The Torah uses the expression, "They observed God's mandate"—ve-shamru et mishmeret— many times throughout the book of Numbers, usually with the meaning of observing, conserving, preserving. When applied to the Tabernacle, the root sh-m-r means "guarding," or "guard duty." It means guarding the Tabernacle from incursion by the people, and protecting the people from God's anger. When mishmeret refers to God, it means observing His prohibitions.
For instance, in Numbers 9:19, "They observed God's mandate" means resisting the desire to proceed on their journey until God gives His command: "And they did not journey on.” However, shamar is capable of more generative meaning. We remember, for instance, the story of Joseph's dream, which he relates to his father and his brothers. His father rebukes him for his absurd pretensions but still “held the story in mind [shamar et ha-davar]" (Gen. 37:11). On this, Rashi comments: "He waited in expectation for when it would come true, as in (Isa. 26:2), 'A nation that keeps faith…’”
Rashi elicits the dynamic implications of the root sh-m-r. He quotes texts in which the word comes to register keeping faith, and notices the future implications of the word. In the midrash, indeed, Jacob is imagined to keep an account of the dream, not only to preserve its memory, but to register the play of absence and presence in his mind. The fulfillment of the dream is feeling its way toward him. He is vigilant, expectant, turned to past and future at once. In the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot's beautiful words, in a different context, he keeps watch over absent meaning.
Similarly, in the Zohar, the commandment to keep—lishmor—the Shabbat is interpreted as applying mi-shabbat le-shabbat. The Sabbath is not only to be observed, its prohibitions respected; to keep the Sabbath is to hold it in mind from one Sabbath to the next, in the in-between time of absence. This, again, is the intimation of the word shamar: to keep the Sabbath present in memory and desire. To observe God's mandate in the wilderness, then, may imply: to be vigilant, actively absorbed in the future realization of a divine world not immediately present to the senses. It is to sustain a sense of trust in a relationship with the Other. The dual meaning of shamar covers a field in which guarding, preserving boundaries against encroachment, lives in fruitful tension with imaginative readiness for a future yet to evolve from the present.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg lives and lectures on Torah in Jerusalem. She is the author of five critically acclaimed books.
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