You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Beha’alotecha.
“The Inverted Nunim”
By Rabbi Haim Ovadia
When the ark traveled, Moshe would say: “Rise, YHWH, let your enemies scatter and your adversaries flee You!” When it rested, he would say: “Return, YHWH, the myriads of thousands of Israel!” (Num. 10:35-36)
In the Torah scroll this paragraph is preceded and succeeded by the letter Noon, inverted. What is the meaning of this unusual framing of the paragraph, which, according to the Midrash, is a rabbinic addition?
I believe that the rabbis were trying to send a message to the people and leaders of their times. In the Talmud (B. Shabbat,104:1), we read that:
The rabbis told R. Yehoshua ben Levi, children came today to Bet HaMidrash and said words, the like of which was unheard of even at the time of Yehoshua bin Noon:… bent noon and straight noon (נ,ן) represent the bent loyal person and the upright loyal person…
Though the children’s presentation is interesting, it is hardly anything more than wordplay on the names or shapes of the letters. Why then did it merit such praise from the rabbis? Apparently, this paragraph in Shabbat is holding some secrets.
The children who appear in Bet HaMidrash are anonymous, and their words are described as greater than those of Yehoshua, who was Moshe’s faithful disciple and the first in the chain of transmission of the Torah from one human to another. The children are also part of that unbroken chain of transmission, but whereas Yehoshua’s tradition is codified and rigid, the children’s tradition is symbolic and fluid. In that tradition, the letter noon stands for loyalty. The bent noon, the one used in the middle of a word, is analogized to a loyal and submissive servant, while the upright, final noon, is compared to a loyal servant who holds his head up.
Indeed, the same Yehoshua, whose father’s name was Noon, had was devoutly faithful to Moshe:
Yehoshua bin Noon… would never leave the tent (Ex. 33:11).
The rabbis marked the paragraph with inverted Noonim to tell us that from this point in BeMidbar, loyalty is turning upside down. The misshapen letters are road-signs, hung upside down to draw our attention and make us notice the change in scenery. Before the signs the Torah discusses the perfect form of government and nation, while after them there is an ongoing trust crisis which affects all strata of Israelite society and causes near-total collapse. From Num. 11:1-3 to 32:1-32 there are twenty instances of rebellion and loss of trust. Even Moshe, at one point, mistrusts himself and God.
Loss of trust is a problem which could plague any society or system. God put the perfect program in place but for it to function people had to come together and trust each other.
The crises in BeMidbar and their resemblance of many societies throughout history could be disheartening and cause despair, but the solution is alluded to in the paragraph framed between the Noonim:
Return YHWH, with the myriads of thousands of Israel. Trust is achieved when the leaders recognize the diversity within the people and when they are willing to give room to each of them and hear their voice, and when people are willing to join forces for a better society…
From Reform Judaism.org
RABBI LAWRENCE KUSHNER
“The Holy One spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you cause the lights on the menorah to ascend . . . “‘” (Numbers 8:1-2).
The image (and task) of causing light to “ascend” strikes us as so intuitively correct, so aesthetically appropriate, and so naturally spiritual we often fail to even notice it. Again and again in religious myth, ritual, architecture, and deed, there is light up at the front of the room-the flames of which ascend toward heaven. Indeed, according to halachah (Jewish legal tradition), all a room needs to qualify as a synagogue is a special closet or chest for a scroll of the Torah, at least one window for outside sunlight (light again), and of course, a ner tamid-an “everlasting light” up front. And from this week’s parashah we learn that this is also a principal task of the priesthood?to tend the light. The guys who are in charge of maintaining the connection between heaven and earth do so symbolically (and for all we know, actually!) by causing lights to ascend up at the front.
This business with “light up front,” of course, is also temporal; it goes all the way back to the beginning of Genesis. “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’-and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Under closer examination, however, we realize that the events there seem out of sequence: if God made light on day one of Creation, but didn’t make the sun, moon, stars, or heavenly luminaries until the fourth day, where’d the first day’s light come from?
Weaving together several midrashic traditions and then adding a few of its own, the Zohar(I:31b), the master text of Kabbalah (and, after the Bible and the Talmud, arguably the third canonical text of Judaism), solves the problem by claiming that the light of day one was more than mere optical light. That light, we learn, is
. . . the light of the eye. It is the light that God showed to the primordial Adam,Adam Kadmon [not the Adam of the Garden of Eden, who would not be created yet for six more days, but the primordial human archetype, the sparks of whose soul enliven every human being]. In that “first light” Adam was able to “see” from one end of space to the other end of time. . . .
In the light of day one, in other words, people had vision of everywhere and every time. (Talk about cosmic consciousness!) But this only raises the obvious question: How come we can’t see like that now?
Rabbi Yitzchak explained that the light that God created during the work of Creation shone from one end of space to the other end of time, but it had to be hidden away so that the wicked would not be able to . . . use it to make a mess of things (Zohar I:31b). [The explanation: If you could see into the future, tell me you wouldn’t dabble just a teensy-weensy, little bit in real estate, or maybe, commodities!]
On the other hand, if the world were completely devoid of even the possibility of such infinite spiritual vision, it could not endure. God’s problem therefore becomes: Either let people have the “Big” light, in which case they destroy the world, or take the Big light away, in which case the world implodes. According to the Zohar:
For this reason [God solved the problem by taking] the light [of day one] and treasuring it away for the righteous. . . . [That’s the real meaning of] the verse in Psalms (97:11), “Light is sown for the righteous . . .” (Zohar I:32a). [In other words, the light is still there, but it’s hidden away for those who do what is right.]
We then read in Zohar II:148b-149a:
Rabbi Y’hudah went on to explain that every single day a ray issues from that hidden light sustaining the entire world, for through it, the Holy One nourishes Creation. And every place where Torah is studied into the night, one thread-thin ray issues from that hidden light and flows down upon those who study. . . . In this way, every day the light renews the work of Creation.
So we “see” that the “light” is not something that illumines things before our eyes, but rather something that illumines things in our eyes, and this heightened spiritual consciousness literally sustains the universe! It’s not a matter of optics, but a metaphor for consciousness raising itself from the dark oblivion of unawareness. (To this day, when cartoonists want to portray a character who just got a “bright” idea, they draw a light bulb.)
God, who is the source of all awareness, says, we imagine: “Aaron, just this will be your primary priestly task: to symbolically portray My presence, which is the source of all awareness.” But there’s still more.
Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger in his Sefat Emet (II:154), noticing the Hebrew idiom referring to “raising” light(s), which also appears in Exodus 27:20, suggests that raising the light symbolizes not only awakening consciousness, but also the arousal of spiritual power.
Rashi explains that “to ascend” means that the priest must kindle the flame so that it ascends by itself . . . without requiring frequent attention (cf. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21a).
This is because religious acts cannot be accomplished by one’s personal strength alone, but rather, through the power of performing a religious act, a spiritual power is awakened. It is this way with everything we do because God sets in each of us a holy spark, and by means of devotion and service, the spiritual power in the deed and the soul power in the person arouse one another.
Indeed [and alas] anything accomplished by human power alone sooner or later must stop. But when the power of the Holy One is awakened, this kind of power continues forever.
We say, even today, to Aaron’s modern-day rabbinical descendants charged with lighting the lights up front: Cause them to ascend, awaken us, arouse our consciousness, ignite our deeds.
BY RABBI JAN UHRBACH
How do we progress toward our goals? Individually and societally, how do we know when to move forward, and which direction to go?
At first glance, the description of the Israelites’ journey from Sinai to the Promised Land seems to offer a model of clarity and ease:
Whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the place where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would encamp. At the word of Adonai the Israelites journeyed, and at the word of Adonai they encamped (עַל־פִּי ה’ יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל־פִּי ה’ יַחֲנוּ): they remained encamped as long as the cloud rested on the Mishkan. When the cloud lingered on the Mishkan many days, the Israelites observed Adonai’s mandate and did not journey on. There were times when the cloud was over the Mishkan for a few days—at the word of Adonai they encamped and at the word of Adonai they journeyed (עַל־פִּי ה’ יַחֲנוּ וְעַל־פִּי ה’ יִסָּעוּ). There were times when the cloud was there from evening until morning and would lift in the morning—they would journey. Whether day or night, when the cloud lifted they would journey. Whether two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered on the Mishkan—the Israelites remained encamped and did not journey; only when it lifted did they break camp. By the word of Adonai they encamped and by the word of Adonai they journeyed (עַל־פִּי ה’ יַחֲנוּ וְעַל־פִּי ה’ יִסָּעוּ); they observed Adonai’s mandate by the word of Adonai through Moses. (Num. 9:17–23)
It’s a comforting solution—just follow the word of God! —but unfortunately, not especially helpful. If the Torah’s message is eternal, what does this model offer those of us (i.e., all of us) to whom God doesn’t “speak” quite so distinctly?
Fortunately, it’s not the only answer the Torah provides. Intermingled with this description of a straightforward, unwavering journey at the clear command of God, the Torah offers also a counternarrative.
Looking more closely, we come to suspect that God’s directions were anything but clear. Within this passage itself, God’s “guidance” is expressed not in distinct speech, but through a cloud—a metaphor suggesting obfuscation, not clarity—and needs to be mediated or interpreted “through Moses.” And immediately afterwards, we discover that additional navigational “technologies” are necessary:
journeying instructions were given via trumpets specially crafted by Moses and blown by the kohanim. (10:1–8);
the Ark of the Covenant traveled on ahead of them “to seek out a resting place for them” (10:33);
and most tellingly,
Moses pleaded with his father-in-law Hovav to be their human guide (“[Moses] said, ‘Please do not abandon us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will be like eyes for us’.”) (10:31).
In other words, the path forward is never clear, and God isn’t a divine GPS. Revelation and faith shape our vision of where we want to go; they offer a compass pointing to true north, orienting us in the general direction of that vision. But to get there, we need maps, road signs, traffic signals, and human guides with a variety of expertise—religious and secular.
Similarly, although on the surface God “intended” and Israel expected that they would proceed directly and quickly to the Promised Land (per Rashi on 10:29, 10:33, within three days), the counter-narrative suggests that was never a realistic vision. The commentators sensitively pick up on the challenges inherent even in what was supposed to be a short journey—most especially, the standing still and waiting, for an unknown time.
For example, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (on 9:16–23) writes: “it is not so much the strain of lengthy wanderings as the patient endurance of the lengthy stops which seem to be stressed as the real task of the tests.” Similarly, Ramban, Bahya, and Seforno highlight the uncertainty and unpredictability of the encampments as especially difficult to bear. The result was on the one hand impatient, self-reinforcing complaining about the current situation (11:1 ff), and on the other hand disastrous spying ahead into the future, sapping the community of courage and keeping them from moving forward (12:1 ff). Combined, they turned a short trek into a forty-year, roundabout journey.
Here again, the contrast between the idealized “intent” and the reality on the ground speaks directly to the human condition. A journey worth taking is never linear, never easy, and we never handle it perfectly. While it’s natural to fantasize about quick fixes, lasting transformation—true progress—takes time, and inevitably meanders through error, regression, and backlash. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, it is rarely as simple as “at the word of Adonai we journey, and at the word of Adonai we encamp.” Rather, our fears keep us stuck when we’re called to advance, and our impatience and inability to bear uncertainty push us ahead when we’re called to stand still.
Thankfully, Judaism offers a wide complement of navigational tools to hone our powers of discernment, make us more sensitive readers of the terrain we traverse, and keep us on the path. Torah study with a partner, prayer and meditation, halakhic observance, deeds of lovingkindness, the practice of mussar (character development), participation in Jewish community (live or virtual)—all function as the maps, signposts, and traffic signals we need. And they nourish our resilience when the road ahead looks frightening, or the waiting and uncertainty seem almost too much to bear.
And ideally, our errors become teachers and guides too. Of the many navigational technologies that the Israelites utilized in the wilderness, perhaps the oddest was the ark: “The Ark of the Covenant of Adonai traveled in front of them a three days’ distance, to seek out a resting place for them” (10:33). This presents a difficulty. Elsewhere (Num. 14:44) we learn that “the ark of the covenant of Moses and the Lord did not move from the midst of the camp.” How can the ark be in the middle of the camp, and also somehow travelling by itself three days ahead? In solving the problem, the Midrash (Sifrei Bemidbar 82) offers a profound lesson in how we progress toward our goals. There were two arks: One (with the tablets) stayed in the middle of the camp. A second ark proceeded ahead to seek out the encampments. And what was in that second ark? The broken tablets, destroyed by Moses on seeing the Golden Calf (Exod. 32:19).
The path to the future moves through the past. We look ahead in our travels only to discover that our mistakes and sins, our brokenness, are “three days’ journey ahead”—allowing us the benefit of critical distance, but waiting for us nevertheless. The ark with our brokenness tells us where we need to stop and wait—to explore the issues and places that need attention, rectification, and healing, in order to move forward again in the right direction. It takes courage, patience, and resilience. Perhaps this is why “the place where they rested is also called a journey” (מְקוֹם חֲנִיָּתָן אַף הוּא קָרוּי מַסָּע) (Rashi on Exod. 40:38).
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Loneliness and Faith
I have long been intrigued by one passage in this week’s parsha. After a lengthy stay in the Sinai desert, the people are about to begin the second part of their journey. They are no longer travelling from but travelling to. They are no longer escaping from Egypt; they are journeying toward the Promised Land.
The Torah inserts a long preface to this story: it takes the first ten chapters of Bamidbar. The people are counted. They are gathered, tribe by tribe, around the Tabernacle, in the order in which they are going to march. Preparations are made to purify the camp. Silver trumpets are made to assemble the people and to give them the signal to move on. Then finally the journey begins.
What follows is a momentous anti-climax. First there is an unspecified complaint (Num. 11:1-3). Then we read: “The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num. 11:4-6).
