Bewil­der­ments: Reflec­tions on the Book of Numbers

  • Review
By – January 21, 2016

Bewil­der­ments offers a the­mat­ic expo­si­tion of the Torah’s Book of Num­bers, or Sefer Bamid­bar, in which the Israelites wan­der the desert for forty years. Dr. Avi­va Got­tlieb Zorn­berg dis­cuss­es the major sto­ries aris­ing from those years, among them the cen­sus­es, the test for the woman sus­pect­ed of not being faith­ful to her hus­band, the five sis­ters who claim inher­i­tance after their father dies with­out sons, the twelve spies in Canaan, Korach’s rebel­lion, the death of Miri­am and water from the rock, and Bal­aam. Midrash plays a cen­tral role, draw­ing from a wide range of Jew­ish com­men­ta­tors includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to Rashi, Mai­monides, Ram­ban, Sefat Emet, the Mahar­al, and R. Nah­man of Brat­zlav. She also uses insights and ana­lyt­i­cal tools from schol­ars of phi­los­o­phy and psy­cho­analy­sis and from authors of poet­ry and clas­sic lit­er­a­ture to build on tra­di­tion­al expla­na­tions and iden­ti­fy addi­tion­al pos­si­bil­i­ties of mean­ing and connection.

These sources are par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful to the dis­course on Moses. For Moses, Zorn­berg does not lim­it Bewil­der­ments to the Book of Num­bers but instead draws from his full life sto­ry. Exam­ined in detail to find mean­ing and the key ques­tions hid­den with­in, the sto­ries of Moses are all the more pow­er­ful when Zorn­berg weaves togeth­er her sig­na­ture close read­ings of the Hebrew text, pro­vid­ed in trans­la­tion, with the insights found in clas­si­cal sources. The result­ing analy­sis goes beyond the char­ac­ter of Moses to a deep per­cep­tive­ness about the human expe­ri­ence of desire and under­stand­ing in the face of death.

Dense with Torah, Bewil­der­ments is at times bewil­der­ing. To bring new insights to the read­er, Zorn­berg revis­its top­ics in order to turn pri­or con­nec­tions into sharp­er aware­ness. This cir­cu­lar approach is insight­ful, some­times even lyri­cal, and Zornberg’s abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate the com­plex and the com­pli­cat­ed nev­er fails to impress. T book can be hard to fol­low and occa­sion­al­ly con­fus­ing as threads of text or expla­na­tion are explored to vary­ing degrees; left for a few pages, sec­tions, or chap­ters; and then picked up again to find deep­er mean­ing and dis­cern­ment. Read­ers with prac­ticed expe­ri­ence in learn­ing Torah may find the con­tin­u­ous inten­si­ty exhil­a­rat­ing; casu­al read­ers may wish to approach the book in small pieces. But no mat­ter one’s approach, near­ly every­one who opens this book will find an idea or nuance fresh and inter­est­ing, and even worth car­ry­ing into the world.

Rachel Sara Rosen­thal is an envi­ron­men­tal attor­ney in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Orig­i­nal­ly from Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, she grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in 2006.

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