Bamidbar and ‘A Serious Man’

What connects the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) and the Coen brothers’ film A Serious Man? A piece from Cartoon Kippah from 2012…

Reading the book of Bamidbar, one is struck by a sudden rupture in the narrative: from an initial sense of glory and expectation to one of failure and despair. Chapters 1 to 10 describe the preparations for moving the camp from Sinai towards the Promised Land: the military census, the counting of the priests, the camp’s formation, and the princes’ offerings, culminating in the dramatic description of God’s presence beside the camp, a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

The last verses of Chapter 10 continue this sense of triumph and impending victory, but uniquely for Biblical narrative are surrounded by two inverted nuns (the Hebrew letters rather than the brides of Christ) separating them from the narrative. The Talmud comments upon this one-off Biblical bracketing:

It was taught: ‘And as the Ark travelled, Mosheh would speak…’ (Bamidbar 10:35).  Hashem made special signs above and below this section, to indicate that this is not its true place. Rebbi said… the marks indicate that these verses constitute a book in their own right (Shabbat 115b)

This direct and uncomplicated line from Sinai to entry into the Land of Israel, from conception to fulfilment of religious dream, never occurs. Its description is held in bracketed abeyance; an alternative reality of what might have been – but never was.

As Chapter 11 opens, brutal reality replaces bright hope. The people’s complaints raise God’s fiery anger, a fatal lust for meat causes chaos, Mosheh suffers a crisis of leadership, and false prophets arise. Everything continues downhill with the depressing stories of the next chapters: Miriam and Aharon speak ill of their brother, the spies’ negative report consigns the people to forty years of wandering, and Korach’s rebellion against Mosheh and Aharon’s leadership results in the death of hundreds and the sense of societal breakdown. Speedily, the initial vision of Bamidbar has been shattered, replaced by discord and failure.

Why? What accounts for this turn of events?

The Coen brothers’ film, A Serious Man, is a retelling of the story of Iyov (Job), a darkly comic look at why the righteous suffer. Larry Gopnick is a Minnesotan Conservative Jew in the mid-1960s, married with two children, a physics professor on the tenure track, everything set for a secure and successful life… until everything starts to fall apart. His wife empties their joint account and demands a get to marry the hateful passive–aggressive Sy Ableman, his daughter steals money from him for a nose job, his son turns up stoned to his own bar-mitzvah and someone is sending anonymous letters to the tenure committee slandering Larry’s candidacy. Larry searches everywhere for an answer – what has he done to deserve this? – but finds nothing.

I consider the critical scene to be Larry’s interaction with a Korean student, Clive, who is furious at receiving a low mark. Their dialogue proceeds as follows:

Larry Gopnik: So, uh, what can I do for you?
Clive Park: Dr. Gopnik, I believe the results of physics mid-term were unjust.
LG: Uh-huh, how so?
CP: I received an unsatisfactory grade. In fact: F, the failing grade.
LG: Uh, yes. You failed the mid-term. That’s accurate.
CP: Yes, but this is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.
LG: Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?
CP: If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.
LG: You understand the dead cat? But… you… you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean – even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

Clive references Larry’s lecture on Schrodinger’s cat – a theory about the relation of quantum mechanics to everyday objects, in which the question of whether a cat in a box is alive or dead, serves as a metaphor for the theory. Larry is surely right that one can’t understand physics without mathematics, but his insistence on the primacy of equations over fables underlies his inability to deal with his own situation. So confident is he that there must always be an understandable solution and that reality is essentially comprehensible and knowable, he is bewildered when the messiness of his own life confounds explanation. Had he read Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic post-Holocaust work, Fate and Destiny, he would have known that the sufferer’s response should not be the futile ‘why did this happen?’ but the pro-active ‘what can I do now?’ Larry never internalises this lesson, retaining the vain hope that his personal life should have a mathematical equation’s clarity, and cuts a pathetic figure in his attempt to make the numbers add up.

Numbers: The English name for Bamidbar, referencing the censuses at the beginning and end of the book. Those opening chapters, emphasising numbers and precision, each man by his flag and each tribe counted and in position, creates a sense of security and certainty that everything must work out as planned without hiccup or interruption. The subsequent shipwreck on the rocks of messy reality, and resultant forty years of wandering, serve as the Torah’s warning against the facile and immature belief in both religious and personal realms that our lives can be planned with the same confidence as Excel spreadsheets. A mature religiosity shuns all fundamentalisms as hubris and understands that conviction must be combined with an element of uncertainty. It believes that such humility is a surer strategy for coping with the inevitable challenges and setbacks. In a beautiful subversion of Bamidbar’s opening census, the accompanying Haftarah opens with the prophet Hoshea’s line:

And the numbers of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea that cannot be counted nor measured… (Hoshea 2:1)

It’s all about the cat.

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