The people seem to have forgotten that in Egypt they had been slaves, oppressed, their male children killed, and that they had cried out to be freed by God. The memory Jewish tradition has preserved of the food they ate in Egypt was the bread of affliction and the taste of bitterness, not meat and fish. As for their remark that they ate the food at no cost, it did cost them something: their liberty.
There was something monstrous about this behaviour of the people and it induced in Moses what today we would call a breakdown:
He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on Your servant? What have I done to displease You that You put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? … I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how You are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favour in Your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Num. 11:11-15)
This was the lowest point in Moses’ career. The Torah does not tell us directly what was happening to him, but we can infer it from God’s reply. He tells him to appoint seventy elders who would share the burden of leadership. Hence we must deduce that Moses was suffering from lack of companionship. He had become the lonely man of faith.
He was not the only person in Tanach who felt so alone that he prayed to die. So did Elijah when Jezebel issued a warrant for his arrest and death after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:4). So did Jeremiah when the people repeatedly failed to heed his warnings (Jer. 20:14-18). So did Jonah when God forgave the people of Nineveh, seemingly making nonsense of his warning that in forty days the city would be destroyed (Jon. 4:1-3). The Prophets felt alone and unheard. They carried a heavy burden of solitude. They felt they could not go on.
Few books explore this territory more profoundly than Psalms. Time and again we hear King David’s despair:
I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears. (Ps. 6:6)
How long, Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me? (Ps. 13:1-2)
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Why are You so far from saving me so far from my cries of anguish? (Ps. 22:2)
Out of the depths I cry to You, Lord… (Ps. 130:1)
And there are many more psalms in a similar vein.
Something similar can be traced in modern times. Rav Kook, when he arrived in Israel, wrote, “There is no one, young or old, with whom I can share my thoughts, who is able to comprehend my viewpoint, and this wearies me greatly.”
Even more candid was the late Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. Near the beginning of his famous essay The Lonely Man of Faith, he writes, starkly: “I am lonely.” He continues, “I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the psalmist, ‘My father and my mother have forsaken me,’ ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove.” This is extraordinary language.
At times of loneliness, I have found great solace in these passages. They told me I was not alone in feeling alone. Other people had been here before me.
Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah and King David were among the greatest spiritual leaders who ever lived. Such, though, is the psychological realism of Tanach that we are given a glimpse into their souls. They were outstanding individuals, but they were still human, not superhuman. Judaism consistently avoided one of the greatest temptations of religion: to blur the boundary between heaven and earth, turning heroes into gods or demigods. The most remarkable figures of Judaism’s early history did not find their tasks easy. They never lost faith, but sometimes it was strained almost to breaking point. It is the uncompromising honesty of Tanach that makes it so compelling.
The psychological crises they experienced were understandable. They were undertaking almost impossible tasks. Moses was trying to turn a generation forged in slavery into a free and responsible people. Elijah was one of the first Prophets to criticise kings. Jeremiah had to tell the people what they did not want to hear. Jonah had to face the fact that Divine forgiveness extends even to Israel’s enemies and can overturn prophecies of doom. David had to wrestle with political, military and spiritual challenges as well as an unruly personal life.
By telling us of their strife of the spirit, Tanach is conveying something of immense consequence. In their isolation, loneliness, and deep despair, these figures cried out to God “from the depths,” and God answered them. He did not make their lives easier. But He did help them feel they were not alone.
Their very loneliness brought them into an unparalleled closeness to God. In our parsha, in the next chapter, God Himself defended Moses’ honour against the slights of Miriam and Aaron. After wishing to die, Elijah encountered God on Mount Horeb in a “still, small voice.” Jeremiah found the strength to continue to prophesy, and Jonah was given a lesson in compassion by God Himself. Separated from their contemporaries, they were united with God. They discovered the deep spirituality of solitude.
I write these words while most of the world is still in a state of almost complete lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. People are unable to gather. Children cannot go to school. Weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and funerals are deprived of the crowds that would normally attend them. Synagogues are closed. Mourners are unable to say Kaddish. These are unprecedented times.
Many are feeling lonely, anxious, isolated, deprived of company. To help, Natan Sharansky put out a video describing how he endured his years of loneliness in the Soviet Gulag as a prisoner of the KGB. From dozens of reports from those who endured it, including the late John McCain, solitary confinement is the most terrifying punishment of all. In the Torah, the first time the words “not good” appear are in the sentence “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
But there are uses of adversity, and consolation in loneliness. When we feel alone, we are not alone, because the great heroes of the human spirit felt this way at times – Moses, David, Elijah and Jonah. So did modern masters like Rav Kook and Rabbi Soloveitchik. It was precisely their loneliness that allowed them to develop a deeper relationship with God. Plumbing the depths, they reached the heights. They met God in the silence of the soul and felt themselves embraced.
This is not to minimise the shock of the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences. Yet we can gain courage from the many individuals, from biblical times through to more modern ones, who felt their isolation deeply but who reached out to God and found God reaching out to them.
I believe that isolation contains, within it, spiritual possibilities. We can use it to deepen our spirituality. We can read the book of Psalms, re-engaging with some of the greatest religious poetry the world has ever known. We can pray more deeply from the heart. And we can find solace in the stories of Moses and others who had moments of despair but who came through them, their faith strengthened by their intense encounter with the Divine. It is when we feel most alone that we discover that we are not alone, “for You are with me.”
 Igrot ha-Ra’ayah 1, 128.
 Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, Doubleday, 1992, 3.
From Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie
This is an 11 minute video from the Jewish Journal of an interview of Rabbi Amichai Lau- Lavie about this parsha.
From My Jewish Learning
A Caretaker’s Prayer
O God, pray heal her!
BY RABBI PATRICIA KARLIN-NEUMANN
Parashat Beha’alotcha is overflowing with complex ritual and detail: the lighting of the lamps; the purification and consecration of the Levites; the elaboration of the Passover sacrifice; the carefully choreographed journey through the wilderness; the mutiny of meat, manna, and quail precipitating a plague for those who were led by their appetites; the challenge of Moses’ siblings to his leadership; and finally, the sudden onset of his sister Miriam’s disease. Yet amidst these richly detailed stories, we find one contrasting, stark, parsimonious prayer: ”El na r’fa na lah” (“O God, pray heal her!”).
Five words — 11 Hebrew letters — are all that Moses speaks (Numbers 12:13). Except for God’s name, each word ends in a vowel, as if each word were an unending cry. It is as if each word is punctuated with an exclamation point, the brevity of the syllables giving voice to the tortured helplessness of the supplicant: “God! Please! Heal! Please! Her!”
In the midst of catastrophe, the verb of consequence — the bull’s-eye of the prayer — is the central plea: Heal! Indeed, in Hebrew the prayer is nearly a palindrome — reading the same forwards as it does backwards — homing in with laser precision on that most urgent desire: Heal!
A Plea from Someone Trying to Help
This prayer has few words but much resonance. It is a primal cry, capturing fear, powerlessness, and incomprehensibility in the face of sudden illness, accident, or injury. It is not the entreaty of the one beset by the catastrophe, but rather that of the witness, the powerless onlooker, the potential caregiver absorbing the shock, the one who is overwhelmed and stymied about how to help.
When illness, accident, or injury comes to those we love, it is up to us — those who are comparatively healthy and able — not only to beseech but also to provide hope and healing. For the caregiver, there is time only for truncated and hurried prayer, time only for stolen moments of naked cries and yearnings of hope. For the caregiver shouldering the burdens of action — making the loved one comfortable, researching treatment, running interference with physicians, reporting news, calming fears–prayer is a blessed moment of calm in an otherwise turbulent time.
When one whom we love is in danger, not only our loved one but also we ourselves face darkness. According to Jewish tradition, the first person who prayed in darkness was young Jacob, on the eve of his exile from home. The Midrash describes the confluence of physical and metaphorical darkness this way: “In order to speak to Jacob in private, God caused the sun to go down-like a king who calls for the light to be extinguished, as he wishes to speak to his friend in private” (B’reishit Rabbah 68:10). So, too, the prayer of the caregiver is private, conspiratorial, hidden from the one who is the object of supplication, yet revealed to the One who can respond. We want to protect the one who is suffering from the compounded weight of the caregiver’s distress.
But in the darkness, it is safe to give voice to our fear of dreadful scenarios and of the unknown. In the darkness, it is a relief to relinquish the weight of trying to hold up another’s spirits, and to acknowledge that someone with far more power than we possess is the ultimate caregiver. In the darkness, it is possible to renew courage, to find new paths, to discover the equanimity essential to living with the terror of catastrophe.
Danger and Opportunity
Medical sociologist Alexandra Dundas Todd begins Double Vision, a memoir of her son’s treatment and recovery from brain cancer, with this reflection:
The Chinese word for crisis consists of two characters: danger and opportunity. When my son, Drew, a senior in college, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer bordering his brain, the danger was clear; the opportunity was less apparent. Danger flashed through our lives daily, while opportunities lay waiting in murky waters, to emerge only tentatively.
Family closeness, the ability to savor each moment, to find strength and courage where we didn’t know they existed, to discover new methods of treatment that complemented all the surgeries and radiation and eased both body and mind, all contributed to making the unbearable bearable, turning an assault into a challenge. (Double Vision: An East- West Collaboration for Coping with Cancer, 1994, p. xiii)
It does, indeed, take “double vision” to see both blessing and curse, to picture opportunity amidst danger. Courage grows through hope, through the willingness to look for unknown possibilities and to grasp them, through refusing to see only danger in darkness when its counterpart, opportunity, may be waiting in the shadows. The prayer of the caregiver, the cry of the distraught parent, the reassuring whisper of the loving spouse, can help to wrest some measure of opportunity out of danger.
El na rfa na la. In its simplicity and raw clarity, this prayer of healing recognizes that more than double vision, the vision of the Divine is immeasurable, and the capacity of the Healer is limitless. In response to Moses’ prayer, God reveals the duration of Miriam’s exile to the wilderness of disease. Her fortunate loved ones have only to wait out a time of disequilibrium and uncertainty; they have received sacred reassurance that all will be well. Yet in anticipating her return, the Torah conveys a truth well known to the loved ones of someone contending with affliction and crisis — v’haam lo nasa ad heasef Miryam (“And the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted,” Numbers 12:15).
Life does not go on with any sense of normalcy or progression while one whom we love is endangered; the caregiver’s attention and effort revolves around the one who is stricken. Time and space are altered. The yearning for healing expands to fill both.
Our present rituals may not be as formulaic as those described in B’ha’alotkha; our contemporary prayers of healing may have become longer and more specific; our modern understanding of treatment may be more nuanced and comprehensive; but Moses’ wisdom abides. The essence of what we seek is still found in his direct and eternal prayer. El na rfa na la: God! Please! Heal! Please! Her!
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE LONGING – Parshat Beha’alotcha
This post originally appears at Kevah.org.
Now is the summer of our discontent.
For the next five weeks, we will be touring through some of the darkest chapters in the Israelites’ long desert journey. And one theme will dominate these parshot above all: dissatisfaction.
Next week we will see the scouts’ report that the promised land is not all it was promised to be. The week after that comes the famous mutiny of Korach and his crew against Moses and Aaron. Then, when the people get so thirsty they wish they were dead, Moses will lose his temper, and his outburst will cost him his own life. This parade of horrors only finally ends in a scene with mass orgy of idolatry, a gruesome public assassination, and a plague that will leave 24,000 dead.
Misery, frustration, anger… and complaints, complaints, complaints.
And it is this week’s Parsha that begins our slow descent. This time, the main display of grievances is a lustful cry for food – meat, fish, and vegetables – made more pathetic by their longing for Egypt, where they suddenly remember eating so well. Never mind that they were slaves. And never mind that God is literally dropping sustenance from the heavens. That does not content them:
Now our insides are shriveled! There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to! (Numbers 11:6)
וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל–בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ.
Moses cannot take this audacity any more. He actually asks God to kill him. God also flies into a rage, first sending more food than they could possibly consume ( “until it comes out of your nostrils”), and then, when they come out to gather it, hitting them with a plague.
Yes, the summer of discontent has definitely begun.
But the season of complaining actually begins just a bit before all this, in a brief scene that fits our theme, but is difficult to understand:
The people took to complaining bitterly in the ears of the Eternal. The Eternal heard and became angry, and a fire broke out against them, and consumed the edge of the camp. The people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Eternal, and the fire died down. That place was named Tavera, because a fire of the Eternal had spread out (va’ara) amongst them. (Num. 11:1-3)
וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים, רַע בְּאָזְנֵי ה; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה, וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ, וַתִּבְעַר-בָּם אֵשׁ ה, וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה. וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה, וַתִּשְׁקַע הָאֵשׁ. וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, תַּבְעֵרָה: כִּי-בָעֲרָה בָם, אֵשׁ ה׳
Here we have the model for a sequence of events that we will see play out again and again in the coming days and weeks: the people complain that they are lacking something; God gets angry and punishes them; Moses intervenes; destruction is averted. And then the cycle begins again.
But here, this first time, there is one big element missing. What are they complaining about? We don’t know. The verse just says they started complaining. But what was bothering them? What did they want?
Nobody really knows. Some of the commentators weakly suggest that they were tired, or afraid of danger. But most simply throw up their hands in bewilderment. Here’s the Seforno, at first trying to offer an answer, and then giving up:
They people took to complaining – about the harshness of the journey. But they weren’t truly complaining in their hearts. For they had no legitimate reason to complain. But they complained with their words, just to test God.
כמתאוננים – על טורח הדרך לא מתאוננים בלבם באמת כי לא היתה אצלם שום סבה ראויה לזה שיתאוננו אבל היו מתאוננים בדבריהם לנסות
This wasn’t really a sincere protest, says the Seforno. They were putting on a show. They weren’t as much upset themselves as they wanted to upset God.
But why? What would motivate them to push God towards anger? Rashi has an answer to that:
This complaining was nothing but a pretext. They were seeking a pretext so that they could separate themselves from God.
