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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT BEHA’ALOTEKHA
June 9, 2012 – 19 Sivan 5772

Annual: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16 (Etz Hayim p. 816; Hertz p. 606)
Triennial: Numbers 9:15 – 10:34 (Etz Hayim p. 821; Hertz p. 609)
Haftarah: Zekhariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Etz Hayim p. 837; Hertz p. 620)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Parashat Beha’alotecha opens with God’s instructions to Moses and Aaron about the menorah that lit the sanctuary. The discussion moves to the ritual for purification of the Levites who are to serve when they are between the ages of 25 and 50.

The observance of Passover and particularly of the Paschal offering is scheduled for twilight on the fourteenth of the first month, which is the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt. A number of Israelites, debarred from participation in the Paschal offering because of their ritual impurity on the prescribed date, protest their sacral disability. Moses relays their protest to God, who provides an innovation in Passover law: Those who were impure or away from the community at the time appointed for the offering are to observe a compensatory, “second” Passover a month later.

The manifestation of God’s presence among the Israelites – divine cloud by day and fire by night – is the sign that indicates to the Israelites the timing of their movements and encampments in the wilderness. These movements also are marked by sounding silver trumpets, which are used during battle and at communal celebrations as well. The order of the march through the wilderness is provided in detail. Moses invites his father-in-law to accompany the Israelite camp; he declines,. Chapter 10 concludes with a familiar twoverse “Song of the Ark.” These verses (“Vay’hi binsoa ha-Aron… Uv’nucho yomar…”) are recited during the Torah service, when the scroll is removed from the ark and when it is returned, respectively.

The recurring pattern of complaints by a disgruntled Israelite populace returns at Taberah, then at Kivrot Ha-Taavah, and then by a disheartened and frustrated Moses himself. God provides the Israelites with manna, and later with quail. God responds to Moses’ burden of leadership by instructing that he appoint 70 elders, who will be granted a portion of Moses’ spirit. Moses’ openness to the spiritual gifts and leadership of others is confirmed in his confident magnanimity toward Eldad and Medad, who prophesy in the Israel camp: “Would that all God’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them.” Moses’ marriage to a “Cushite” woman is harshly criticized by Miriam and Aaron. Miriam is punished with leprosy; Aaron is humbled as he is compelled to appeal to Moses on behalf of their sister. Moses responds with a brief prayer that effects her eventual recovery. The Israelite camp, from which the impure Miriam has been excluded temporarily, waits for her return before resuming its journey.

Theme #1: “I hope someday you’ll join us”

“Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law: We are setting out for the place of which the Lord has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Lord has promised to be generous to Israel. ‘I will not go,’ he replied to him, ‘but will return to my native land.’ He said, ‘Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide [lit., ‘our eyes’].’” (Numbers 10:29-31)

Study: Derash

“Moses continued to speak to Jethro’s heart, saying: If you do not leave us at this time, but agree to go with us to the Land that was given to us as an inheritance, everyone who hears about your decision will say: ‘Behold, this honorable man left his home and inheritance because of the corrupt beliefs that were rampant among the people who dwelled there, and he went to a land not his own, in order to cling to the true God. We, too, will follow this true belief.’” (Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, Ha-Ktav v’Ha-Kabbalah)

“Moshe, in effect, was saying that all the excuses in the world, whether they be selfish or altruistic, are insignificant in comparison to the lofty spiritual levels you can reach in God’s Chosen Land and the Kiddush HaShem you can generate by moving there. Until this very day, many Jews have yet to understand this point. People give various excuses, very similar to Yitro’s, for not making aliyah.” (Rabbi Moshe Lichtman)

“Hobab’s answer is not given; but it may be inferred from Judges 1:16, 4:11 that he yielded, and consented to be ‘eyes’ unto them in the desert.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“Moses told Jethro: ‘At least let your sons come with us.’ Moses, Jethro, and his sons agreed to this, although Jethro himself returned to his own land.” (Sforno)

“This, then, is the test we must set for ourselves; not to march alone, but to march in such a way that others will wish to join us.” (Hubert H. Humphrey. U.S. Senator and Vice President)

Questions for Discussion

Rabbi Mecklenberg seems to treat Jethro as an inspiring model for conversion to Judaism. Must a spiritual seeker reject previous religious beliefs and traditions as “corrupt” or flawed in order sincerely to embrace Judaism? What “inheritance” does Jewish Tradition offer us that is most attractive to “outsiders”? Why have Jews, historically, been reluctant to urge others to “come with us” on our shared spiritual journey? (Note: Nachmanides explains the name “Hovav” as the name adopted by Jethro upon his formal conversion to Judaism.)

