BamidbarBlog Posts

Torah soldiers and Mishkan soldiers

Chumash Bamidbar [the Book of Numbers] relates the account of the Jewish people’s long journey through the wilderness, from Mt. Sinai to the gates of the Promised Land. After a prolonged sojourn before Mt. Sinai, where we received the Torah and where the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was constructed,Parashat Bamidbar begins with the rigorous preparations for the journey ahead, conducted with a military spirit. As a census is taken of all the Children of Israel and the camp is organized according to their ensigns, the Jewish people literally become God’s Army.

The Zohar teaches us that,

The world was not complete until the Jewish people received the Torah at Mt.Sinai and the Mishkan was built. Then the worlds were solidified and completed, and the upper [worlds] and the lower [worlds] were bathed in a glorious fragrance. Once the Torah and the Mishkan were established, the Almighty desired to take a census of the Torah’s soldiers; how many soldiers of Torah were there, how many soldiers of the Mishkan were there.

At this point in history, the entire Jewish people enlisted for life in God’s army, and the Zohar reveals that the census was in fact twofold, enumerating how many “Torah soldiers” and how many “Mishkansoldiers” there were among the people. What is the significance of this distinction?

Two types of soldier

The Zohar is alluding to a profound level where the soul roots of the Jewish people are divided into two principal functions: those devoted to Torah and those devoted to the Mishkan. Although this division may not be readily observable on most Jews, whose straightforward religious devotion makes them willingly volunteer for any holy cause that may be asked of them, whether it is intended for God, for the Torah, for the Mishkan, or for the Jewish people in general. But, among the special operatives and high-ranking officers in God’s army, one can generally identify two types: those essentially devoted to Torah, Torah soldiers and those dedicated to serving God, or Mishkan soldiers.

The sages tell us that, “The world stands on three pillars: on the Torah, on Divine service and on acts of loving-kindness.” The Torah soldier dedicates himself to the pillar of Torah while the Mishkan soldier’s dedication lies with the pillar of Divine service. Obviously, both are indispensable; the one cannot exist without the other. But the question is, which is more dominant and significant? The Torah soldier follows the directive that the Torah is our life and everything revolves around it, while the Mishkansoldier is motivated and energized by Divine service (in our generations, this refers particularly to prayer).

The Chabad tradition beautifully illustrates the difference between the two. Every Lubavitcher strives to be a faithful and dedicated soldier, and each knows that he must dedicate himself to both the intellect (through in-depth study of Chassidic teachings) and to Divine service (particularly through prayer). But ultimately, each individual is recognized as either a maskil (intellectually inclined) or anoived (inclined towards service, particularly prayer). The maskil is the Torah soldier; his main occupation is studying and knowing Torah (including both its concealed and revealed dimensions), thus following the directive to “Know your father’s God,” until he reaches in-depth understanding. The Torah soldier’s profession is Torah and he invests his entire life and all his energies to studying it. In contrast, the oived is the Mishkan soldier and his entire life is dedicated to achieving devoted union with the Almighty following the directive, “You shall serve Him wholeheartedly.”

Another way to state the difference between these two types of dedication is that the maskil [the intellectual] focuses on how the mind’s faculties control the heart’s emotions, while the oived focuses on nurturing the attributes of his heart, beginning with love and fear. (The oived agrees that the mind controls the heart, but notes that that applies only to the heart’s relatively revealed emotions, while the heart’s more inner essence controls the mind. In response, the maskil claims that the mind’s inner essence controls even the heart’s inner essence. And so they continue, debating back and forth, ad infinitum).

[In the history of Chabad, the two most prominent chassidim were Rebbe Isaac of Homil and Rebbe Hillel of Paritch. Rebbe Isaac was known as the maskil, and Rebbe Hillel the oived. Still, for all his intellectual genius, Rebbe Isaac was a great man of prayer, and for all his depth in Divine service, Rebbe Hillel was also a remarkable maskil.]