אין מתאוננים אלא לשון עלילה מבקשים עלילה האיך לפרוש מאחרי המקום
We tend to think of these constant complaints in the Torah as the impulsive outbursts of petulant children. But according to Rashi, they know full well what they’re doing. They want to get away from God. They’re already done with God. But they’re nervous. They don’t know what God would do if they just rejected God outright. So they’d rather God push them away first – and they’re tempting God to do it.
Both of these comments suggest that the real problem in the desert is never a material crisis, but a spiritual crisis. They aren’t really worried about dwindling resources, or Moses’ authority. Whenever you see the Children of Israel rebelling, they are struggling in their relationship with God.
In these comments, we already see a psychological take on the Biblical phenomenon of complaining – an attempt to penetrate past the words into the underlying consciousness of Israel. But an even more existential reading is offered by the great 15th-century Spanish commentator, Rabbi Issac Arama, in his highly philosophical work, the Akeidat Yitzchak. He suggests that in this first complaint there were no words at all:
At first, they had grumbling and discontent inside their hearts, but they did not reveal it in words. Only afterwards, they when they brought their complaints into the form of words, did they express them as the longing for meat… But they did not really long for meat or anything else. They simply longed for longing’s sake. Which is much, much worse.
שמתחילה היה להם הגמגום והפקפוק פנימי לבם לפומיוהו לא גלי. אמנם אחרי כן אם שלא פירשוהו כי היה להם לחרפה כבר הוציאו אותה בלשון תואנה ותלו אותה בשאלת הבשר…. הנה הפחותים האלו לא התאוו הבשר ולא זולתו אבל התאוו תאוותו והיא מדה מגונ’ מאד
The reason we are not given the content of the complaint is that there was no content. It was pure longing, with no objective. The problem was not physical hunger, or even spiritual hunger. This was just Desire – a force unto itself.
There is in us a longing, unnamable but all-consuming. This is part of what it is to be human. We are vaguely aware of a great emptiness within us, and plagued with a yearning to fill the void. But we do not know what will satisfy our longings. So we focus on all the things we lack in life, in various desperate attempts to find something outside of us that will bring us happiness. Sometimes we find temporary relief. But soon after we get what we want, the longing comes back.
What is to be done?
One of the classic Chassidic commentaries, the Maor VaShemesh, tries to deal with this existential dilemma in his treatment of our parsha:
It says “they took to complaining,” but doesn’t explain what their complaint was…
But the idea here is a foundational principle in the service of God: One must do everything possible to distance oneself from sadness and black bitterness… This sadness at first manifests inside of us as a desire to eat. We sometimes see a man who is plagued with bitterness – God have mercy – and he eats with great abandon and haste. Then, from the desire to eat comes other desires, like sex. And soon one can no longer overcome these lusts and break one’s desires – unless one attaches oneself to the righteous, and learns from them the Paths of Life…
כתיב ויהי העם כמתאוננים ולא פירש על מה
אך הענין הוא הנה יסוד גדול בעבודת ה׳ להרחיק עצמו מעצבות ומרה שחורה…והעצבון תחלחו הוא שמתגבר בקרבו תאוות אכילה כאשר עינינו רואות האיש אשר הוא שרוי במר׳׳ש רח׳׳ל אוכל בתאוה ורעבתונות ובמהירות ומתאוות אכילה נמשך אחר תאוות אחרים כגון משגל ודומיהן ילתת עצות לנפשו להתגבר על יצרו לשבר תאוות היצר אי אפשר כי אם שידבק עצמו לצדיקים ומהנ ילמוד אורחות חיים
Our existential dissatisfactions, he suggests, come from a kind of great sadness that is simply part of the human condition. And often we try to drive away that sadness with physical distractions – food, sex, or drugs – until we get to a point where we have lost all control.
So what is the solution? How do we end the sadness? Are we to abandon all physical pleasure? Can we only find happiness by detaching from desire? Is this what it means to “attach oneself to the righteous”?
No, says the Maor VaShemesh. He continues:
For the righteous one brings everything into holiness. Therefore, he eats good food and drinks wine, he wears fine and beautiful clothing, and he lives in a nice house. But as he does all of this, he is performing a divine service, elevating holy sparks and bringing everything into holiness.
כי הצדיק הזה מביא הכל על הקדושה על כן הוא אוכל ושותה משמנים ויין ולובש בגדים נאים ויפים ויושב בדירות נאות ובכל אלה הוא עובד עבודתו הגבוה שמעלה ניצוצין קדושים ומכניס הכל על הקדושה.
Our worldly struggles will not be solved by leaving the world behind. The Paths of Life do not take us around desire, but through it. The problem with our lusts is not the physical pleasure itself; it is the attempt to use physical medicine to cure a spiritual malady. We will never cure our deepest longings with food or sex, fancy clothes or big houses.
It works the other way, suggests the Maor VaShemesh. Instead we bring our spirituality into our physical lives. Our enjoyment of life is enhanced by the quality of our consciousness.
That is the lesson of the manna, this bread that fell from heaven. The rabbis taught that it would taste like anything one imagined. If you wanted an apple, the manna tasted like an apple. If you wanted donuts, the manna tasted like donuts. And so, of course, if the Children of Israel wanted meat, the manna would have tasted like meat.
This was the great mistake that the people made when they cried out for meat and fish, and melons and leeks, and onions and garlic. They were very specific. They needed these things to be happy. But instead, they said:
There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!
אֵין כֹּל–בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ.
They saw nothing but manna. But in that manna, they had everything.
So he problem was not outside of them; the problem was inside of them. And so, too, the solution will never be found out there, in the desert. The solution is within.
This lesson, unfortunately, will take a long time to learn.
From Maggid Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
This week’s Parasha Beha’alotecha (Numbers 9:1—–) includes one of my go-to spiritual metaphors. God sets up a code for when we should travel and when we should stay put:
At the commandment of the Great Mystery the Children of Israel traveled, and at the commandment of The Great Mystery they camped: as long as the cloud rested on the Mishkan they remained in camp. … (Numbers 9:18)
If it were two days or a month, or a year, if the cloud stretched out upon the Mishkan and hung there, the Children of Israel stayed in the camp and didn’t journey; but when it lifted they journeyed. (Numbers 9:22)
Again and again I find this to be a perfect description of how our lives play out. There are times when we are in a fog, unable to see the way forward, even unable to see a few feet ahead. It is, often, an uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, depressing and patience-testing experience. Plagued by questions we sit in agony waiting, waiting, waiting, for some clarity of purpose. The Torah gets how difficult this is for us by saying it could be a day, or a month, or even a year, and yet our task is to stay put.
So what do we do when we are in that place of suspense? How do we channel our energy into positive and healthy streams? Where do we find the resolve to stay put when our instincts are screaming at us to run?
One answer is found in another scriptural line. In the book of I Kings, chapter 19, the prophet Elijah is on his own difficult, God-assisted journey. He finds himself in a cave during a spiritual breakdown of sorts. He is doubting everything, he feels frustrated and stuck, he is in a pit of personal despair. God says, “Go out and stand on the mountain and I’ll come show you a few things.” First God passes by which generates a hurricane that tears chunks off the mountain and flings rocks every which way. But Elijah realizes that God was not in the hurricane. And after the hurricane there was an earthquake that rattled the entire mountain, but neither was God in the earthquake. Then came a fire which scorched the land. And God was not in the fire. But after the fire came a still small voice, and Elijah could hear in that tiny whisper, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God is the question, not the answer. The spiritual path of Judaism is first and foremost about getting clear, really clear, on the question. Why questions? Because questions inspire curiosity, not certainty. They open the doors to possibility and growth. They invite us to explore and expand. They seduce us to desire knowledge. They bring us integrity. When we seek truth through inquiry, the cloud lifts and we can continue in our quest.
Far too often we charge off with only half-baked questions. We don’t like sitting in the cloud and so we thrash our way forward without fully understanding where we are trying to go. We are convinced that God is loud, dramatic, powerful and we forget or can’t grasp that in fact God is quiet, still, and delicate. That’s why we need those clouds, those grey, boring places where our senses can take break, where we can cultivate our perception and sensitivity to hear the subtle voice asking the right question.
We are living in a thick cloud my friends. We are on a planet being roiled by a socio-political, globally-blazing hurri-quake. Thank goodness Judaism has offered us Shabbat.
This Shabbat let us look deeply, let us settle into the quiet, let us listen for the still small voice. Let’s tune out the rumbling, the wailing, the thunder. It will still be there, and it will do fine without us for a day, so trust that you aren’t shirking your responsibility. Quite the opposite, taking time to really be in the cloud, to slow down and tune in deeply, may be the very thing that finally lifts it, so we can once again travel forward.
From The Hebrew College
Rabbi Emma Kippley- Orgman
Divine Presence is a Cloud that is Fire
“Mai shamayim, what are the heavens?” asks the Gemara about the second day of Creation when earth and heavens came to be separate entities (Ta’anit 12a). “An old teaching answers: esh umayim, fire and water. The Holy Blessed One scrambled them together each in the other and made from them the firmament.” אש ומים becomes שמים, the letters themselves combining to make something new out of these essential elements.
We imagine that mixing fire and water should eliminate one of the elements—fire should evaporate water or water should quench fire—but the coexistence of these apparent opposites is essential to Divine creation.
In Parashat Beha’alotecha, we see this astonishing combination established on earth, at the center of the Israelite camp—shamayim in our midst letting us witness and respond to the presence of the Divine (Numbers 9:15-16):
On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It would always be so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night.
The cloud is cloud (water vapor) during the day and fire at night, and the daily passage between these two substances cultivates in the desert wanderers an understanding of these opposite elements as essentially one and the same. In a discussion on the timing of lighting Shabbat candles (must it be precisely at sundown, or can it be earlier?), the Talmud (Shabbat 23b) wonders about the daily transitions. Citing Exodus 13:22, “The pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, did not depart from before the people,” Rabbi Yosi concludes that fire and cloud must coexist for a period each day. “The pillar of cloud completes the pillar of fire; and the pillar of fire completes the pillar of cloud.”
To this day, as we light Shabbat candles while light remains in the sky, we embody the moment of transition, the passage from cloud to fire during which these two opposites coexist, neither destroying the other but instead co-creating a spark/fog of Divine presence, shamayim right in front of our faces.
During our wilderness wandering, this cloud/fire cultivated in all of us a very sensitive attention to its presence (Numbers 9:17 & 21-22):
And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. … Day or night, whenever the cloud lifted, they would break camp. Whether it was two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle—the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp.
A cloud is there and not there, a space of air with more concentration of water vapor than the air around it. A cloud can be seen, but it is subtle. Easy to miss. You might have to look twice to be sure whether it is there or gone. So the Israelites must have developed a finely calibrated responsiveness to that cloud to be able to notice after it was on the mishkan for a few hours, or a few days, or for years—that it was suddenly gone from that spot, beckoning them yet again to collapse the camp and enter the desert.
The Divine invited the whole people to attune themselves to presence as Moshe had attuned himself How long must he have gazed at the bush in order to realize the flames were not consuming it? Here, the entire people learns a spiritual practice of our teacher—to watch carefully and notice the Divine in subtle shifts in the environment.
In the transition from Egypt, watered by the Nile, to the land of Israel, dependent on rain, learning to give our attention to the cloud was a lifesaving act. Perhaps our ever cloud-watching desert wandering prepared us to notice when the water gates of the heavens would open, giving us existence from the outpouring abundance of rain.
This careful attunement is also the energy that links lover and beloved. Midrash (Yelamdenu 51) uses a parable to read our cloud as a link back to Sinai and a promise of public affection:
The cloud covering the mishkan is the same cloud that revealed itself at Mount Sinai. To what is this similar? To a king who had a lover. He sent a message: “Prepare yourself, for I will come to you on a certain day!” The lover did not believe it. He replied: “Even if he comes to me he will come disguised as an ordinary person or at night.” The king understood what his lover said and sent back: “By your life I will come to you during the day, in public, riding the horse I rode on the day I became king, and wearing the purple cloak that was thrown upon me on the day I became ruler—so that all will know how beloved you are to me.”
The midrash reads God (the king) appeasing the skeptical Israelites (the lover) when they worried that God would not come into the mishkan they had built. God transformed the one-night encounter of Sinai into a love affair that could span space and time by appearing in the cloud on the mishkan—in the same royal cloak that God had donned at Sinai (Exodus 19:9 – I will come to you in a thick cloud). The cloud itself evokes attentive and responsive presence as each lover learns to turn towards the other.
Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum (who was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto) carefully reads Numbers 9:16 to extend this Divine presence, initiated at Sinai, beyond the wilderness wandering and into our present moment. While many commentators read the verse “It would always be so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night” as referencing God’s continuous presence in the wilderness, Rabbi Nissenbaum is quoted saying:
The Holy Blessed One promised us that this is how it would be also in the future, if there would come times “when the cloud covers it,” that black clouds cover the skies and no spark of hope can be seen, with no chance of exit from the terrible situation, we will not despair, rather it is promised that even then “the appearance of fire by night” — from the cloud and the darkness of night a sliver of light will burst forth, the clouds will part and salvation will come.
As we watch carefully for the cloud, may we also witness slivers of light, and by their shining, know love.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Step one: we attuned ourselves to light.
I don’t mean the sun, but what came first.
(Heavenly bodies were day four.) The fire
of the burning bush, the glowing cloud
that hovered over the mishkan, the presence
of creation’s supernal flame made us lift
our eyes. When the pillar would lift
we set off; when it settled, we’d light
our cookfires. Back then we had presence
of mind to check the celestial forecast first.
Didn’t let our desires to move cloud
our judgment. We were on fire
for the One Whose presence gleams. Afire,
we reached step two: learning how to lift
our hearts even when the cloud
didn’t move. We can travel light
even if we’re not going anywhere. First
we learn how to live with holy presence.
Step three: open to what wholly presents
itself. Strike the iron while the fire
is hot, but paint our doorposts first.
