23 May 2014

Bemidbar 5774: Whole in One

Bemidbar 5774: Whole in One
The book of Bemidbar describes the desert sojourns of the nation of Israel upon leaving Mount Sinai. In these travels, the nation no longer congregates around a holy mountain, but is arranged in a camp setting at 42 different stations over 40 years. Each tribe has its place in the national matrix and at its heart rests the Shekhina — the Divine presence, in cloud by day and fire by night. The entire book of Bemidbar examines the dynamics of the nation of Israel in this camp formation.

The development of a group of freed slave families into an ordered system reveals an important aspect of reality. When individual entities organize into groups a new meta-existence is born from the interconnections that subsumes the details it is made of. The new grouping develops its own unique identity. This phenomenon occurs in nature with swarms of bees, flights of starlings or armies of ants that become unified organisms moving and thinking as one.

We know today that all that exists in the universe is made up of the interconnections of simple elements. Low-level organization yields high-level order.  Our bodies and minds emerge from nothing more than the interactions of particles. We could essentially be reduced to a collection of cells, that could be reduced to DNA strands, that could be reduced to simple proteins, and those could be further reduced to atomic and sub-atomic particles. With this in mind, one might wonder whether we exist as individual entities at all. Are we not just a gathering of chemicals? Or is there something more that emerges from the grouping? Is a Rembrandt masterpiece nothing more than color and brush strokes? Is there no more to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos than a series of single notes? Or is it, as the old adage goes, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

Today, we are tempted more than ever to lose sight of the awesomeness and wonder of the emergent qualities of reality because of our intricate understanding of the building blocks of creation. When we are swept away by a beautiful symphony, energized by a masterful work of art, and ravished by true love, we are experiencing something real. Yet, in this glorious scientific age of unprecedented wisdom and understanding, comes an outrider of intellectualism that distrusts and deconstructs human experience. We are at risk of reducing those experiences to nothing more than sound vibrations, brush strokes, and oxytocin. We have begun to trust our feelings and experiences less and our intellect and reasoning more. But even experience and intellect are not disparate, and they are meant to work in unison to create a whole human perception of reality.

The Torah cautions against this breakdown in perception at the close of the parasha. G-d commands that the Levi’im must not witness the dismantling of the Mishkan’s holy objects. In seeing them broken down, folded up, and packed away, one may be prone to thinking they are just a bunch of metal and lose the sense of reverence that one experiences in seeing the glory of their presentation in full form.

And they shall not come to see the wrapping up of the holy [objects]. (4:20)

Breaking things down is necessary at times. But when we do, we lose an entire spectrum of life’s beauty that only manifests in the emergence of whole expressions. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he highlights this point in an exchange between the wizard Gandalf and the haughty good-wizard-gone-bad,  Saruman:

“For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!’

I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

‘I liked white better,’ I said.

‘White!’ he sneered. ‘It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.’

‘In which case it is no longer white,’ said I. ‘And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.’

The Levi’im were to refrain from observing the dismantling of the tabernacle so that they wouldn’t lose, in its reduction, sensitivity to its wholesome holiness. It is a lesson that is highly pertinent in our age. With our ability to know the tiniest of building blocks we must not lose recognition of the emergent splendor that comes from their unification. It is in the whole expressions of creation that the power of its Creator shines brightest.

Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck

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