Saturday, June 27, 2015

The yoke

Speak to the children of Israel, and let them take to you a perfect red cow, with no blemish, which has never worn a yoke. (Bamidbar 19:2)

That the cow have no blemish is a well-known condition for sacrifices. Why, though, the requirement of never having worn a yoke?

Ever since the first-ever sacrifice in Breishit, where Hevel's offering of firstborn sheep was accepted by God, it has been preferred that "the first" of something be used for sacrifices. This is reflected in numerous later examples, such as bikurim for fruits, the laws of bechor for animals and people, and perhaps even Jericho (the first city conquered in Israel) becoming "herem... la-hashem" (Yehoshua 6:17) rather than being plundered by the conquerers.

I think the rule about the yoke is also a case of sacrificing "the first". In this case, that means that the first work done with the cow should be the act of sacrifice. The word for field labor is "avodah", and a sacrifice is also considered a form of "avodah". Both field labor and sacrifice are part of the service/servitude which might be expected of a cow.

I haven't thought about why exactly this requirement is absent for most sacrifices (one can come up with all sorts of guesses why). But where it is present (for parah adumah, and also for eglah arufah), I think the reason is in order to sacrifice "the first".

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bamidbar and Shelach

For years I've wondered if the super-verbose intro to Bamidbar, with the censuses and camps and whatnot, is designed to give us a sense of how big and unmanageable the nation was, as an introduction to the stories where it in fact turns out to be unmanageable.

After seeing verse 14:29 this year, I'm convinced:

בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם וְכָל-פְּקֻדֵיכֶם, לְכָל-מִסְפַּרְכֶם, מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, וָמָעְלָה: אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם, עָלָי.

It uses every key word from the beginning of the book - bamidbar, pekudim, mispar, miben esrim. It seems (to me) to be referring back to those stories, just as those stories (I assume) refer in part to here.

The story of the spies concludes a series of disastrous events, beginning with the "mit'onnenim" in Behaalotecha. Here we reach absolute bottom, where the triumphant journey to Israel is entirely called off, until all the men die and are replaced by others.

The census was a triumphant moment, a demonstration of the people's power and potential. But as we see, it also contained the seeds of their destruction.