When we left Egypt we knew how to lift
our hearts to the One, how to light
the tinder of prayerful spirit into clouds
of incense. But God was not in the cloud:
only hinted-at in the wordless presence
that filled the tabernacle with light.
“More than God wants the straw fire
God wants the well-cooked heart,” so lift
yourself to the altar. Sometimes the first
thing to do is burn. Sometimes first
we bank our internal fires, offer up the cloud
of self that rises. When the lift
comes, when our hearts become our presents —
that’s the time to add fuel to the fire.
The One Who rolls back darkness before light
first tunes our internal radio to the presence.
Then we notice when we get cloud, and when fire.
Let our spirits lift, and become light.
I don’t mean the sun, but what came first. At the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis) God creates light, but sun and moon and stars don’t materialize for another few days. From this our tradition intuits that the light of creation was something other than literal light, and there are many beautiful teachings about the supernal light of creation hidden away for the righteous.
The fire of the burning bush. See Exodus 3. One of my favorite teachings about Shabbat candles holds that when we kindle lights on Shabbat, we are to see in them the supernal light of creation and the light of the bush that burned but was not consumed.
The glowing cloud that hovered over the mishkan… when the pillar would lift. See this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alot’kha, in which a cloud hovered over the mishkan (the tabernacle / dwelling-place-for-God’s-presence). When the cloud lifted, we went on our journeys, and when it rested, we stayed put. (For a beautiful d’var Torah on that theme, see Rabbi David’s The Reason for Patience.)
Strike the iron while the fire / is hot, but paint our doorposts first. The Exodus story is a paradigmatic narrative of leaping when the opportunity presents itself… but before so doing, the children of Israel painted blood on the doorposts of their houses, an act we now echo in placing a mezuzah on the doorposts of ours. Doors are liminal spaces — life is full of liminal spaces — and it’s up to us to make them holy.
But God was not in the cloud. See I Kings 19:11-12. God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice.
More than God wants the straw fire / God wants the well-cooked heart. A teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe.
The One Who rolls back darkness before light. See maa’ariv aravim, our prayer for evening — here it is in several variations.
Tunes our internal radio to the presence. This metaphor comes from Reb Zalman z”l, who used to speak about how God broadcasts on all channels and we receive revelation where we are attuned.
WHEN OPPOSITES ATTACK – Parshat BeHa’alotcha
The boy came running out of the camp, and he looked panicked. Moses and Joshua, standing near the Tent of Meeting, turned to him, wondering what was wrong. He caught his breath and blurted out:
“Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” (Numbers 11:27)
אֶלְדָּד וּמֵידָד, מִתְנַבְּאִים בַּמַּחֲנֶה.
Now this was a very strange report for a number of reasons:
– First: It was unusual to have two people receiving prophecy at once. All accounts of prophecy we have seen so far have been delivered directly to one prophet.
– Second: Who are these people? We’ve never heard of these characters before, and now suddenly they are channeling a divine message?!
– Third: We’ve already got a prophet! Moses, the greatest of all the prophets, has now been leading the people and delivering them God’s message since the Book of Exodus. Why would we need two other people to come along and add something?
But the strangest thing about this episode is simply that we have no idea what these two men were saying. What was their prophecy? What were they telling the people that day in the camp?
The Talmud offers an intriguing suggestion:
Rav Nachman says: They were prophesying about the matter of Gog and Magog
רב נחמן אמר על עסקי גוג ומגוג
And who are Gog and Magog? The names first appear together in the Book of Ezekiel, and there it seems that Gog is a person, and Magog is the name of his country. But by the time we arrive at rabbinic literature, these are taken to be the names of two kings who will do battle at the End of Days. Some descriptions have them fighting each other, while others depict them uniting to destroy the Kingdom of Israel, in a great final war that will precede the messianic era.
So the legend of the War of Gog and Magog becomes an important image in Jewish (as well as Christian and Muslim) eschatology, a prediction of future catastrophe. But why does Rav Nachman believe that future battle was first revealed to Eldad and Medad in the desert? He engages in some fancy wordplay to connect the verses in Ezekiel back to our parsha. But the real linguistic connection between the two stories seems glaringly obvious: both pairs of names rhyme, and in a similar scheme.
Gog and Magog. Eldad and Medad. In both cases, the second name takes the last syllable of the first, and adds a mem (מ) sound to the beginning. That particular sound is significant because the letter mem, as a prefix in Hebrew, means “from.” So ‘Magog’ means ‘From Gog,’ and ‘Medad’ is ‘From Dad.’ Of course, in the first formulation of Gog and Magog, this was literally true: the person Gog came from the place Magog. But once they have come to represent two warring factions, the names indicate that one side has come from the other, and so both are, in some essential way, the same.
The prophetic message of Eldad and Medad, then, hinted to us by their names, is that the ultimate battle, the war to end all wars, will be played out by two, seemingly opposing violent forces that are actually drawn from the same source. What appear to be mortal enemies are, in fact, simply two sides of one larger phenomenon of destruction.
This motif of rhyming opposites is used again and again in Jewish literature at major crisis points in our national history. The ancient Kingdom of Israel is first broken apart after a rebellion against Rehoboam (רחבעם) by the troops of Jeroboam (ירבעם). And the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem, we are told in the Talmud, comes about through confusion over another pair of rhyming names:
The destruction of Jerusalem came about through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.
A certain man had a friend, Kamtza, and an enemy, Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamtza. But the man went and brought Bar Kamtza. (Gittin 55b)
אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים דההוא גברא דרחמיה קמצא ובעל דבביה בר קמצא עבד סעודתא אמר ליה לשמעיה זיל אייתי לי קמצא אזל אייתי ליה בר קמצא
The party host, who wanted to invite Kamtza, is outraged when Bar Kamtza shows up, and kicks him out. Bar Kamtza is so humiliated that, even though he himself is Jewish, he takes revenge on his host by reporting a Jewish rebellion to the Roman authorities, who eventually send Nero to destroy Jerusalem.
In this story, Bar Kamtza might literally mean, the son of Kamtza. Or it might more symbolically mean, “from Kamtza,” or “of Kamtza.” In other words, the man arbitrarily loved one thing, but hated another thing that was really made up of exactly the same material as the first. Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are like matter and antimatter, thesis and synthesis, light and shadow. To hate one and love the other is to lose sight of the essential similarity between the two, and thereby to engage in a useless and all-consuming kind of violence. The War of Gog and Magog, and all struggles for total annihilation, emerge from the clash of two, seemingly opposite extremes that are actually more alike than we realize.
Why does this matter? And why would the Torah spend time whimsically name-rhyming instead of just making her point directly?
It matters there, in the desert, because this journey will be filled with all sorts of terrible conflicts and, in most cases, both parties will descend from the same source. Just a chapter later, Moses will be accused of wrongdoing by his own siblings. The mutiny of Korach against Moses and Aaron will be led by their cousin and tribesman. Even the threat of curses from a foreign prophet are to come from a man who worships the same God as the Israelites – Bilaam is in many respects just like Moses, the Medad to his Eldad. In this landscape, we will soon see, enemies are often former friends, and twin siblings can produce warring tribes.
But it matters also out here, in the world beyond the desert, because we, too, go to war against people with whom we share a God. We denounce ideological extremists while proudly promoting the opposite extreme. We rage against one system of oppression by forcefully imposing our own value system on our oppressors.
Most of the time, however, we are blind to these ironies. We cannot see the similarities between our enemies and ourselves. Most of the time, we do not have the aid of a rhyme to call our attention to the ways we sound exactly like those whom we hate the most.
Eldad and Medad are sounding the echo of that rhyme out for us, to warn us of all the coming Gogs and Magogs of this world – those outside of our camp, and those within.
THE BIBLE CODE – Parshat BeHa’alotcha
So, pop quiz: where is Hanukkah mentioned in the Torah?
It’s a trick question, of course. Hanukkah isn’t in the Torah. It couldn’t possibly be, since the Torah’s narrative takes place over a thousand years before the Maccabean rebellion that Hanukkah commemorates. Indeed, it may be very popular now, but of all the major Jewish holidays Hanukkah was the last to be established. Moses never lit Hanukkah candles.
And yet, the first major listing of all the commandments in the Torah – the 8th-century Halachot Gedolot – strangely includes the celebration of Hanukkah as one of the 613 Biblical commandments. Most later commentators are perplexed by this inclusion, and the rationalist philosopher, Maimonides – never a shy one – even takes some time to mock the idea that Hanukkah could have been foreseen by the Torah:
Can we assume that Moses was instructed at Sinai to command us that if, in the last days of our independence, this and that will happen to us with the Greeks, then we should be obligated to light Hanukkah candles? I know no one who would imagine such a thing, or could even conceive of it. (Sefer HaMitzvot, Shoresh 1)
היות נאמר למשה בסיני שיצונו כי כשיהיה באחרית ממלכתנו ויקרה לנו עם היונים כך וכך יתחייב לנו להדליק נר חנוכה, הנה איני רואה שאחד ידמה זה או יעלה במחשבתו
Then another great Medieval thinker, Nachmanides (who was a frequent critic of Maimonides’ hyper-rationalism), comes along and defends the idea that the Torah could be embedded with prophetic allusions to future events. He suggests, in fact, that the Bible can be read as a kind of a long code, with all sorts of secret information encrypted in the form of jumbled letters, numerical patterns, and subtle hints.
Now he doesn’t go so far as to include lighting Hanukkah candles on his list of the 613 commandments. He does, however, in his commentary on the Torah, point out exactly where he thinks Hanukkah is hiding in the Torah. And it is in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat BeHa’alotcha – which does, in fact, begin with the commandment to light a Menorah.
But, of course, this is the Menorah in the Tabernacle, where the priests performed the sacrifices. And perhaps we can extend this precept to the Menorah that would one day illuminate the great Temple in Jerusalem, the fixed location for the priestly offerings. But surely this is not a reference to the little rainbow-colored Hanukkah candles we place in our windows today! And yet, says Nachmanides:
There is a hint from this section to the Hanukkah lights that were lit in the Second Temple by “Aaron and his children” – that is, the Hasmonean High Priest and his children.
רמז מן הפרשה על חנוכה של נרות שהיתה בבית שני על ידי אהרן ובניו, רצוני לומר חשמונאי כהן גדול ובניו
Well, he’s right about one thing. The Maccabees from the Hanukkah story did descend from the Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly lineage. So, in a sense, they were the children of Aaron, the High Priest of the Torah.
Additionally, Nachmanides points out, this section of the Torah is not just describing the function of the Tabernacle, but also recording the moment of its inauguration. And the word for ‘inauguration,’ in Hebrew, is: ‘Hanukkah.’ So, he suggests, this Hanukkah contains within it an allusion to another Hanukkah, which will one day also be illuminated by the priestly family.
It’s a lovely bit of parshanut, but I think Maimonides would still be deeply unsatisfied. Could it be, I still hear him shouting, that the Torah would speak in the language of mysterious prognostications? Are we really meant to search the Bible for coded messages that map out all of human history? I mean, I know we’re supposed to be religious here, but isn’t there something just a little too occult about this way of reading the text? Save that kind of divination for Ouija boards and tea-leaves.
Yet Nachmanides isn’t the first to suggest that prophetic clues are hidden in the Torah. In fact, he is not even the first to see Hanukkah in the Torah. That tradition begins with the rabbis of the midrash. And they were even bolder, for they did not bother waiting for the appearance of a Menorah. They found Hanukkah almost immediately, in the very opening lines of Genesis:
In the beginning, God created heaven and earth — and the earth was chaos and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep and the spirit of God hovered over face of the water — And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. (Gen. 1:1-4)
א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹקים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. ב וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹקים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר. ד וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאוֹר, כִּי-טוֹב; וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹקים, בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ.
Okay. I see God, and chaos, and light – everything swirling about here in the primordial ether. But where, oh where, is Hanukkah in all of this? And I know what you’re thinking. They’re going to say it’s somehow in the light. But no, just the opposite:
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish interpreted these verses with the kingships of exile. the earth was chaos – this is Babylon. and void – this is Persia… and darkness – this is Greece, who darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees… on the face of the deep – this the wicked Kingdom [of Rome], whose power cannot be measured, just as the great deep cannot be plumbed. and the spirit of God hovered – this is the spirit of the Messiah.(Genesis Rabbah 2:4)
ר”ש בן לקיש פתר קריא בגליות, והארץ היתה תהו זה גלות בבל… ובהו זה גלות מדי… וחושך זה גלות יון שהחשיכה עיניהם של ישראל בגזירותיהן …על פני תהום זה גלות ממלכת הרשעה שאין להם חקר כמו התהום מה התהום הזה אין לו חקר אף הרשעים כן ורוח אלקים מרחפת זה רוחו של מלך המשיח
So Hanukkah is in the darkness. For Hanukkah is not only a celebration of the miracle of lighting the Menorah. It is also a remembrance of all the suffering that preceded that miracle, the days of darkness that made salvation necessary. In that sense, it isn’t really just Hanukkah that the midrash is talking about. The Torah is not merely alluding to a particular act of candle-lighting in this interpretation, but to the whole regime of oppression from which the Hanukkah story unfolds.
And Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish does not simply see Greek oppression hinted at in these opening lines. He sees a reference to all the terror and violence that the world will produce, again and again and again. This world born out of chaos and darkness will continue to struggle with those primeval forces throughout its long history.
But Rabbi Shimon also sees in these verses a hint of redemption, the messianic hope of an ultimate salvation that will take a long time in coming, but – as surely as the world was created – will one day come. All of this is foretold. All of human history, its terrible eons of suffering, and its eventual discovery of a lasting peace, were all encoded in the very first lines of the Torah. If only we knew how to read between the lines, we could see into the future.
So is this a support for Nachmanides’ mystical theory of Biblical interpretation? Does Jewish tradition legitimate the scouring of scripture in search of hidden predictions of future events? Perhaps. Surely, many have excitedly embraced the notion of Bible Codes, and scurried back to the Torah searching for cryptic allusions to the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the coming of the messiah.
