The Torah portion of Beha’alotcha covers a lot of ground, wrapping up the details of the encampment at Sinai and pivoting to the Israelites’ jourey toward Canaan. Just before they set out on that journey comes a beautiful, but potentially confounding, text. It doesn’t work in translation (no texts really work in translation–a reason I advocate childhood Hebrew language immersion; but that’s for another time). Here’s the passage (Num. 9:15-23):

15 Now on the day that the tabernacle was raised up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the Testimony; from evening until morning it was above the tabernacle like the appearance of fire. 16 So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. 17 Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, after that the children of Israel would journey; and in the place where the cloud settled, there the children of Israel would pitch their tents. 18 At the command of the LORD the children of Israel would journey, and at the command of the LORD they would camp; as long as the cloud stayed above the tabernacle they remained encamped. 19 Even when the cloud continued long, many days above the tabernacle, the children of Israel kept the charge of the LORD and did not journey. 20 So it was, when the cloud was above the tabernacle a few days: according to the command of the LORD they would remain encamped, and according to the command of the LORD they would journey. 21 So it was, when the cloud remained only from evening until morning: when the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they would journey; whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud was taken up, they would journey. 22 Whether it was two days, a month, or a year that the cloud remained above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would remain encamped and not journey; but when it was taken up, they would journey. 23 At the command of the LORD they remained encamped, and at the command of the LORD they journeyed; they kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by the hand of Moses.

Notice the repetition in this passage, how many times phrases and and words are repeated. It begins to sound funny to the ear, as though the text needed further editing. The classical commentators pick up on this, and attempt to explain it factually. Here is Nachmanides, for instance:

If the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle many days, and that particular place was undesirable in their [Israel’s] eyes and they wanted to journey from it, even so they would not transgress the will of God. And this is why it says “And the children of Israel kept the Lord’s watch and would not journey onward;’ out of the fear of Heaven… And likewise, if the cloud stayed only two or three days, and the people were very tired, nevertheless they would do the will of God and follow after the cloud…. [And sometimes it would be an even shorter interval, and an even greater difficulty for them…] And it makes sense that this is how their journeys occurred in just this way and no other—that is, sometimes the cloud would stay for one night, or for a day or two, or sometimes for much longer periods—and therefore the Text stated all these intervals explicitly…

In this reading, the text conveys the kind of mesirat nefesh, giving over of one’s soul, necessary for a deep religiosity: even if it was inconvenient, the people “would not transgress the will of God.” I have written before about the idea of convenience, which is so central to modernity. In our day and age, we have become so far removed from the physical burdens of an inconveient, premodern life, that it is hard for us to even fathom the idea of carrying all of the items of the Israelite camp on our backs, setting up camp, and then to our great surprise packing everything up in the morning to move on to the next place God wants us to go. Dude, where’s the GPS?

That is one reading, and I think it’s an important one. But there is a totally different way to approach the text as well, and it comes from Vladimir Jankelevitch‘s book Music and the Ineffable. Why are there so many repetitions in this passage?

It is in prose discourse that repetitions are proscribed: because discourse, whether it develops a meaning, whether it lays out or demonstrates a thesis, proceeds from the beginning by means of didactical progress, and steers, quite rightly, without returning or going back… In music and in poetry, to the contrary, reiteration may constitute an innovation for the creator as well as for the listener or the reader. One would criticize a mathematician or a civil code for saying the same thing twice when saying it once is sufficient. But one does not reproach a Psalmist for repeating himself—because he aims to create religious obsession in us and not develop ideas… (pp. 22-23)

In this reading, the text is not aiming to make a didactic or logical point, a la Nachmanides, but is instead using a poetic sensibility to arouse in us a feeling for the intimacy that existed at this moment–the moment of leaving Sinai–between God and the Jewish people. Note in particular the three emphatic empahases of “at the command of the LORD they journeyed” in the last verse which create a total of six in the passage, more literally translated “by the mouth of the LORD they journeyed.” Aviva Zornberg has taught that these last moments at Sinai represent the kind of break between God and Israel that occurs between a weaning child and its mother. Israel had been there for a year, and had become intimately familiar with the divine. And at this very last moment, the Torah reminds us of the possibilities of spiritual intimacy between an entire people and God.