leaving space for the man to discover them on his own. The boundaries are there, but Hillel is not imposing them. He is leaving space for the person to find them on his own.
Shammai is absolute. It is black and white. Of course, a convert can’t become a Kohen Gadol.
Hillel is much more flexible. He is saying: Let’s see if we can address this issue in a way that allows for spiritual growth.
Maharsha (s.v. amar) says that Hillel did not want to tell him immediately that he wasn’t able to be Kohen Gadol because if he did that at the outset then the convert would have rejected the idea and decided not to convert at all. In other words, Hillel is saying that boundaries are an important value, but they are not the only important value. Patience with people and space for people to grow are also core values.
It is interesting to me that while at first glance we often think that our tradition is very rigid when it comes to boundaries, that is really just a superficial perspective. The more closely we look at the matter we often see that our faith figures out a way to make space for people.
Lets look at the prohibition against a non-kohen bringing a sacrifice in service to Hashem serving through the prism of our Haftorah.
Our Haftorah comes from the book of Judges, chapter 13, and it tells the story of the parents of Shimshon. An angel initially appears to Shimshon’s mother with a prophecy that she would bear a child who must be raised as a Nazir from the womb. The text seems to be mocking Shimshon’s father, Manoach, in that he was unable to receive this prophecy and only Shimshon’s mother got the revelation from the angel. Later Manoach, confronts the angel and in gratitude for the prophecy brings an offering to Hashem (13:19).
But how could Manoach bring an offering? Indeed, Manoach was not a kohen, he was from the tribe of Dan!
Here is where we see a loophole. The Talmud tells us that before the Beit Hamikdash was built there was a period of time when even a non-Kohen could bring a sacrificial offering. And the source for this idea is the offering of Manoach (see Rashi to zevachim, 16a).
To summarize: Only a kohen can bring a sacrifice. A non-kohen who tries to do that is put to death. That’s an explicit verse in the Torah. Manoach wasn’t a kohen, but he still brought a sacrifice. He went down his own path. He brought a sacrifice, just not in the Temple. His sacrifice was holy and became the basis for a law that under certain circumstances a non-kohen could bring an offering.
The point is that the boundaries remained, but another path was still found.
We come not to break the boundaries but to praise the loophole! The loopholes are a time-honored tradition of allowing us to find a path without breaking our boundaries.
This week our portion is about a Nazir. A Nazir is a person who is not allowed to consume anything from a grape product, cut their hair, or come in contact with a dead body.
At its core, a nazirite is a person who is seeking a new spiritual path.
A Nazir is a spiritual loner. He or she basically can’t go out drinking with everyone else, can’t go to funerals, so he or she will not be a presence during life’s tender moments. And anyways, who wants him there because his grooming habits imply that he is a wild man.
Moreover, the Nazir’s path places him or her at times directly in concflict with Jewish law. For example, we are sometimes supposed to use wine as part of our rituals. There is also an obligation to attend the funerals of a loved one and there are certain times where we are obligated to groom ourselves properly.
So the Nazir is not walking down the same path as everyone else but he or she is certainly walking down a spiritual path. It is not in direct conflict with the normal path, but it is a unique path to help the Nazirite come closer to Hashem.
By teaching the law of the Nazirite immediately after the laws defining the boundaries of the camp the Torah is telling us that we must make space within our camps even for those who don’t completely follow the boundaries of the camp.
That’s the ultimate challenge of a spiritual community—being a place of both boundaries and at the same time a place of openness and patience.
As we celebrated Shavuot as a community it was an experiential feeling of receiving the Torah at Sinai. But now that we are in the days after Shavuot it is a time to sharpen our core values as a community and explore why we do some of the things the way we do them.
As an Orthodox rabbi of an Orthodox shul I feel passionately that we must have clear boundaries. Boundaries are important--vital. But at the same time I am no less passionate that we must also value the spirituality of patience and individuality, and a generosity of inclusiveness.
Let me give you an example of what’s on my mind: In the next year our shul will celebrate 18 bnei-mitzvah. Some of those celebrations will be bat mitzvah ceremonies in the main sanctuary on Shabbat morning and are conducted in a manner that is unique to our shul. Some of my close friends who I often turn to for guidance have shared with me that they don’t feel comfortable with the way some of our families conduct bat mitzvah services here. They argue that it is unprecedented within an Orthodox shul and are just taking advantage of certain loopholes and that it is not in the spirit of Orthodoxy.
I disagree. I view it as within the spirit of Orthodoxy and within the spirit of our entire tradition.
Our tradition has always been about maintaining a commitment to our tradition while ALSO making a path for many different people to travel on. There is not one path. And there isn’t only one way to get there. I look at our bat mitzvah service as one example of how we can help many people find a path that maintains the boundaries of our tradition and yet encourages individual expressions of spirituality.
For Shammai the most important value to consider is the boundary of the community. For Hillel boundaries are important but so are the principles of personal creativity and individual spiritual growth.
In the end, we are students of Hillel.
Sign Up for Weekly Torah Email!