But it seems to me that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish might be saying something very different. For he is not merely reading these eras of history into the words of the Torah. He is reading them into the first acts of creation. And so this midrash may be less about how we interpret sacred scripture than it is about how we conceive of the universe. Could it be that everything that happens in the world is preordained – not because it was written in the Torah, but because all of existence traces itself back to that first moment, and everything that will ever be is constituted of elements from that which was? Was our world, in its entirety, already fully conceived of – hovering there, in the darkness before time, waiting to be born?
If that were so, then the universe would indeed have a code. But only God could read it.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Meat and Atzilut
Eldad, Medad, and Reb Zalman’s tisch
In the verses we just read from Beha’alot’kha, God takes the spirit which was upon Moses and places it on seventy elders, and all of them begin to prophesy. Then two other men, Eldad and Medad, also begin to prophesy. Joshua, who will be Moses’ successor, urges Moses to stop them. And Moses says, “Are you upset on my account? Would that all of God’s people were prophets!”
When we think of the English term “prophecy,” we think of foretelling the future. But that’s not what a Biblical prophet did. In the Biblical understanding, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. The great rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that it was the prophet’s job to offer a God’s-eye view on the world.
The Biblical prophets spoke on God’s behalf: sometimes words of love, sometimes words of caution and judgement. The prophets bequeathed to us a treasury of writings which call us toward a world redeemed.
In the Jewish understanding, prophecy isn’t about predicting the future. Prophecy seems to mean something like opening ourselves to that Voice from beyond which exhorts us to be better than we think we know how to be.
In this morning’s verses, I hear Joshua’s anxiety. His boss Moses was the only one who had a direct line to God, and now suddenly all of these people are speaking on God’s behalf — even people who weren’t invited. The familiar structure of authority is at risk of breaking down!
I can empathize with Joshua’s fear. And I love Moses’ response: oh, dear one, are you jealous on my account? You think I mind having other people connecting with God? On the contrary — I wish everyone had a clear channel through which divine spirit and wisdom could flow.
Tradition teaches that never again will there arise a prophet as great as Moshe. Today’s verses offer a glimpse of his greatness because they show us someone who was not threatened by others being uplifted too. Moses knew that connection with God is not zero-sum, and that other people opening their hearts to divine wisdom didn’t diminish his ability to do the same.
One of my favorite stories about my teacher Reb Zalman z”l is about how he used to teach at his Shabbos tisch. “Tisch” is Yiddish for “table;” it means a celebratory gathering where students gather to imbibe wisdom from their teacher, usually accompanied by singing niggunim and toasting l’chaim! Following in the footsteps of his Hasidic forebears, Reb Zalman would gather his hasidim around the table, and offer his unique and beautiful Torah, and his students would be nourished by his wisdom.
And then he would do something which his forebears didn’t do. He would invite everyone to rise, and to move one chair to the left. Now someone else was sitting in the “rebbe chair” — the big cushy seat with the armrests at the head of the table from which the rebbe was supposed to offer his teachings. And he would say, “Look inside for the Rebbe-Spark within you — and teach from there.”
And then they would do it again, and again, until everyone at the table had had the opportunity to be the teacher, the giver of wisdom, an open channel for divine grace. Everyone got to sit in the rebbe chair, both literally and metaphorically.
It was important to him that all of us learn that “rebbe” is a function, a role, into which we too can step. That we too have wisdom to give over. That we too can open our hearts to something beyond ourselves and learn to trust that the wisdom which will flow through us will be the right wisdom for this moment. That all of the power shouldn’t reside in one person, because that isn’t good for the rest of us — and it’s not good for the one person in power, either.
“Would that all of God’s people were prophets.” Would that we all felt safe enough to open our hearts and minds to divine inspiration. Would that we all trusted our intuition enough to discern when the voice urging us on is a holy one. Kein yehi ratzon — may it be so.
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
June 6, 2014
I wake up to find myself in my dorm room. The clock says it’s 11:20 am. I have a sinking feeling. My mind finds itself and I realize my first university final exam ever, in the only first-year class I even care about, Introduction to Philosophy, starts in 10 minutes. I have overslept badly. I start yelling. “Oh shit! I’ve slept through my exam!”
The door to my room swings open. A man about 30 years old, wearing his hair in a ponytail, stands in the doorframe. “I have a solution,” he says. “Jump out the window.” One of his legs is in a cast; he leans on wooden crutches. He smiles and closes the door.
I had never seen him before and I never saw him again. But I figured he knew something about the folly of solving problems by yelling and jumping. So I shut up, threw on my clothes, and ran to the exam.
When I recall the story, it seems too fantastical to have happened. But it did. It was an example of real-life magical realism. Usually, “magical realism” refers to a literary genre, in which magical elements are a natural part of an otherwise mundane, realistic environment.
The book of Bamidbar-Numbers is filled with magical realism. Quail appear when the people want meat. Snakes slither into the camp to bite whiners and complainers. An abused donkey tells her owner off. A wooden staff sprouts almonds. What can we learn from this consistent use of magical realism?
Sforno (Italy, 1470-1550) believes Torah is teaching about miracles and thus about the unique power of God. God deliberately changes the natural order of things to accomplish a goal. Normally, the world is a set of ordered events, connected by physical causality, and governed by laws of nature. Only God, the author of nature, can suddenly engineer a disruption.
Pirkei Avot (5:6), however, explains Torah’s magical realism differently. Torah shows us that marvelous things are part of the fabric of the universe. Pirkei Avot says:
Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Shabbat at twilight. They are:
– the mouth of the earth [that swallowed the rebels in Parshat Korach];
– the mouth of the well [that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness during Miriam’s lifetime];
– the mouth of the donkey [that spoke to Balaam];
– the rainbow [that Noach saw];
– the manna [that fed the hungry Israelites];
– the staff of Moshe [that split the sea];
– the Shamir [worm who cut the stones for the Temple];
– the writing [on the tablets Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai];
– the writing instrument;
– and the tablets.
In other words, all kinds of magical beings exist in our world. True, they are not part of the natural order of things. They were created after the step-by-step ordered logic of the first six days was complete. Still, they are part of God’s creation, a part that stands outside of the order. We see them when the twilight region of our consciousness is activated – by heightened emotions, special events, or special seasons.
Literary critics say that magical realism helps showcase these magical elements of our everyday world. It recognizes that we live simultaneously in multiple worlds of consciousness. It offers an antidote to a rigid scientific world-view that suppresses parts of reality, in order to maintain its powerful institutions. It gives voice to marginalized aspects of reality. And it surprises readers, who then become aware of the active role they play in receiving a story, with or without questions.
From this literary perspective, Torah can be read as a subversive book. Unapologetically, it draws us into multiple worlds of consciousness, pushes us to wonder what role myth places in our lives, challenges us to claim an interpretation, and reminds us not to take for granted marginalized groups, such as non-human animals.
My husband Chas wants to make sure everyone knows that despite my academic credentials, I actually live in a world of magical realism. I travel with stuffed animals and set them up in the window of my hotel room so they can look out while I’m gone for the day. Also, I have conversations with flies. And at the beach, I ask small rocks if they would be willing to come home with me and participate in memorial ceremonies. I only take them if they say, “Yes!”
Sometimes I worry that more scientific types view this as avodah zarah, idol worship. But then I turn back to Torah, and let its frank embrace of magical realism connect me with my ancestors and with a deeper critical consciousness.
Torah Reading for Week of May 19-25-20013
“The Book within the Book”
By Rabbi Larry Seidman, PhD ‘09
This week’s Parsha, Behaalotecha, is a part of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, one of the five books of Torah. Yet some say that it has a whole book of the Torah inside it. How can that be?
The mystery surrounds two verses, Numbers 10, verses 35 and 36. In the Torah scroll, and in almost all Hebrew copies of the text, these verses are separated from the rest of the Torah by a unique symbol, the “nun hakuffah”, the inverted Hebrew letter “nun”. You find it just before and after the verses.
These two special verses are sometimes called The Song of the Ark. The first line begins “Va ye hi bin soah ha’aron…” We chant this verse in the synagogue every time we take the Torah out of the Ark. The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation states:
Num 10: 35 When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say
Advance O Lord
May your enemies by scattered
And may your foes flee before You
Num 10:36 And when it halted, he would say,
Return oh Lord
You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands.
Why are these two verses marked in this unique way?
This topic is discussed in the Talmud, in the tractate Shabbat, page 115b and 116a. The Tanna (early Talmudic rabbi) R. Simeon b. Gamliel asserts that these marks are there because the verses are in the wrong place. Perhaps some ancient scribe noticed that he had copied these verses incorrectly and marked them to be fixed in his next copy. Future scribes, however, copied the error and the correction symbols rather than actually making the correction. In the second century BCE, scholars created the Septuagint, a translation of the Torah into Greek. They did not translate the two verses where they are today. Rather they moved verses 35 and 36 to be before verse 34. Perhaps this is the correction that R. Simeon wanted.
The Talmud, as usual, has a second reason for why these two verses are marked in a special way. The great editor of the Mishnah, Yehuda HaNasi, known simply as “Rabbi,” gives a different explanation. He says that the two verses are separated from the rest of the text because they comprise a separate book of Torah. How could they be a separate book of Torah?
Elsewhere in this Parshah, (Numbers 11 verses 26-30) we have the story of Eldad and Medad. They were among the men chosen to join Moses to hear G-d’s words in the tent of meeting. Nevertheless, they declined to go! They chose to stay in their own tents and they prophesied, i.e. they had a divine experience.
The JPS translation of verse 26 says “they were among those recorded” to join Moses, but the Hebrew (“hem b’kituvim”) literally says “they are in the writings”. A Midrash explains that there once was a book called the Prophecy of Eldad and Medad. Rabbi explains that this book was suppressed and only these two verses remain of it. That is why they are marked by the inverted nuns.
Whatever the reason, our forefathers put a lot of attention on “Va y’hi b’insoa…”. The effect is to cause us to stop and think as we take the Torah out of the Ark. We recall that in Biblical times, the Torah was the magical talisman that led the armed forces into combat. Few of us would advocate using the Torah in that way today. Indeed the Tanakh itself, in the First Book of Samuel (4:5-11), reminds us that the whole Ark was lost in battle when our leader relied on its numinous power rather than deriving a sound military strategy.
Perhaps the two inverted nuns are there to warn us that physically lifting up the Torah in the synagogue is not enough to chase away G-d’s enemies. Lifting, touching, kissing, even listening is also not enough. No, we have to understand, to study, and to internalize the teachings. Perhaps Eldad and Medad want to teach us that there is a time to venerate our holy objects, but that it needs to be balanced by a time to stay in our tents and meditate on G-d’s word. There is a need to think about the contemporary meanings of the Tanakh to internalize its teachings and to figure out how we use Torah to live our lives. Maybe this is how we achieve Moses’ prophecy: “Advance O Lord, May your enemies by scattered, And may your foes flee before You.”
Can it really be true that these two verses constitute a separate book of Torah, a book not written by Moses? The Mishnah, the oldest Jewish law, (Yadaim 3.5) says that a defective Torah scroll is sacred as long as 85 letters are legible. It cites the example of these two verses, which contain eighty five letters as sufficient to have the status of a sacred scroll.
If Numbers 10, verses 35 and 36 are a separate book, then the portions of the Book of Numbers before and after must also be separate books, so there are a total of seven books comprising the Torah. The Talmud quotes R. Samuel b. Nahman in R. Jonathan’s name to give us the proof text. It is Proverbs 9, verse 1: “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.” We must study all seven books of the Torah and use them as pillars to build our wisdom.
From Rabbi Mishael Zion
Our Information as Commodity: Gossip and False Intimacy
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” —Numbers 8:1-2
One for each day of creation
and a seventh for Shabbat,
the pearl in the crown
the flowering apple tree
One for each blessing
your children will recite
beneath the chuppah
marveling at what they find
in one another’s eyes.
Colors of the rainbow,
weeks of the Omer,
days of mourning.
In this menorah you’ll find
the bush which burned but remained.
Even now, with our portable
dwelling-place for God
long vanished irretrievably
into the attic of memory,
these lamps still shine.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Cloud by day
pillar of fire by night
the cloud to obscure
the fire to illumine
at night — light
by day — protect with cloud.
In bed I pull the covers over my head
can’t get moving
pillar of fire says — get up
pillar of cloud says – hide yourself.
Pillar of fire says get up
and be like the angels
when you raise up a light
first take the Levites and cleanse them
the ouds they play will be strung with seven strings
come the Messiah the ouds will be strung with eight strings
and in the end —
I will sing to You
on a ten stringed oud. [Psalm 144:9]
Every shabbes a sound from
that wonderful jam
when we listen at the well
A song to the Sabbath day [Psalm 92:1 – 4]
on the ten stringed oud.
Moses could have been hiding in a cloud
the cumulus drawn up over his face
I just can’t talk to another child of Israel he might have said
I need some time to myself —
but he didn’t.
He dusted off the menorah
he saw floating in the sky
Build it this way God showed him
The light from its central shaft
that’s the Torah light
it will need a little lift . . .
don’t leave me in the dark.
O holy God of Shabbes Inspiration B’haalotecha
Sigah trichord: E half-flat F G
Maqam Sigah is associated with the mishkan, the sanctuary, and the menorah.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Gail Labovitz 2011
The Fish We Ate in Egypt
Torah Reading: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah Reading: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7
Close readers of the biblical text, be they the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, medieval m’forshim (commentators), or modern academic bible scholars, have long noted that there are significant echoes and mirrorings and perhaps even repetitions that occur between the books of Exodus and Numbers. By now, many of us have at least heard of modern source critical theory, which posits that different strands of ancient Israelite literature were woven together into the text we have now; in this theory, one way of explaining these strange doublings might be that one well-known tradition was recorded in two different ways at two different times (often with two different ideological underpinnings) and then each fitted into the biblical narrative by a later redactor. Traditional commentators did not have such an option available to them. They understood the biblical text, or certainly at least the text of the Torah, to be the work of one Author. And yet they confronted the same textual problem and had to seek clever and plausible explanations, and it was not impossible even for them to imagine that the Torah might tell the same story twice in two different ways – or that similar events could occur twice, with the very significance of those events emerging from the ways in which they nonetheless also differed from each other.