The Torah for everyone

How else can we understand the difference between primary dedication to Torah vs. devotion to serving God? Let us look at the states of mind fostered by the Torah and by the Mishkan.

The Torah is the eternal truth that never changes. From the moment we received the Torah on Mt.Sinai it has accompanied us through all our wanderings. Indeed, the Torah is above time and space. Even while the Jewish people journeyed through the wilderness, as well as today, when we continue to wander through the wilderness of exile, the Torah remains consummately whole. Therefore, the Torah soldier is not perturbed by changes in reality or circumstance, because in the end nothing has changed since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. The conflicts and difficulties that fill our lives are of no interest to him and his single-minded focus is on his life’s mission: to reveal and spread forth the Torah’s eternal light.

Obviously, the Torah soldier is not self-centered. He studies in order to teach and to bring others closer to the Torah. In fact, he has the constructive ability of approaching everyone equally: every Jew, no matter how he identifies himself, is welcome to a Torah class and invited to don tefillin(phylacteries). The Torah belongs equally to every Jew and makes no prejudice because of their pedigree or standing in life. As the sages state, “the crown of Torah lies in place, anyone wishing to claim it may come and claim it.”

The Mishkan’s mobility and uniqueness

In contrast to the Torah’s steady nature, the Mishkan partakes of many adventures, so to speak. TheMishkan is where the Divine Presence resides. Even though ultimately, when the future Temple is built, this will be a permanent residence, in the meantime, there are many ups and downs in this respect. This is particularly apparent in Chumash Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers), that relates how at the outset of every stage of their journey the Jewish people would dismantle the Mishkan and then reconstruct it when they camped. In their essence, all the Mishkan’s journeys were akin to a battle march. When the Holy Ark began moving, Moses would say, “Rise Havayah, and Your enemies will disperse,” and as the Zohar explains, the journeys’ purpose was war with the kelipot (the forces of evil) inhabiting the wilderness, manifesting in the form of, “serpent, viper and scorpion.”

In contrast to the Torah’s uniform readiness to be studied by all, not everyone is of equal status when it comes to the Mishkan. The crown of priesthood was granted only to Aharon and his sons, while the Levites stood guard around the Mishkan to ensure that no foreigner would approach, “And the foreigner who approaches, shall die.” The difference in individual status in relation to the Mishkan is also apparent in the structure of the Children of Israel’s desert encampment. It was structured with theMishkan in the center, surrounded first by the Levites and then the rest of the people, divided under four ensigns (three tribes to a banner). It seems that the special character of each tribe is related to this structure and its particular location relative to the Mishkan dwelling in the heart of the Jewish camp.

[Incidentally, stressing how the Mishkan relates and even accentuates differences in character fits nicely with the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation of the Zohar referring to Torah soldiers and Mishkan soldiers. The Vilna Gaon explains that Torah soldiers refers to the census appearing in chapter 1, before the tribes were placed in their specific locations around the Mishkan, while the Mishkan soldiers refers to the enumeration of the tribes with reference to their encampment around the Mishkan appearing in chapter 2.]

Like the Mishkan, the Mishkan soldier experiences ups and downs. Like the emotional heart with its ebb and flow, the Mishkan soldier seeks to make for God a dwelling place below, but when required, will dismantle it and reconstruct it later. He cannot approach every Jew because he senses that not everyone can understand his approach and not everyone shares his devotion to constructing a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. He is naturally drawn to work with those sharing his convictions, those individuals belonging to the inner circle of his own community who can appreciate his grand ideals.

The truth is that we need both types of people. We cannot do without the Torah soldiers, dedicated to the pillar of the Torah, whose only concern is to spread the Torah to everyone, without distinction, for the purpose of bringing all Jews closer to their Father in Heaven. Nor can we do without theMishkan soldiers, dedicated to the pillar of God’s service (in prayer) and diligently nurturing a strong, devoted, and warmhearted community that can carry out the important mission that the Jewish people are destined to fulfill. Together, both will bring the redemption.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s farbrengen on Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar, 5766

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