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Torah Sparks

Parashat B'h-alot'kha
May 25, 2013 – 16 Sivan 5773

Annual: Numbers 8:1-12:16 (Etz Hayim p. 816; Hertz p. 605)
Triennial: 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 Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Parashat Beha'alotecha opens with God's instructions regarding the menorah, which illumined the sanctuary. Next is the ritual for purification of the Levites, who begin their divine service. The term of service for the Levites is given as between the ages of 25 and 50.

The observance of Passover and, especially, the Paschal offering is scheduled for twilight on the fourteenth of the first month – the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt. A number of Israelites, debarred from participation in the Paschal offering due to 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 – cloud by day and fire by night – is the sign which indicates to the Israelites the timing of their movements and encampments in the wilderness. These movements are also marked by the sounding of silver trumpets. The order of the march traversing the wilderness is provided in detail. Moses invites his father-in-law to accompany the Israelite camp. The invitation is declined. Chapter 10 concludes with a familiar, two-verse "Song of the Ark." These verses ("Vay'hi binsoa ha-Aron… Uv'nucho yomar…") are recited at the removal of the Torah from the Ark and upon its return, during the Torah Service. The couplet is set apart from its context in the Torah Scroll by inverted nuns, which serve as brackets. Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi taught that these couplets are to be considered a discrete Biblical book!

The recurring pattern of complaints by a disgruntled Israelite populace returns at Taberah, then at Kivrot Ha-Taavah… and, subsequently, 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 at his very best!

Moses, upon his 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 which affects her eventual recovery. The Israelite camp, from which the impure Miriam has been temporarily excluded, waits for her return before resuming its journey.

Theme #1: "(XXV through) L is for Levite"

"This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor." (Numbers 8:24-26)

Derash: Study

"What assistance do they provide? They give them advice." (Rabbi Ovadyah of Bartenura)

"'Shall serve no more.' This refers to the service of carrying the sanctuary components on one's shoulder. But he does return for the closing of the gates and for singing, and to load wagons." (Rashi)

"Faithful servants never retire. You can retire from your career, but you will never retire from serving God." (Rick Warren, born 1954, author of The Purpose Driven Life)

"The Boomers will eventually have to accept that it is not possible to stay forever young or to stop aging. But it is possible, by committing to show up for others in community after community, to earn a measure of immortality." (Eric Liu, born 1968, author of Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us Toward Our Purpose in Life)

"By the time we hit fifty, we have learned our hardest lessons. We have found out that only a few things are really important. We have learned to take life seriously, but never ourselves." (Marie Dressler, 1931 Best Actress Oscar)

Questions for Discussion

What might have motivated the "mandatory retirement" of the Levites at age 50? Diminished physical ability? The ability to serve a critical advisory role for those who would succeed them? To permit them time to contemplate deeper matters in their spiritual maturity? To assure a constant influx of committed and active young leaders?

Is there special significance in the tasks which older Levites, according to Rashi, continued to pursue: singing and closing the gates?

What unique spiritual and personal gifts do religious leaders – and other role models – of an "advanced" age have to offer us, our congregations, the Jewish Community? How does our verse relate to the unfortunate tendency of many to value youth over life experience, wisdom and maturity? How would Marie Dressler answer this question?

How might Pastor Warren ("never retire from serving God") and Eric Liu ("show up for others… earn a measure of immortality") advise us to continue our involvement in Jewish religious practice and congregational life as we age? How can our congregations better serve and involve their older adults?

Kohanim – priests – were not disqualified or removed from office due to age. Nor was Moses, who concluded his career at age 120! Why the different approach to the tenure of Levi'im?

Theme #2: "Multiplying Prophets"

"A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, ‘Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!' And Joshua son of Nun, Moses' attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, ‘My lord Moses, restrain them!' But Moses said to him, ‘Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all God's people were prophets, that the Lord put his spirit upon them!'" (Numbers 11:27-30)

Derash: Study

"'Restrain them.' Impose actual responsibilities for the needs of the community upon them, and they will become restrained of their own accord." (Talmud, Sanhedrin 17A)

"'Moses' attendant from his youth.' In earlier generations, before a man attained the status of ‘chasid' he would undertake many labors and extraordinary efforts, enduring painful sacrifices and striving for self-refinement. Nowadays, one can become a rabbi overnight! Eldad and Medad were unknown figures before this, and now suddenly they are prophesying in the camp! It was for this reason that Joshua was angry. He had served Moses since his youth, and knew like no one else all the blood and soul that Moses had expended in his arduous efforts on behalf of the people, the extent of the sanctification and purification Moses had undergone in order to reach the status of prophet." (Rabbi Yoseph Shaul Nathanson)

"The most exalted creation of all is the personality of the prophet. Each man is obligated to give new life to his own being by modeling his personality upon the image of the prophet; he must carry through his own self-creation until he actualizes the idea of prophecy … Prophecy is man's ultimate goal, the end point of all his desires" (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man)

"Moses takes no pride in his position as the chosen channel for prophecy… Prophecy, a direct contact with God, is a great good. If it is the repository of others, even many others, it is even better… In this dramatic passage, Moses models a special kind of inclusivity that potentially leaves no one outside…He has no desire to limit the gift of prophecy he has been granted. He sees himself as a channel, and he wishes that the channel would be much wider than it is. Moses wants to share his gift with the entire people." (Rabbi Sheldon Lewis)

Questions for Discussion

Talmud Sanhedrin's wry comment is early evidence of the onerous expectations placed on rabbinic leaders! How might we assure that the "prophetic" role of our religious leaders (spiritual mentoring, moral leadership, sacred scholarship, serving as role models of personal integrity, piety, human sensitivity…) are not impeded by temporal matters, programming, organizational politics, etc.?

What might Rabbi Nathanson say about the training of rabbis exclusively through distance learning and on-line courses?!

What life experience, personal background and character traits qualify an individual to embark on a career of Jewish religious leadership? What is needed beyond the mere fact of an academic degree or ordination?

What motives (more or less admirable) could explain Joshua's concern for Moses' leadership? What motives explain Moses' magnanimous response?

What are the limitations to the principle "Would that all God's people were prophets"? Is there a danger inherent in this philosophy?

Rabbi Soloveitchik posits that "Prophecy is man's ultimate goal." Do you aspire to "prophecy"? What ultimate goal should our congregations and religious schools identify for members of the Jewish community? That is, how might we best complete the prayerful principle: "Would that all God's people were…"?

Historic Note

In Parashat Beha'alotecha, read on May 25, 2013, Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses regarding his new Cushite wife. According to the Septuagint, Vulgate, Josephus, King James Version, etc., Cushite signifies "Ethiopian." On May 25, 1991, the State of Israel completed Operation Solomon, a covert military operation which evacuated 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish State, all in a matter of 36 hours.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Shortly after his election as Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadyah Yosef articulated his position on the religious status of the "Falasha" community of Ethiopia: "They are Jews who must be saved from absorption and their assimilation. We are obligated to speed up their immigration into Israel and to educate them in our Holy Torah, making them partners in the building of our land." The Chief Rabbi cited as among the halachic authorities on whom he based his ruling the Radbaz, Rabbi Yaakov Kastro, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, as well as former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook and Isaac Herzog. The Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted unanimously to "add our voices to that of the Chief Rabbi in affirming the Jewishness of this courageous people" (see R.A. responsum of Rabbi Steven Saltzman on "Ethiopian Jews").

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