One half of such a story set occurs in this week’s parashah. In Num. 11, the people become discontent with their food supplies while in the wilderness. They complain that they want meat, and eventually God sends them quails to eat. A very similar episode occurs in Ex. 16. In order to illustrate both the common features and differences between these two episodes, it is worth looking at them side by side. Here are some of the key elements of each:
2In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died at the hand of the Lord in the Land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.’ 4And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion.
4. Then said the Lord to Moses, Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my Torah, or not.
5. And it shall come to pass, that on the sixth day they shall prepare that which they bring in; and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.
11. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
12. I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel; speak to them, saying, At evening you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God.
13. And it came to pass, that at evening the quails came up, and covered the camp; and in the morning the dew lay around the camp.
14. And when the dew that lay was gone, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as hoarfrost on the ground.
15. And when the people of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna [man hu – “what is it?”]; for they knew not what it was. And Moses said to them, This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.
4. And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat?
5. We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;
6. But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.
7. And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of bdellium.
8. And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of fresh oil.
10. Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; and Moses also was displeased.
[And the Lord said to Moses…] 18. And say to the people, Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the ears of the Lord, saying, Who shall give us meat to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt; therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat.
19. You shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days;
20. But a whole month, until it comes out from your nostrils, and it becomes loathsome to you; because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why did we come out of Egypt?
31. And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, about a day’s journey on this side, and about a day’s journey on the other side, around the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth.
33. And while the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was chewed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague.
Some very important details appear in both stories. The biblical scholar George W. Coats, for example, enumerates five structural parallels between the two (Rebellion in the Wilderness, p. 99). At least some rabbis in the classical midrash attempt to harmonize the details of the two stories, suggesting that they read these passages as two tellings of one underlying event.
But not so fast. Remember those puzzles you find on kiddie placemats at restaurants, or on the comics page of the newspaper, in which two seemingly identical pictures are placed side by side and the game is to find the differences? There are plenty of them here too if you look (I’ll refrain from listing how many you have to find to be “expert,” good,” “fair,” etc.).
You may have noticed above that there are elements that appear in the story in Numbers that are not present in Exodus. In the latter episode, Moses is distressed by the people’s grumbling, and although God does fulfill the request for meat, God does so in a way that is punitive (sending the quail “until it comes out from your nostrils, and it becomes loathsome to you”) and accompanies it at the end with a plague to boot. But the differences can be found from the very beginning of each story too. Among those that stand out are timing and circumstances. In Exodus, this episode appears after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds but before the giving of the Torah at Sinai. In Numbers, as the opening of chap. 9 tells us, we now stand sometime after “the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt,” the tabernacle has been built and inaugurated, and Torah has been given and the people have left Sinai (chap 10). In Exodus, it seems the people truly have no food to eat; while quails appear as part of the story, the true focus is on the giving of the miraculous food of manna. In Numbers, the people have manna but are discontent with it.
Even the substance of the complaints is subtly different. In Exodus, the people fear that they have been brought into the wilderness to die of starvation. This is a particularly horrible form of death, as noted by a rabbi in the midrashic commentary, the Mekhilta:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha says: You have no more difficult death than death by starvation, as it says, “Those who were slain with the sword are better than those who are slain with hunger [for these pine away, stricken by want of the fruits of the field] (Lam. 4:9).”
In this light, note that the people say not “better we should be slaves in Egypt,” but rather “better we should die in Egypt” than die by hunger in the wilderness. Even to stay in Egypt might mean death, they recognize, but a less awful death. In Numbers, though, the complaint comes from a “strong craving.” “Sure, we have manna,” they say, “but we want meat!” Their memories of Egypt are only about the food that was available there, with no apparent concern for the threat that the Egyptians posed to the Israelites lives or freedom.
In sum, the story as it is told in Exodus describes a misguided, but understandable reaction of a newly freed people who are only just beginning to confront their radically changed situation and who are in genuine fear of what comes next. Thus, neither God nor Moses reacts in the same despairing or angry way, and the people’s needs are then genuinely provided for. In the Numbers telling, however, no such excuses are possible. The people are under no immediate threat. Although God has rescued them, supported them, provided for them, made a sacred covenant with them, they are still not satisfied.
On this Shabbat, which will occur just after Shavuot, just after we’ve just tried to recreate a bit of the moment when all our souls stood at Sinai and received Torah, it is an especially appropriate time to be reminded of the significance of the place in which we stand after Revelation. Most of us are fortunate to return from our tikkunim and Shavuot services to homes that shelter us, sufficient food to sustain us, families and friends and communities who nurture us. There is always more that could theoretically be given to us, but the message of the conjunction of Shavuot and parashat Beha’alotcha should instead be one of gratitude for all that we do have.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Beha’aloscha
Rav DovBer Pinson
This week’s Torah reading begins with the words;“Hashem spoke…saying…When you kindle the lights (of the Menorah/ Candelabra) the seven lamps shall cast their light.” (8:1-2)
The literal translation of that the words “When you will kindle the lights” is – ‘when you make the lights rise.’
When we feel that there is darkness and we have lost light, we must touch a flame to a wick, until a new flame rises on its own. In order to become inspired to move forward we must do a very real action. At times, our actions flow from our feelings, but always our feelings flow from our actions. Actions lead to feelings, what we do we eventually feel, the “heart follows the deed”, which then leads to further inspired actions.
This truth is reflected in the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.
The journey from Egypt towards the promised land is progressing nicely, when suddenly the journey veers off track.
Until about mid point in this week’s Torah reading the trajectory is clear, first comes the book of Shemos/Exodus, then following the exodus from Egypt is the book of Vayikra/ Leviticus, the laws and customs of the Priests and Levites who serve in the Mishkan / Temporary Temple in the desert, and then comes the book of Bamidbar/ Numbers, where everyone is counted, a formation of positioning of movement is put in order, and they are moving along nicely towards the Promised Land.
This progression continues until “Whenever the ark set out, Moshe would say, Arise, Hashem, may Your enemies be scattered…(10:35) Moshe promises that they will find peace in this journey, and then immediately afterwards, the very next verse says “The people were looking to complain…” (11:1), and so begins one complaining after the next.
After this verse, things start unraveling, arguments ensue, politics and war, rebellions and strife abound and instead of moving quickly into the Promised Land they get stuck in the desert for 40 years. Yet, in all this time of hardship, they are continuously moving forward towards their destination.
The Torah is comprised of five books that were meant to take us from Creation directly to Destination.
Bereishis/ Genesis: Creation
Shemos/ Exodus: Redemption
Yet, the reality of life is that things don’t go completely smoothly in our life journey, and there are stumbling blocks along the way. We get side tracked, we lose our way occasionally, and therefore the Sages say, that in reality – while there are five books, they are actually divided into seven parts. In sequence they are;
Yet, for all the challenges that lay ahead of the Israelites, after 40 years, 40 being a number representing genuine transformation, they do finally arrive at their intended destination.
THE WEEK’S ENERGY
The journey from creation to destination is a metaphor for our own journey through life.
While our progression is constant, the way is not always clear.
At times we do not sense inspiration and a way forward, and yet, somehow we must find a way to move forward, and do the action.
In order for the flame to ‘catch’, for inspiration to take hold, it must be held to the wick for some time, until it once again rises on its own.
We start with a forward movement, an action, however small and insignificant it may feel.
This action becomes inspiraton, that when lit, will lead to greater forward motion.
Even the smallest step forward can get us back on track and heading in the right direction towards our destination.
All true transformation occurs in increments, and experiences setbacks along the way.
This week’s Torah reading imbues us with the energy to take that small, but necessary step forward towards experiencing inspiration. That small step will lead to the inspiration that will lead to further steps that will take us on the direct path to true transformation.
This week, take stock of your destination and decide on one baby step that will take you in that direction. No big life changing action – just a small movement in the right direction, and watch the inspiration take hold and propel you forward.
From Reb Zalman
Washing of Garments
May 27th, 2010 The following text by Reb Zalman is from this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos Behaalotecha. [Notes by Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor]:
» (Numbers 8:7) … then they shall wash their garments and be purified.
[NOTE: This is from instructions for preparing the Levites for their service. Reb Shneur Zalman has pointed out that this is not just about the clothes they were wearing.]
being that three “garments” of the nefesh / soul: Machshavah / thought, Dibbur / speech and Maaseh / action should be clean.
[NOTE: Garments are, in general, the visible, external trappings that cover things behind, things not visible to the eyes. In the analogy here presented, the “garments” represent outward manifestation of realities. Behind them are invisible causes or mysteries.
Simply put, we must clean up actions, clean up speech, and clean up thoughts. The deeper we clean, the closer we move, (as the Levites in our text), toward God’s service. ]
For, there’s the remnant “neshama / soul that You gave me” – from long since – “it was pure.”
[NOTE: When we enter the world, our Neshama is pure and it remains so despite anything we may do, say or think that is not. (Neshama and nefesh are both words for “soul” but the former is a part of us that is always close to God.)]
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
“Parashat Behaalotecha,” p. 34
Reb Avraham Greenbaum
Beha’aloscha, Numbers 8:1-12:16
Unity within Diversity
by Avraham ben Yaakov
“And God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him: When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick… And this was the work of the candlestick, beaten work of gold… according to the pattern which God had shown Moses, so he made the candlestick.”
Numbers 8:2, 4
Continuing on from the last two portions explaining the arrangements in the Sanctuary, our present portion opens with instructions to the High Priest about the daily kindling of the lights of the Candelabrum (Menorah). In parallel, this week’s prophetic passage (“Haftara”) traditionally read after the weekly Synagogue Torah reading includes Zechariah’s vision of the heavenly candelabrum (Zechariah 4:2-3).
The design of the Temple candelabrum, with its central shaft and six branches, each supporting one of its seven lamps and adorned with decorative cups, knops and flowers, is set forth in Exodus 25:31-37. All of these components were to be made specifically “of one piece: the whole of it one beaten work of pure gold” (verse 36).
This comes to teach us that diverse elements (the seven branches and their ornaments) can co-exist in unity (one piece of gold).
Sevens in Nature
The natural creation was traditionally thought to be made up of sevens, such as the seven continents, seven seas and seven classical planets (the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). From the names of these planets come the names of the seven days of our week.
The theme of seven recurs throughout the Torah, the opening verse of which contains seven Hebrew words introducing the account of Creation in seven “days” (Genesis 1).
The sign of God’s Covenant with humanity after Noah’s flood was the rainbow (Genesis 9:13-16). This consists of the seven chief colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. All are refractions of white light: the different hues lie adjacent to and work with one another, so that the rainbow shines as one whole through the coherence and harmony of its component parts.
Unity amidst diversity
The seven-branched Temple Candelabrum, the Menorah, is a universal symbol of unity amidst diversity. Significantly, Torah law forbids one to make a candelabrum for one’s own personal use in the same form as that of the Temple Menorah (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Temple 7:10). The Menorah cannot be someone’s private, personal property. There can only be one Menorah: that of the Temple, dedicated to the glory of God and not to the glorification of any specific individual or group. (The Chanukah candelabrum lit annually in private homes and many public locations has eight branches, relating to the eight days of the Chanukah festival commemorating the Second Temple miracle when one remaining flask of pure oil was sufficient to kindle the Menorah for eight days.)
The Temple was in no need of a lamp to provide interior lighting, because the Temple itself emanates light! The daily kindling of the Menorah by the priest was intended to radiate the light of God and His Torah from the Temple out to the entire world.
Just as the seven colors of the rainbow emanate from one source of white light, so the seven branches of the Menorah make up a single “tree” of light. Its seven branches allude to the seven chief attributes from which the astonishing plurality and diversity of the world around us derives: Kindness, Strength, Harmony, Victory, Splendor, Purity and Kingship.
Correspondingly, the human face has its own seven “lights”: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth, which rules over us like a king .
In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov :
To gain spiritual understanding and awareness, you must sanctify the seven “lamps” of your head: your mouth, nostrils, ears and eyes. Guard your mouth from speaking any falsehood; through humility and patience, sanctify your nostrils with the fear of Heaven, as it is written: “…he will scent the fear of God” (Isaiah 11:3). Use your ears to attend to the words of the wise: believe in what they say. Lower your eyes and avert them from evil. Sanctifying the seven “lamps” of the head can bring you to deeper spiritual understanding and awareness, and your heart will then burn with passion for God… These heights of understanding are a blessing from God that is bestowed from above without preliminaries and introductions: this is the gift of holy spirit.
Likutey Moharan I, 21
The seven branches of the Menorah also correspond to the Seven Universal Laws of the Children of Noah, with whom God struck His Covenant after the flood with the sign of the seven-colored rainbow.
A universal symbol
The universal relevance of the Menorah as a symbol of unity amidst diversity for all humanity finds expression in Psalm 67, a paean of thanksgiving to God by all the nations and a prayer for universal blessing:
For the Leader; with string-music; A Psalm, a Song:
1. God be gracious to us, and bless us; may He shine His face toward us; Selah!
2. That Your way may be known upon earth, Your salvation among all nations.
3. Let the peoples give thanks to You, O God; let the peoples give thanks to You, all of them.
4. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for You will judge the peoples with equity, and lead the nations upon earth. Selah
5. Let the peoples give thanks to You, O God; let the peoples give thanks to You, all of them.
6. The earth has yielded her increase; may God – our God – bless us.
7. May God bless us, and let all the ends of the earth fear Him.
Besides the first line, which is a title or superscription, this truly universal Psalm consists of seven verses. As an aid to prayer and meditation, the Hebrew text of this Psalm is often written in the form of the Menorah. Note that verse 4 is the longest of all: this forms the central shaft of the Menorah and its base, while verses 1-3 and 5-7 are arranged on either side, corresponding to the six branches.
