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Beha'alotecha 2019

Sadly, the Torah’s depths can go unnoticed all too easily. I do not mean this in any mystical sense. Rather, I mean that the Torah contains many literary dimensions that can be missed if its underlying symbolism and rhetoric is left unexplored.

Martin Buber, a 20th Century German-Jewish thinker, coined the term “leitwort” in the context of Biblical exegesis (interpretation). A leitwort is “a word… meaningfully repeated within a text”. The Genesis creation narrative gives a clear example. The phrase “it was good” is repeated seven times: given that Creation took seven days, the thematic prominence of “seven” is surely no coincidence. As Buber explains, “[s]uch measured repetition… is probably the strongest of all techniques for making a meaning available without articulating it explicitly.” Here, the sevenfold repetition (and, indeed, the whole 7-day structure of Genesis 1) symbolically or implicitly articulates the idea that God’s Creation was perfect – or complete. To read the Creation narrative as a symbolic work, therefore, is not to apologetically impose an alien or anachronistic interpretation on an ancient (and, from a scientific perspective, embarrassingly inaccurate) cosmology, but rather to treat the Torah on its own terms – as a complex text boasting several layers of meaning.

Our Sedra also utilises “seven” as a leitwort to articulate the idea of perfection or completion. For example, HaShem commands Moses to appoint 70 elders to share his judicial burdens (Numbers 11:16) and Miriam spends 7 days outside the Israelite camp. A fish-ball to anyone who can find other examples – there are at least two more.

Adopting Buber’s concept of leirtwort, we can now see that 70 elders symbolically represents a perfect judicial/administrative system (much like the Rabbinic adage that there are “70 faces of the Torah” expresses the idea that the Torah contains a complete number of perspectives). Moreover, Miriam’s return to camp after seven days in seclusion tells us that the purification process for her tsarat was complete.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dominic Olins

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