June 5, 2004 – 16 Sivan 5764
Annual: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 816; Hertz p. 605)
Triennial Cycle: Numbers 10:35 - 12:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 826; Hertz p. 613)
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 837; Hertz p. 620)
Prepared by Rabbi Howard Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center, Dix Hills, NY
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director
The Torah reading of B’ha’alotekha contains 136 verses. This parasha is also the foundation of 5 of the 613 mitzvot.
Lights, camera, action is a phrase commonly associated with a movie set. Yet these words capture the themes of our Torah reading this Shabbat.
Lighting the seven-branched candelabra (menorah) in the Tabernacle is the Divine command given to Aharon, the High Priest. The lens of the narrative then focuses on the purification rites by which the Levites prepare the sanctuary for holy purposes. It is also noted that due to the extraordinarily intense physical (and soulful) labors of the Levites that the years of their service in the portable mishkan/tabernacle is from the age of 25, with early retirement at age 50 (a conundrum is that in B’midbar the Levites are to work from the age of 30 until 50. Rashi explains this apparent discrepancy that at the age of 25, they apprentice and learn their holy tasks so that by the age of 30, they are actually performing their sacred work -- which brings new light to the concept of being an apprentice!)
The actions of this reading segue into the concept of a Pesach Sheni, a second Passover and the offerings brought to the altar for those who due to impurity or distance were unable to participate in the Paschal offering at the right moment on Passover. The theme of second chances in life is bound up in this narrative, of opportunities lost and then recaptured.
The drama of the ancient Israelite life is seen in the description of the two silver trumpets, which herald special moments and have designated soundings. The clouds (of glory) which enveloped the sanctuary by day and the fiery radiance at night are also described in chapter 9.
Word of the Week
The mitzvah of kindling the menorah (candelabra) illuminates the opening verses of Beha'alotekha. The menorah as described in the Torah here (and in greater detail in the Torah reading of Terumah) is exquisitely crafted of gold and resplendent with ornate details. The menorah in the Torah is a seven-branched candelabra mirroring the seven days of the week and that the Divine Presence glows and sparkles at every moment. Scholars have examined ancient Judean coins in an effort to see representations of what the menorah physically looked like during the Second Temple period. The menorah is also pictured on the monumental Arch of Titus in Rome, which commemorates the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE and depicts in carved relief the golden menorah and other items looted from the Temple in Jerusalem.
The menorah of Hanukkah fame is a nine-branched candelabrum and is more accurately called a Hanukkiyah, or Hanukkah menorah (each branch representing one of the eight days of Hanukkah and the shammash, or helper candle being the ninth branch). Ramban, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman lived in 13th century Christian Spain and is famed for his powerful and masterful representation of the Jews in the disputations in this period of persecutions, including the Dispute in 1263 in Barcelona which by some accounts was even attended by King James I of Aragon. In relation to the menorah in this Torah reading, Ramban offers the insight that Aaron, the High Priest, and the entire tribe of Levites are omitted in the 12 Princely offerings at the inauguration of the Sanctuary read at the end of last week's Torah reading.
Here in B’ha’alotekha, Aaron, the Priests, and the Levitical tribe are singled out for prominent mention in relationship to the consecration and the kindling of the Menorah (used to illuminate the inner area of the sanctuary). The offerings of the 12 Princes are a legacy and gift that only lasted while the Temple existed. Ramban notes the Torah alludes that the Priestly role will be even greater in the future. There would be a time when the Temple service no longer is held and the Priests will enable the people of Israel to have hope and survive and flourish. In fact, the Hasmonean revolt of Hanukkah was led by the Kohanim (Priests) as the word Maccabi is an acronym for Mamlekhet Kohanim Goi Kadosh - the kingdom of Priests, a holy nation.
Sedra Spark #1 - Suspense and Nun-sense?
The pivotal moment of suspense arrives as Moses and the 70 elders of Israel are engaged in a revelatory moment with God outside the Israelite encampment. Verses 10:24 and following speak of this indelible island in time when the Presence of God is revealed to Moses and the 70 elders. At that very moment, two men known as Eldad and Medad who had remained within the camp are filled with the ruach (spirit and soulful) Divine energy and begin to prophesy. Joshua, ever loyal to Moses, immediately breaks the news to Moses and asks that they be incarcerated for speaking in the name of God, which Joshua presumed to be an unauthorized prophesy. Moses responded in eloquent words: "would that all the people be filled with such prophetic spirit!" Moses to his everlasting credit welcomed those who could experience the Divine Presence as a paradigm of how the entire People of Israel can be a vessel of holiness. Joshua in his zealous guardianship of the unique status of Moses took an opposing view which is tempered by Moses' own words welcoming those who can be filled with devotion and fidelity to the Divine alongside the leadership.