Psalm 67 written in Hebrew in form of Menorah.
Verse 1 is on left hand side, verse 7 on right hand side.
When King Solomon built his Temple, he made ten golden candelabra which stood in two rows in front of the Menorah of Moses (II Chronicles 4:7, Talmud Tractate Shekalim 18a). These ten candelabra, each with its own seven branches, together had a total of seventy branches – corresponding to the seventy nations that developed from the offspring of Noah and his sons. All these individual branches, each with their own attributes and characteristics, derive their power from the refractions of the “colors” or “attributes” contained in the light emanating from seven branches of the archetypal Menorah of Moses, all made of one piece, corresponding to the colors of the rainbow, which are all refractions of unitary white light.
When all work together in harmony, there is peace!
© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5770 – 2009-10 All rights reserved
Reb Sholom Brodt
The Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz”l often taught that the essence of the ‘parsha’ is contained in its name. The name of this weeks’ parsha is “B’ha-alotcha”, which literally translates as — when you are raising up. What a blessing it is to read the opening verses of this weeks’ parsha… we all need to be uplifted, we all need much more holy light and we all need to do our parts in bringing Hashem’s holy light into the world.
The holy Bal Shem Tov brings taught that the service of lighting the Menorah corresponds to “Bereishis”, the very beginning of the creation of the world. By lighting the Menorah Aharon Hakohen was drawing down to each individual Jew, the light of the very Beginning, the light by which each person can start again, the light of renewal.
This Shabbos parshas B’ha-alotcha, says the Kozhnitzer Maggid zy”a, is blessed with flashes of the Or Haganuz, the hidden light. Let us all make an effort to see each other’s light, to see the reflection of Hashem’s light in each other, o help one another light our Menorahs. Let us all remember that when we look at one another, we could actually yearn/learn to see a lamp of Hashem. Let’s learn about it.
“VA-YEDABEYR H’ EL MOSHE LEIMOR. DA-BEYR EL AHARON, V’OMARTO EILOV,B’HA’ALOTCHA ET HANEIROT, EL MUL P’NAI HAMENORAH,YA-EERU SHIVAT HANEIROT”….(NUM.8: 1-2)
“AND HASHEM SPOKE TO MOSHE SAYING,SPEAK TO AHARON AND TELL HIM
‘WHEN YOU [WILL BE ‘RAISING UP’] LIGHT THE LAMP,TOWARDS ‘THE FACE OF’THE MENORAH
SHALL THE SEVEN CANDLES SHINE [CAST THEIR LIGHT].
AHARON DID SO, TOWARDS THE FACE OF THE MENORAH,HE LIT ITS LAMPS JUST AS HASHEM COMMANDED MOSHE.
THIS IS HOW THE MENORAH WAS MADE; BEATEN FROM A BLOCK OF GOLD FROM ITS BASE UNTIL ITS FLOWERS IT IS BEATEN OUT [ OF A SOLID BLOCK]ACCORDING TO THE VISION WHICH HASHEM SHOWED MOSHE – SO HE* MADE THE MENORAH”
[*acc. to the Midrash–so He made the Menorah] (Num. 8: 1-4)
What is interesting is that instructions for lighting the Menorah and its construction were already given earlier in the Torah! So then why is Aharon receiving additional instructions, right here and now, following the ‘parsha of the Nesi’im’s dedication of the altar’?
Rashi asks: “Why is the parsha of the Menorah adjacent to the parsha of the Nesiim [the princes of the tribes] ? To answer the question, Rashi brings us a Midrash:
BECAUSE, WHEN AHARON SAW THE LEADERS DEDICATION OF THE ALTAR
HE FELT HUMILIATED [HE FELT WEAKEND]
SINCE HE WAS NOT ‘WITH THEM’ IN THE DEDICATION [OF THE ALTAR]
NEITHER HE NOR ANYONE OF HIS TRIBE.
THE HOLY ONE BLESSED BE HE, SAID TO HIM,
“BY YOUR LIFE [I SWEAR TO YOU]YOURS IS GREATER THAN THEIRS!
FOR YOU WILL LIGHT AND PERFECT THE LAMPS.
Interesting! What was bothering Aharon, why did he feel humiliated? Because he was not ‘WITH THEM’. Aharon Hakohen was so connected to each individual yid, he was always making peace between people, he was always including everyone in what he was doing. So when he saw the amazing unity of the tribes in their service of the dedication of the altar, a dedication in which neither he nor anyone else from his tribe of Levi participated in, his ‘DA’AT’, his consciousness became weak. He wanted so much to be a part of the dedication and since he had no part in it he felt grief and on the verge of losing his self-confidence as a servant of Hsashem.
So Hashem comes to comfort him and tells him: “YOUR SERVICE OF LIGHTING THE MENORAH IS GREATER THAN THEIR SERVICE OF DEDICATING THE ALTAR”.
The commentators ask why did Hashem comfort Aharon particularly with the lighting of the Menorah, after all there were many other awesome services that only he performed in the Sanctuary, such as the daily Quetoret incense offering, among others? There are many layers of explanations in the teachings of Chassidus and Kabbalah, on this Midrash.
The Ramban cites another two Midrashim that are very much related to the one quoted by Rashi. These Midrashim say that this parsha is an allusion to the re-dedication of the Temple that would be accomplished many generations later, by Aharon’s descendants, the Chashmonaim family with the miracle of the lights of Channukah – a miracle that continues to be celebrated to this very day with the annual kindling of the Chanukah lights. That is why Hashem said, “YOUR SERVICE OF LIGHTING THE MENORAH IS GREATER” since your service of lighting the Menorah would continue even after the destruction of the Holy Temple – the Infinite Light of the Holy One blessed be He, that you bring into the world will accompany the Jewish people until the ultimate redemption when the Menorah will be lit once again in the Third Temple – may it be quickly in our days.
The holy Bal Shem Tov brings teaches that the lighting of the Menorah corresponds to “Bereishit” the very first utterance of Creation. [as explained further on [SO HE MADE THE MENORAH — SO HASHEM MADE THE MENORAH] By lighting the Menorah Aharon Hakohen was drawing down to each invidual Jew, the light of the very Beginning … the light by which each person can start again – the light of renewal.
“..NEIR HASHEM …NISHMAS ADAM” – “THE LAMP OF HASHEM… IS THE SOUL OF MAN”….. [Psalms] Each soul is a ‘neir’ a lamp of Hashem. “B’HA-ALOTCHA ET HANEIROT …” when you will raise up (light) the lamps [of Hashem]. When Aharon Hakohen lit the Menorah, he was also lighting the lamps of each Jewish soul, by bringing Hashem’s Divine Light into the world. Anyone who truly seeks to see this spiritual light, and makes a serious the effort to attain it, can do so even today. Even today, when we still do not have the holy Temple, we can still receive of this light and we are still inspired by this light. Therefore, your portion in the service of the Mishkan, will last eternally. Every Jew will one day light the Channukah lamp; you will give over to every holy soul the ability to be holy Menorah lighters.
On another level, what makes the service of the lighting of the Menorah greater is that while the service of the sacrifices brings atonement, it is the lighting of the Menorah that arouses intimate Tshuvah – as Hashem’s ‘or ganuz’, hidden light is revealed in our hearts and souls. (See Reb Shlomo’s teaching further on.)
It was Aharon’s sincere yearning to “be” together with everyone, that brought him the blessing of being the servant who would bring Hashem’s spiritual light to each of Hashem’s camdles, in every generation. His yearning to “be” with each of us, to unite each one of us in peace, continues to “inspire” each of us to start again, and continues to help each one of us to “inspire” one another, with the spiritual light, with which Hashem created the world.
“LEHAGID SHVACHO SHELO SHEENAH.”
In verse 2 at the opening of our parsha we read, “AND AHARON DID JUST AS HASHEM HAD COMMANDED HIM.” All the commentators ask why is the Torah telling us this? Would anyone have thought that he would do otherwise? Rashi explains that the Torah is commending Aharon for doing everyday exactly as he was instructed to do, – “SHELO SHEENAH” – he did not make any changes. It seems like the question still needs to be answered – why would you think that Aharon would make any changes in the performance of this great mitzvah?
The Mei Hashiloach explains “SHELO SHEENAH” – that he did not make any changes, as follows. It is common experience that in our practice of our daily mitzvot, we often lose some of our excitement and joy in their performance. All too often we sink into an autopilot mode, performing the mitzvot routinely without true excitement and joy. We become “old” and we fall asleep. [The word ‘sheenah’ is thus related to the word ‘shainah’ – sleep.] The greatness of Aharon was that each day he would light the Menorah with the same joy and anticipation, as if he was doing for the first time.
Reb Shlomo zt”l provides a very dramatic explanation of “SHELO SHEENAH.” [L’ma’an Achai V’reyai p.56] Aharon haKohen was an extraordinarily holy man. Most people imagine a holy person as someone who keeps himself at a distance from the ordinary folk and remains aloof from their day-to-day life, protecting him or herself from the assumed ungodliness of the street.
The problem with such descriptions of holy people is that we then see them as so beyond us that we can never imagine ourselves as being holy. When I used to teach in high school and elementary school, I had many opportunities to learn parshas Kedoshim [Va’yikra 19] with my students. In that parsha we are commanded to be holy. I would ask my students to close their eyes and visualize a holy person. After doing this, they would open their eyes again and I would then ask them the following two questions: 1] Was the holy person you ‘saw’, male or female? 2] What did they look like and how were they dressed? As you may have imagined, most of the ‘holy people’ were males and they [both the holyu males and females] were dressed quite differently from us. Sadly, this illustrates that most of us have a difficult time of perceiving ourselves as being connected to holiness, or ever being holy ourselves.
But Aharon haKohen was not like that at all. Reb Shlomo describes our first High Priest in a very different manner. Aharon haKohen was indeed very holy, and at the same time very accessible.
Aharon haKohen was the first Kohen and the first Kohen Gadol ever. All Kohanim until Moshiach is coming are his descendants and their sanctity stems from him. One would imagine that he surely spent all his time in the sanctuary, offering sacrifices, studying Torah, praying and meditating. He was so holy that the entire Yom Kippur service was done by him; he was the only one to enter into the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur on behalf of the entire nation, and only he pronounced the “Shem Hameforash,” the unutterable Divine Name of G-d. All this is true, yet at the same time he was able to be very close to his people – not despite his holiness, but, because he was so holy!
What does it mean on a daily basis, that Aharon haKohen pronounced Hashem’s Holy Name in the Holy of Holies? What did it mean to Aharon and what did it mean to us on a daily basis? What does it mean to us today?
Reb Shlomo explains that these very same lips that uttered Hashem’s Name, were making peace between people! The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot [Chap. 1] instructs us to be among the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the peole and bringing them close to the Torah. It is explained that Aharon did not merely give lip service to peace. Instead of spending most of his time isolated in the protected holiness of the Sanctuary, he was among the people, talking with them, listening to them and actively helping them live in peace. He would make peace between husband and wife, between business partners, between parents and children, between friends, etc. The holiness of Hashem’s Name was on Aharon’s lips every single day. A holy person speaks holy; a holy person speaks healing words of comfort, reconciliation and peace. Because he was so holy, the Oneness of G-d was so very real to him. Because he was so close to Hashem he was so he could not tolerate people hurting one another. His holiness would not allow him to do the services in the Sanctuary, unless he gave it full expression in the street.
When Aharon would meet someone who was ‘off’ in his religious practice, he did not tell him “Listen brother, you’re off, you are a mess and you better change.” Aharon haKohen saw with ‘Mashiach eyes’. He saw the depths of each person. He saw that people are truly holy on the inside. He actively loved them by being with them, by seeing and focusing on their good points and their inner holiness, by speaking with them lovingly, by helping them get along in peace, their Divine souls were aroused and strengthened. Then they would on their own, realize how holy they were and how connected they were. In his presence they became aware of the ‘natural’ holy fire that is aflame in their hearts.
“Sheloh sheenah” – he did not change – means he did not try to make the other person change, says Reb Shlomo. This was the greatness of Aharon haKohen. Aharon actively loved everyone. When you see someone who is ‘off’, you need Moshiach eyes to love him and help him. You don’t learn to love from ‘outside’, it is a matter of the ‘inside’. As he would light the Menorah he connected all of Israel with the ‘or ganuz’, and thus inspired all of us to do intimate Tshuvah.
Once during a television interview Reb Shlomo zt”l was asked what was the secret of his great success in ‘kiruv’ – in bringing so many thousands of Jews back to their roots, did he have some kind of formula? [Kiruv – is the widely used term by those doing religious outreach work. It means, bringing close.] Reb Shlomo zt”l said two things. First, he said that he doesn’t use the word ‘kiruv’ because who is to say that he is closer to G-d than the person that he connecting with – maybe this person who is seemingly less observant, is actually closer to G-d? Secondly, he said, that he does not have any formula at all. He just prays each time that Hashem should put the right words in his mouth and that these words should reach the heart.
Have a wonderful and “lictigeh Shabbos” – a Shabbos filled with and radiating beautiful holy Shabbos light,
From Rabbi SaraLeya Schley
Posted on this weeks newsletter from
Recalling the Brit Or. Parashat B’h’alotkha (Numbers 8:1-12:16). 12 Sivan 5770 May 25, 2010
Last year as we read this parashah, we celebrated our Brit Or, our communal Covenant of Light. I would like to review a few of the words I shared with you then: The text begins with the lighting of the menorah after the Tabernacle was fully dedicated and anointed. The Sages teach that the golden menorah’s pure oil lamps did not shine ordinary light: the menorah allowed the celestial light that was created from darkness and chaos on the very first day of creation, even before there was a sun and moon, to beam into this world. This is the light of spiritual sight that allows us to see through veils, from one end of the universe to the other. The specific word of our text b’ha’alotkha tells us that in lighting the menorah we are “raising it up” so that we, too, are elevated and we add light to the world. When the text tells us that the light shines toward the panim of the menorah, the Hebrew hints that our faces shine while the inner light of our soul is kindled. In spiritual community, we are like the lights of the menorah, elevating each other to reflect different colors of the infinite light back to each other. We shine our light toward each other’s panim – faces- and we shine our light into each other’s hearts, our penimiut – our insides. The light generated by all of us together is brighter than the sum of our individual lights. And so we together focus and magnify the light of Divinity, bringing love and healing to our world.
