Friday, May 22, 2009

Parshat Ba-midbar: Dotted Letters in the Desert


"Three times was G-d exiled: in the Name, in the bursting open of the Name, and in the effacing of this bursting open."

- Edmond Jabès (Cairo, 1912 – Paris, 1991) Jewish writer and poet

In Sifri there are ten instances where a word or group of words appears where one or all of the letters are dotted in the text. In this week's Torah portion, Ba-Midbar, we find a curious series of dots over the name of Aharon, the High Priest. Ba-midbar/Numbers 3:39 reads:

כָּל-פְּקוּדֵי הַלְוִיִּם אֲשֶׁר פָּקַד מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, עַל-פִּי יְהוָה--לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם: כָּל-זָכָר מִבֶּן-חֹדֶשׁ וָמַעְלָה, שְׁנַיִם וְעֶשְׂרִים אָלֶף.

All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moshe and Aharon counted at the utterance of the LORD, by their families, all males from a month old and upward, were twenty two thousand.

Ve-Aharon (ואהרן) has five dots, one over each letter. Talmud Bavli Masekhet Sof'rim states that "ten in the Torah are marked by dots", then lists them. The Netziv on Sifri teaches us that if every letter of a word is dotted (as in this case), then this word abandons its usual meaning. We are invited to look deeper into the text, to engage in discussion, thereby entering into relationship and taking ownership of Torah.

So what do we do here, with Aharon? The name of the כהן גדול Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, is not as it seems.

Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin, in his masterpiece The Burnt Book: Reading the Torah, writes:

"Altogether the total count of Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered." The name Aaron is completey dotted. The Midrash explains that Aaron was not included in the counting of those numbered (he counted but was not himself counted). Because of the dotting, Aaron is excluded, effaced.

And why was Aharon not included in that census even though he was a Levite? Rashi writes that Aharon's name is dotted because although he was a Levi, he wasn't included in the Levite census. Why was he not counted?

Rashi goes on: "The tribe of Levi was counted separately from the other tribes of Israel, because it is fit for the legions of a King to be counted separately."
Therefore, Aharon wasn't counted with his own tribe of Levi - but Moshe *was*! Aharon, not only as Kohen Gadol, but also as a person, was so unique, so special that he couldn't be counted or even included in a general census. Aharon was beyond all definition.

And why is the letter Vav (ו) of ve-Aharon dotted? Why "and Aharon" and not just "Aharon"? Why FIVE dots and not four?

According to the Zohar, Aaron was an expert therapist who helped save many relationships. The five dots over "ve- Aharon", alludes to the five levels of חסד chesed (loving-kindness) which he held and shared. Aaron's special role is mentioned in Pirkei Avot: "Hillel said, 'Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving all of G@d's creations, and bringing them near to the Torah.'"

Aharon brought oneness to our kehilah with peacemaking and kiruv, outreach. His mission is also hinted at in his name: Alef, Hey, Reysh, stand for אהבה רבה, ahavah rabah, or "great love". His name's final letter, Nun Sofit (ן), shows his ability to "draw down" this great love from Shomayim into our kehilah below. Just as the body of the final Nun descends below the line, so Aaron could descend to those of us who had fallen, lift us up and bring us closer to the ahavah rabah of G@d.

The English word "dot" comes from the Greek word for the letter "iota", which in turn comes from the letter Yud. Yud's gematrial value is ten. Five dots multiplied by ten 5 x 10 = 50. The number fifty represents of Shavu'ot, the fiftieth day after Passover, after our long count of the Omer. So Aharon, as the embodiment of loving-kindness, represents the attitude we must adopt to receive Torah on the fiftieth day.

As we draw to a close of our counting of the Omer and prepare to approach our own personal Sinaitic revelations, may we be blessed with Aharon's capacity of deveykut, to truly open with love and kindness to cleave to G@d in the full and joyful way we are each meant to.

Midrash Rabbah
Masekhet Sofrim
Nehama Leibowitz's Studies in Bamidbar
Sifrei on Bamidbar
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin's The Burnt Book: Reading the Torah
Pirkei Avot

Cross-posted on Facebook
Copyright A. Barclay

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