This incident is related to a most remarkable and unique set of verses bracketed by two-inverted letter "NUNS" (10"35-36). These verses also are the literary and prayerful brackets of the Torah service.
The first verse "vayehi binsoa ha-aron" commences the opening of the Ark at each Torah service while the second verse, "uvnucho yomar" commences the prayer (also known as Etz Hayim Hee) which concludes the Torah service as the Ark doors are closed after the Torah reading is completed.
In the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 115 b) the Rabbis teach that these nuns are placed here to teach us that these verses are out of context and not in their proper places. They serve to separate the narrative, which speaks of three discrete transgressions of the people. In order that the three moments when our people strayed in the wilderness NOT be linked consecutively, these verses are placed here so that we focus not on the journey of the people (which can be led astray) but focus on the journey of the ark (and the tablets of the covenant) -- a journey that when guided by the Torah, the Jewish people will never be led astray.
There is also a teaching in the Mishnah Yadayim (redacted in the year 200 CE) that these two verses which comprise 85 letters are the minimal amount of letters to create a separate and unique holy book. This then becomes the foundation for a medieval teaching that theseverses are excerpts from the Holy Prophetic Teaching of the Books of Eldad and Medad, the two men who are filled with ecstatic holiness noted in chapter 11.
Rabbi Saul Lieberman, a brilliant scholar at JTS who passed away in-flight to Israel in 1983 (leading to the remark at his funeral, that the holy knowledge of this Rabbi could only take leave of earthly existence when he was already in the heavens in-flight) agreed that these verses are from the Prophecy of Eldad and Medad. He considers the inverted nuns, which bracket the text to be the ancient equivalent of quotation marks for the reader to recognize that even within the Torah are quotes from other holy sources.
Torah Table Talk
- How do we define a mentsch? What virtues and values does a person of goodness, refinement and character exemplify?
- Similar to the inverted nuns of the Torah, what events, emotions, realities have bracketed these uplifting and soulful moments in our lives?
- What are the boundaries of leadership then and now?
Sedra Spark #2 - Moses the Mentsch
Sibling rivalry surfaces at a tense moment as Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses "on account of the Cushite woman he had married" (Numbers 12:1). Tzipporah the wife of Moses is actually from Midian and there is a tradition that the gematria (numerical value of Cushite/Ethiopian) is yefat mareh which translates as beautiful appearance. Rashi, the great French Rabbinic commentator notes that Tzipporah's physical beauty was only matched by the beauty of her character.
Miriam and Aaron apparently are angered and challenge the uniqueness of their brother Moses' relationship with God. God then chastises them (and punishes Miriam with a temporary skin affliction) with Divine testimony that Moses does have a unique and unparalleled connection with God. In a verse sublime with meaning, the Torah notes that "the man Moses was exceedingly meek/humble" (12:3).
Abraham Ibn Ezra, born in Spain in 1092 and who resided at various points in his life in France, England, Egypt, Morocco, and Italy notes that the unique humility of Moses was that he did not ask for fame and glory -- his leadership was thrust upon him by Divine fiat. Moses would never have considered himself to be better or superior to any other human -- though from the perspective of God, Moses is truly unique.
Furthermore, due to his extreme meekness, Moses would have never defended himself against the verbal abuse leveled by Miriam and Aaron. Therefore, God needed to intervene on behalf of His faithful servant Moses in order to defend his honor and the honor of Tziporah.
Part of this narrative includes the phrase 've-ha-eish Moshe' (12:3) and the man Moses was exceedingly humble. The term "the man" seems to be superfluous as the text could have simply been written Moses was exceedingly humble. Moses' humility stemmed from his own nature of being in control of himself and recognizing his boundaries as a person. Moses more than any other title, was a man -- a mentsch of a human being who reveled in treating all with respect and dignity, a gentle and caring person. Moses was not only Rabbeinu, our revered Teacher, and a prophet and a leader -- he was above all a mentsch -- a gentleman and a gentle man. That is why in the verse which describes his humility and humble nature, Moses is first and foremost referred to as a man -- a true mentsch.