With blessing for deep, heart-wise meditation on the mystery of the menorah’s light,
From Academy for Jewish Religion/CA
Torah Reading for Week of June 7 – June 13, 2009
“Shining Our Light”
by Rabbi Paul Shleffar, ’06
Director, Center for Contemporary Jewish Spirituality
G-d Spoke to Moses, saying, speak to Aaron and tell him “In your going up to light the lamps, the light of the seven lamps shall shine forward.”
The High Priest is instructed to kindle the lamps that are to burn continually. It is interesting that in this Parsha following the instructions for the kindling of the lamps, we also find the instructions for the Pesach offerings in the wilderness. The Rabbis of the Talmud, in Pesachim, which begins with the word ohr or light, outline the search for Chametz in dark and hidden places, discussing in great detail, among other things, how far back one must search in one’s wine cellar to find Chametz. It is in this relationship between the kindling of the eternal light and the imperative to seek out and illuminate the dark and hidden that I believe we can find relevant meaning and instruction for how to live our lives.
We are being asked to constantly kindle our inner light, but even more than this we are being urged to shine a continual bright light in those dark corners of our psyches, searching out and removing that which threatens to harm our internal balance, that which harms our ability to relate with others and ultimately with the Divine. This is according to the Jewish mystics, our only purpose for having been created, and there is no greater joy in this world than to fulfill one’s purpose. The 20th century Chasidic master, the Sfat Emet, had this to say, “…This process is dependent on the light within us: the more we expand and grow our souls, the more G-d is revealed in every place. This is the meaning of “when the Lord your G-d expands your borders” – the light reveals itself and there is an expansion within the totality of the human soul.
This then is our charge: to rise up using our highest self – our inner High priest – constantly shining our light in search of our destiny and constantly on guard for anything that could stand in the way of our performing it. This work is not for ourselves, but for each other and for all created beings, anything that contains a bit of Divine light. It is in doing this that we become a ‘light unto the nations’ and ‘a nation of priests’ all aligned as one.
When you raise light in the lamps (8:2)
When the Kohen came to kindle the menorah’s lamps each afternoon in the Holy Temple, he found them fully prepared for lighting: earlier in the day, the lamps had been cleaned and filled with oil, and fresh wicks had been inserted. All he had to do was bring near the flame he carried, so that its proximity to the waiting lamp would unleash the potential for illumination which the lamp already holds.
Therein lies an important lesson to the spiritual lamplighter: do not think that you are achieving anything that your fellow could not, in truth, achieve on his own; do not think that you are giving him something he does not already possess. The soul of your fellow is a ready lamp, filled with the purest oil and equipped with all that is required to convert its fuel into a blazing flame. It only lacks the proximity of another lamp to ignite it. If your own soul is alight, its contact with another’s soul will awaken its potential for light, so that it may illuminate its surroundings and kindle other souls, in turn.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
If any man of you, or of your future generations, shall be unclean… or be on a journey afar off, he shall keep the Passover to G-d on the fourteenth day of the second month… (9:10-11)
The meaning of the “Second Passover” is that it is never too late; there is always a second chance.
(Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)
Why was the mitzvah of the “Second Passover” not commanded directly by G-d in the Torah from the very start, as were virtually all other mitzvot?
Because the Second Passover represents the power of teshuvah–the power to “return” and rectify past failings and transform them, retroactively, into merits. This cannot derive from Torah itself, since Torah, which defines what is desirable and undesirable in the eyes of G-d, cannot regard a failure to fulfill a Divine command as something “positive.” The mitzvah of the Second Passover could come only as the Divine response to the profound yearning of a soul superceding “Torah,” as it were, crying out for attachment to G-d from a place so deep within itself that it transcends failing and merit, and can therefore reach back to transform the failing into the merit.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And at times it was, that the cloud abode from evening until morning… then they journeyed (9:21)
The Sanctuary was a formidable structure, consisting of hundreds of foundation sockets, wall sections, pillars, tapestries and furnishings; a work crew of several thousand Levites assembled the Sanctuary at each camp and dismantled and transported it when the Divine command would come to move on. Yet the “Tent of Meeting” was erected at every encampment–even if only for a single day!
This teaches us that each and every one of our “stations” in life is significant unto itself. A person may find him or herself in a certain place or in a certain situation for a very brief period, and it may seem to him that he is merely “on the way” to some other place. Yet there is always something in that place or situation to be sanctified–something that can serve as a “Tent of Meeting” between Heaven and earth.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And I will emanate of the spirit which is upon you, and will bestow it upon them (11:17)
On the most basic level, this is the difference between physical and spiritual giving. In physical giving, the givers resources are depleted by his gift–he now has less money or energy than before. In spiritual giving, however, there is no loss. When a person teaches his fellow, his own knowledge is not diminishedif anything, it is enhanced.
Upon deeper contemplation, however, it would seem that spiritual giving, too, carries a “price.” If the disciple is of inferior knowledge and mental capability than the teacher, the time and effort expended in teaching him is invariably at the expense of the teachers own intellectual development; also, the need for the teacher to “coarsen” and simplify his ideas to fit the disciples mind will ultimately detract from the depth and abstraction of his own thoughts. By the same token, dealing with people of lower moral and spiritual level than oneself cannot but affect ones own spiritual state. The recipients of this “spiritual charity” will be elevated by it, but its giver will be diminished by the relationship, however subtly.
Indeed, we find an example of such spiritual descent in Moses bestowal of the leadership upon Joshua. In contrast to the appointment of the seventy elders, where he was told to “emanate” his spirit to them, Moses is here commanded to “Take Joshua the son of Nun, and lay your hand upon him… and give of your glory upon him” (Numbers 28:18-20). Here the Midrash comments, “Lay your hand upon himlike one who kindles a candle from a candle; Give of your glorylike one who pours from one vessel into another vessel.”
In other words, there are two kinds of spiritual gifts: a gift that “costs” the giver nothing (“emanation”, which is like “kindling a candle from a candle”), and a gift that involves a removal of something from the giver in order that the recipient should receive something (“pouring from one vessel into another”).
There are times we indeed sacrifice something of ourselves for the benefit of a fellow. But there are also times when we commit ourselves to our fellow so absolutely–when the gift comes from a place so deep and so true within us–that we only grow from experience, no matter how much we give of ourselves.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
From Rav Kook
Beha’alotcha: The Seven Lamps of the Menorah
“Speak to Aaron and tell him, ‘When you light the lamps, the seven lamps should shine towards the center of the Menorah.'” (Num. 8:2)
Why does the Torah emphasize this particular detail — that the seven lamps should face the center of the Menorah? Why not begin with the overall mitzvah — to light the Menorah each evening?
Also, what is the significance of the Menorah’s seven branches?
Different Paths of Wisdom
The Sages wrote that the Menorah and its light represent wisdom (Baba Batra 25b). All wisdom has a common source, but there are different approaches to wisdom. Every individual pursues those spheres of knowledge to which he is naturally drawn.
The Midrash (BaMidbar Rabbah 15:7) compares the seven lights of the Menorah to the seven planets in the solar system, shining in the nighttime sky. What is the meaning of this symbolism?
The ancients understood that the planets and constellations affect our nature and personality traits. A person under the influence of Mars, for example, will have different traits then one under the influence of Jupiter (see Shabbat 165a). In other words, God created each of us with a unique character in order that we should perfect ourselves in the particular path that suits us. In this way, all of creation is completed; through the aggregation of all individual perfections, the universe attains overall perfection.
Just as each planet symbolizes a distinct character trait, each branch of the Menorah is a metaphor for a specific category of intellectual pursuits. God prepared a path for each individual to attain wisdom according to his own character and interests.
Towards the Center
However, we should be careful not to follow our natural intellectual inclinations exclusively. The Torah stresses that “when you light the lamps” — when we reach for that individual enlightenment that suits our particular character — we should take care that this wisdom will “shine towards the center of the Menorah.” What is the center of the Menorah? This is the wisdom of the Torah. We need to draw specifically from the light of Torah, whose source is the underlying unity of all wisdom.
In truth, the seven branches of the Menorah are not truly distinct, separate paths. All seven receive light from the unified wisdom with which God enlightens His world. For this reason, the Torah describes the Menorah as being formed from a single piece of gold, “mikshah zahav”. The special manner in which the Menorah was formed reveals the underlying unity of all forms of wisdom.
(adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 53-55)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Beha’alotcha: A Tale of Two Prayers
A Short Prayer for Miriam
When Miriam was stricken with leprosy, Moses beseeched God to heal his sister with a remarkably brief prayer: “Please God, please heal her” (Num. 12:13).
The Talmud (Berachot 34a) took note of the unusual brevity of this prayer in the following story:
Once, a student led the prayers in Rabbi Eliezer’s house of study, and his prayers were unusually lengthy. The other students complained, ‘Master, how slow this fellow is!’ Rabbi Eliezer responded to them, ‘He is no slower than Moses, who pleaded on behalf of the Jewish people (after the sin of the golden calf) for forty days and forty nights.’
On another occasion, a different student led the prayers. This student recited the prayers quickly. The other students complained, ‘How hasty this fellow is!’ This time, Rabbi Eliezer replied, ‘He is no hastier than Moses, who pleaded for his sister’s recovery with a few short words.’
What determined the length of Moses’ prayers? Why did his own sister merit only a brief, one-line prayer?
Two Types of Prayer
Prayer serves two functions. The first function is to refine character traits and deepen knowledge — either for the person praying, or for those being prayed for. This type of prayer requires tenacity and perseverance, since correction of flawed traits requires extended effort, and usually occurs gradually over time.
For this reason, Moses needed to pray extensively when he prayed for the Jewish people. Why forty days? This period is the time it takes for an embryo to develop limbs and become recognizable as a human fetus. The forty days of Moses’ prayer indicated a rebirth of the Jewish people, with a new heart and spirit.
There is, however, a second function of prayer. Sometimes the inner emotions and character traits have already been refined and purified. Prayer only comes to express that which already exists in the inner soul. In such cases, an extended prayer is unnecessary; even a brief prayer may express many holy feelings. In the case of Miriam, she had already conceded her mistake. Her healing, both physical and spiritual, required only a short, simple prayer.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 163)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(When You Raise Up)
NUMBERS 8:1 – 12:16
Beha’alotekha describes the Israelites’ departure from Sinai, beginning with directions for lighting of the Menorah. God also commands the making of two silver trumpets which are to be sounded at the time of setting forth on the journey.
BEHA’ALOTEKHA DESCRIBES THE INNER GESTURE of “setting forth” as we continue to move through the wilderness. Our journeys are in some sense always just beginning. Wherever we stand in our lives can be perceived as the place of infinite potential, the intersection of Being and Becoming, the threshold of the beyond. From this vast potential of “here and now” we are either sent to who we are becoming or we get stuck in the traps of illusion or fear.
The blessings of Light and Sound are given to us to help us break through these obstacles and move forward on our path.
The blessing of Light and the blessing of Sound can inspire us forward. They are the tools we use to release ourselves from the slavery we carry within.
The name Beha’alotekha refers to the “lighting” of the menorah, the golden candelabra in the Mishkan. This is the fire that lights our way forward. The gold of the sun is awakened in us through the service of the menorah.
The silver trumpet is a priestly instrument. The silver of the moon is awakened in us through the service of the trumpet. Its tones serve two purposes: first to call us to our center, and then to send us on our journey.
We journey by stages. When we are ready to move to the next stage of our journey we must open ourselves to the call of the silver trumpets. Their sounding will help to gather us – giving us access to both inner and outer resources. And their sounding will reveal the obstacles before us – clearing the way forward and sending us newly inspired to our destiny.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
WE EMBARK UPON THIS JOURNEY of purification without knowing how far or how long it will be. Obstacles arise in the form of resistance. Resistance arises in the form of cravings, doubts, weariness, restlessness, or aversion.
I used to think, “If only I didn’t have such resistance I could really do my spiritual work.” Then I realized that recognizing and confronting resistance IS my spiritual work. The very obstacles that arise to block my way home serve to show me the face of my own enslavement. Looking into that face I will know where my work lies. The face of resistance always wears a mask. It masquerades as THE TRUTH. My work is in unmasking resistance and freeing myself from its compelling power so that as I stand at the crossroads of this moment, I can choose my path in conscious, loving clarity.
Having left Sinai to renew their journey, we hear the story of the Israelites’ murmuring and rebellion in the wilderness. Their behavior is a merciless mirror which reflects our own tendencies towards resistance on the spiritual path.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE OF BEHA’ALOTEKHA is to hear the murmurings and rebellions of our ancestors and recognize them as our own places of enslavement calling for freedom and healing.
When I witness my ancestors’ complaints, I must listen to my own bitter whining. Listening deeply with compassion, I hear the fear inside my voice and I remember when that fear was born. Then I know that my spiritual work will be to heal the wounds that gave birth to that fear and to work at cultivating trust.
When I witness my ancestors’ lust for meat and for the food of Egypt, I turn to investigate my own cravings. When I discover a hunger that seems never to be satisfied; a thirst that is never quenched; a hole inside me that can never be filled; then my spiritual work consists of investigating that craving by entering into that “hole” and experiencing the emptiness within. This will lead me to Truth.
When I witness my ancestors’ weariness with their journey, I turn to examine my own lack of energy for practice. When I hear their expressions of doubt in the leadership of Moses, my work becomes that of unmasking the face of my own doubt and coming to understand how and why I sometimes silence the voice of the prophet within me.
(Thank you to Sylvia Boorstein for her teachings on the hindrances.)
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