Hooks into Clouds
We gathered just before Chanukah began to continue our learning together, to be followed by food, and song, and sharing of light. We read today from Louis Ginzberg’s English translations of Midrashim in his classic, “Legends of the Jews”, Volume 3.
P 231: “Do not concern thyself with the positions of the standards”
God instructs Moshe to give the people standards (banners or signs) and to position them around the Mishkan. Moses is troubled: which tribe will go in which direction? He need not worry – the tribes will arrange themselves according to the positions the sons of Jacob had taken some 200+ years earlier when they carried Jacobs casket back to Hebron for burial. There is something in the collective unconscious of the tribes that aligns to the 4 directions, just as Jacob had instructed his sons to the 4 directions to carry his bones home.
p.231: “The division of the tribes according to 4 standards, as well as their subdivision at each standard, is not arbitrary . . . “
The alignment of the tribes to the 4 directions is in the same alignment as that of the 4 archangels around the celestial Throne. This reflects a major principle in Hebrew-Judaic thought: as above, so below - Malchut is a reflection of Keter; the 7 Heavens correspond to the 7 Earth realms. So the tribal standard bearers around the Tabernacle line up with the Angels: Gabriel/Judah to the front/East; Michael/Reuven to the right/South; Raphael/Ephraim to the back/West; Uriel/Dan to the left/North. But this alignment of the angels is different than the one many of us know from Debbie Friedman’s song, which puts Gabriel to the left, and Uriel in front. But these are 2 separate teachings: one deals with the sacred geometry of the heavens and earth, while one is the very personal protection around the individual. Mandalas within mandalas. Or perhaps, as with most teachings in our tradition, there is more than one opinion offered by different sages and commentators. Did Rambam and Ramban ever agree on anything? Hillel and Shamai? What a great tradition we have inherited! Or maybe Debbie Friedman just got it wrong. : )
p. 232: “God had other reasons for the divisions of the tribes . . . “
This begins to get into deep symbology regarding the nature of each tribe, as handed down from the original tribal ancestors, the sons of Jacob. Judah is in the East, where the light of the rising sun is associated with the light of kingship that will come from Judah, along with the light of Torah of Issachar, and the shining wealth of Zevulun. In the South, the place of dew and rain, the 2 strong tribes of Reuben and Gad are needed to keep Shimon between them, keeping in check that tribe’s capacity for erratic violence and harm. In the West, associated with the forces of Nature, Ephraim, Menashe, and Benjamin will guard the rear flank. Darkness comes from the North, associated with the sin of the tribe of Dan in accepting the golden calf altar of King Jeroboam after the 2 kingdoms split following Solomon’s death. Shining Asher and Naftali align with Dan to illuminate the darkness. So the groupings of the tribes synergize with each other, some tribes strengths supporting other tribes weaknesses.
p. 233: “The 4 standards were distinguished by their different colors, inscriptions, and figures upon each. “
The colors of the 4 standards corresponded to the colors of the stones of each tribe in the breastplate of the Cohen Gadol. Each standard also had inscribed upon it the names of each of the 3 tribes of that direction, the symbol of the standard bearing tribe, and a significant line from Torah. These lines of Torah are familiar to us, but not in this aboriginal Hebrew context. Faced with expulsion from the land, and the loss of the ability to perform physical ritual any longer, our sages laced these lines of Torah that were present on the 4 standards within the common liturgy. So that in present times, when we remove the Torah from the Ark every Shabbat and proclaim (with a grand Ashkenazic tune): “Arise YHVH and let Your enemies be scattered, and let them that hate You flee before You”, we don’t even have a clue that this is the equivalent of invoking the Tribe of Judah, and along with it Issaschar and Zevulun, the power of Gabriel, light, warrior and king, and the New Beginnings of the East Ruach. These metaphoric guts of our tradition have been so hidden to us across the centuries, we don’t even know ourselves! These were the marching orders, which Moses would proclaim before the Tabernacle was packed up, the signal for Judah to lead the tribal formation forward on the next leg of the journey through the wilderness. Finally, each standard had “sword-like hooks of gold”. The Midrash tells us that on these hooks, through Divine providence, rested a strip of the seventh cloud of glory within which could be seen the individual letters of the names of the Patriarchs. It is as if these standards were an offering, a calling to the Seventh Heaven, an invitation for God to settle His/Her presence with the encampment. They were “fishing for God”, and the hooks would attach the Anan/cloud to the standards and bring the blessings of the Ancestors to the Israelite encampment around the Mishkan in the desert.
We were swimming in these metaphors, imagining how we might explore them at Joshua Tree on Pesach, as the smells of cooking latkes ended our study, and the party began. Chag Chanukah Sameach! May the joy of your light grow stronger with each night, with each candle, and may you shine as you were meant to!
Next Gathering: Saturday, January 5
Location: To be determined