Numbers Stepping out of the Spectacle to Listen
Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21 – 7:89)
Lecha Dodi, one of the love poems to the Holy One that we recite each Shabbat, quotes a meaningful concept from mystical literature: sof ma’aseh bemahshava tehila – what comes into being last was thought of first. In the mystics’ creation story – and for all of us, on our better days – thought precedes action and the fullness of vision is present even as its realization is incremental.
In the Friday night service, sof ma’aseh bemahshava tehila refers to Shabbat. Shabbat is the last day of creation and the last day of the week, but the mystics suggest that it was central to God’s vision for time. Sof ma’aseh bemahshava tehila can also refer to human beings – the notion that human beings were created last, but were tasked with enacting the very purpose of Creation – of bringing loving presence into the world.
Sof ma’aseh bemahshava tehila is embodied in the structure and story of this week’s parasha, Naso. This parasha is the culmination of a book and a half of Torah, and its very last verse (Numbers 7:89) is perhaps the most critical. Naso tells the story of a grand procession of tribal leaders bringing gifts to conclude the dedication of the mishkan. The last verse reads:
When Moshe came into the tent of meeting to speak with the Divine, he heard the Voice speaking with itself to him from above the cover that was on the ark of testimony from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him.
After all the careful work of building the holy space and articulating what could happen there, after sorting out who could be there and what they should do there, after all the planning and the pomp, the mishkan can now fulfill its ultimate purpose: to be a place for human beings to encounter the Divine in the midst of wandering, a portable Sinai.
It would be easy to miss this moment. The people built the mishkan and brought gifts to create a place where humans could encounter the Divine. They could see how its physical structure compared to the verbal blueprints. The gifts were assigned and delivered in orderly fashion, with clear notations on who brought what so the thank you notes could be written. The planning and its execution were measurable and described at length, but the encounter itself seems brief – a verse tacked at the end of the parasha.
We human beings get quite busy with what we can measure, while we forget about their underlying purpose. We so often forget to notice whether the thing we planned is actually doing what we designed it to do. The danger of sof ma’aseh bemahshava tehila, of the purpose being realized only at the end, is that we might miss the purpose of what we are planning all along.
In fact, in contrasting Moshe entering the mishkan in our verse with the dedication of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, Seforno, a medieval commentator, suggests that those later builders actually did miss out on the purpose of what they built. Seforno writes:
When Moshe came into the tent of meeting he heard the voice that he had heard before the incident with the calf, and that did not happen in the first temple (much less the second), in which no prophet entered the sanctuary immediately to receive prophesy.
Our verse might feel like an afterthought in parashat naso, but is in fact the key – giving testimony to the fact that the mishkan has become the space it is meant to be: a place that cultivates intimacy with the transcendent, a place of sacred privacy at the public center of the wandering encampment.
This realization of purpose is possible only because a human being – Moshe – steps out of the processions and ceremonies to seek stillness. To do so requires imagining that stepping out of the public moment might matter, requires knowing that the dedication ceremony is instrumental, but is not the end in itself.
Several medieval commentators link the Divine voice heard in this parasha to the Divine voice of Sinai. At Sinai, the voice was resonant throughout the wilderness so all who gathered could hear it, but in this parasha, as Abraham ibn Ezra (another medieval) writes, only Moshe could hear that same voice — mysteriously, others who were within the tent of meeting and just on the other side of the curtain didn’t hear it. The Divine voice of our most public moment of Divine encounter – the Sinai revelation — now becomes a voice heard singularly, intimately, in the mishkan, only by Moshe. Midrash interprets the actual moment of Sinai similarly – that each of us heard something that no one else heard while standing there, even though that voice was loud enough for all of us to hear. Engaging with the Divine is an inherently intimate activity, even when we are together.
The medieval grammarians add a layer to this intimacy, looking at the word מדבר in the verse, which is not the form we would expect – it is not medaber (speaking), but middaber, the reflexive form. The grammar suggests God speaking to Godself and Moshe listening in. There is deep vulnerability (here, God’s vulnerability) in not only inviting another into relationship on the solid ground of a constructed, external self, but also revealing one’s own inner dialogue — the unformed, unfinished parts, that can be hazy even within.
Was it only Moshe who could listen in on this inner Divine conversation? Or was the intimacy of encountering the Divine in the mishkan available to other human beings, the way it was at Sinai? Our verse offers an invitation. The Divine voice emanates from between the keruvim, which Talmud (Bava Batra 99) describes as beings that actively embody the nature of relationship between God and the people, who embrace in intimacy and turn away in disconnection. In essence, there is something of all of us in that moment of Divine murmurings overheard – we collectively are the channel for that voice to come into human community, with our yearnings, our imagination, and our willingness to engage.
This week in our calendar, as we leave Shavuot behind, we move from the drama of the Sinai revelation out into wandering in the wilderness. Wilderness wandering, with its movement, logistics, and daily uncertainty is a much better approximation for the lives we live most of the time than the high intensity of the Sinai moment. The last verse of parashat Naso calls us to make space for intimate revelatory possibility within our routines. We too can step into the temporary sanctuaries we create and allow our experiences of ma’aseh, of doing in the world, to reconnect us with mahshava, the deeper purpose that animates our work. But to do that, we have to allow ourselves to get all the way to the end, to stop thinking about all the logistics and measurable deliverables, and to let ourselves hear all of the unknown whisperings. Sof ma’aseh bemahshava tehila.
Ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010, Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman is Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.