Rabbi Lichtman suggests that Jews’ decision to remain in the diaspora reflects a lack of understanding and for all that life in the land and state of Israel has to offer. Is this a fair assessment of the Jewish condition outside the Jewish state? Must the decision to live in the diaspora be a choice based on principle? What principles might such a choice reflect?

How are we as individual Jews and how are our congregations to conduct ourselves “in such a way that others will wish to join us”? How does our approach to this test change if the others in question are fellow Jews? Non-Jews?

What programmatic or religious implications are to be gleaned from Sforno’s imaginative assertion that Jethro did not join the Israelite nation and settle in the promised land but his children did?

Theme #2: “The Good Old Daze”

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:4-6)

Study: Derash

“The cry of the rebels was for meat and variety, not for food as such, for there was no hunger among the people. Meat was the object of momentary craving; but after this was satisfied – or more than satisfied – the underlying problems which had caused the rebellion still remained. Satiety, boredom, lack of challenge, and the inconveniences of nomad existence were seeds of discontent as potent as want and poverty.” (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

“The experience of Egyptian slavery was not without its pleasures. As long as the Israelites made each day’s quota of bricks, their taskmasters didn’t much care what they did. Indeed, their taskmasters probably even encouraged licentiousness and promiscuity. What better way to deter revolutionary fantasies? But now, in exchange for their freedom, they realize that they have also traded away all this free sex for sexual proscription, religious law, and guilt. It’s not their gullets that are shriveled!” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)

“Their stomachs were fine; it was the subjugation of their lives to religion that had become a problem. They would rather be in Egypt, suffering inhumane persecution, than be in the desert devoting their lives to God. The more we delve into the character of the complainers of that era, the more we come to realize how many individuals continue to follow in their path today.” (Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum)

“The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign symptom of little souls and inferior intellects.” (Lord Jeffrey)

“People that pay for things and never complain. It's the guy you give something to that you can’t please.” (Will Rogers)

Questions for Discussion

Shockingly, the Israelites disparaged and complained about the manna that was miraculously provided by God. What explains their discontent? Lack of variety? Conversely: an overabundance of variety (the midrash tells us that manna tasted like whatever the person wanted most)? The indignity of being cared for, rather than earning their keep and providing for their own families? Conversely: the hardships of the wilderness period and the perceived ease and familiarity of Egyptian servitude? The religious and covenantal responsibilities that were the concomitant of God’s providential care? Flaws inherent in the collective character of the nation? “Little souls and inferior intellects”?

To what miracles of Jewish life and history and to what wonders of modernity do Jews (and others) today remain willfully blind and scandalously lacking in appreciation?!

Consider Rabbi Kushner’s analysis of Israelite sexual mores and personal probity. What unique insights does Jewish tradition have to offer contemporary society – whatever “gullets” suggests – about the manner in which we satisfy our various appetites?

Some Iranian Jews customarily (and enthusiastically) “whip” each other with scallions during “Dayenu” at the Pesach seder as a dramatic gesture of penance for our ancestors’ longing for onions and leeks. Why is this particular sin especially worthy of such symbolic re-enactment? Why during “Dayenu”?

Historic Note

In Parashat Beha’alotecha, read on June 9, 2012, Moses invites Jethro to join with the Israelite nation on its continued journey in the wilderness and its anticipated entry to the Promised Land. Rashi and the Aramaic Targumim make clear that the leadership role attributed to Jethro by Moses (“our guide”/“our eyes”) is in reference to services his Midianite father-in-law had rendered the Israelites in the past. With analogous motivation, on June 9, 1963, President John F. Kennedy declared Winston Churchill an honorary citizen of the United States.

Halachah L’Maaseh

The fourteenth of Iyar is observed as Pesach Sheini, as prescribed in Parashat Beha’alotecha. The most widespread contemporary practice on this liturgical occasion is to eat matzah. Rabbi Yaakov Emden taught that this custom commemorates the fact that the matzah baked on the eve of the Exodus lasted until 15 Iyar, when manna was first provided. He cited a personal divine revelation as the source for this insight. Some, including Rabbi David Feinstein, customarily mark Pesach Sheini just after nightfall – that is, as 15 Iyar begins. Maharam Ash (Rabbi Meir Eisenstadt, 1670-1744) would also eat maror and a boiled egg on the night of 15 Iyar. Further reprising the parameters of the seder, the Rashash (Rabbi Sar Shalom Sharabi, 1720-1777; Pesachim 53A) ruled that we should refrain from serving roast meat on this night. A less common custom is to serve charoset as well. Tachanun generally is omitted on both 14 and 15 Iyar, though that practice is of late origin, being mentioned by neither the Shulchan Aruch nor the Rema. Some chasidim omit Tachanun for seven days following Pesach Sheini. This reflects the teaching of the Zohar that beginning on Pesach Sheini the gates of Heaven open for seven days, providing a particularly auspicious time for prayer.


 
 
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