Torah Readings for Saturday, June 25, 2016
Beha’alotcha (“When you light” or “When you kindle”)8:1-12:16 Bamidbar (Numbers)
Beha’alotcha is the third sedrah in Bamidbar (Numbers). The reading takes its name from a phrase in the second verse of the sedrah, “Speak to Aaron and say to him: When you kindle (Beha’alotcha) the lamps….”
The sedrah can be divided in two main parts - Final Instructions and Ceremonies Before Beginning the Journey (8:1-10:10) and The Journey From Sinai to Canaan Begins (10:11-12:16). The sedrah begins and ends with Aaron. The fortunes of Aaron mirror the fortunes of the Israelites as presented in Beha’alotcha. The sedrah starts on a note of spiritual exhilaration involving Aaron and the Jewish people, but it will descend into a description of a series of rebellions against God and Moshe, the last of which involves Miriam and Aaron.
The MenorahThe sedrah opens with Aaron being instructed in the rituals related to the Menorah. The ceremonials relating to the Menorah may be seen as the capstone to the offerings described at the end of Naso. The rituals relating to the Menorah are for Aaron and his family the equivalent of the offerings made by the leaders of the Twelve Tribes (See Themes for more on the Menorah).
The LevitesThere is a pattern in the Torah of God telling us what He plans to do in one sedrah and then describing the implementation in a later sedrah. Previously God had told the Israelites that the Levites would be consecrated to Him and would be assigned to serve the Kohanim. In Beha’alotcha, the Levites actually go through the rituals that ordain them in these dual roles. When the earlier census was taken, the Levites ranging in age from thirty to fifty were counted. At the time of their actual consecration, the ceremony involves Levites ranging in age from twenty-five to fifty. According to some commentators this five year discrepancy allowed for a period of apprenticeship before the male Levites actually assumed their duty. Regardless, retirement came at fifty.
PesachWith the first anniversary of the Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to observe Pesach for the first time as free people. The Pesach Offering is to be made “in its appointed time.” This is interpreted to mean that the Pesach Offering is so important that it can even be made on Shabbat. Now comes one of the most diverting little tales in the Torah. Apparently there was a group of men who had been with a corpse at Pesach, which meant they could not participate in the Pesach Offering. They complained to Moshe that this was unfair. They were being denied participation in this important ritual because they were performing another mitzvah. In responding to this dilemma, it was almost as if Moshe were saying, “Golly gee, God and I just didn’t think about this possibility. Wait here a minute and I will get a ruling on this from God.” Thus was created Pesach Sheni, the Second Pesach. Pesach Sheni comes a month after Pesach and participation is limited to those who have become contaminated by a human corpse or are too far away to participate in the sacrifice at the appointed time and place. Everybody else is still supposed to observe the holiday at its appointed time.
Traveling SignsThere are three signs to tell the Israelites when to travel and one sign to tell them when to stop. Three are visual. The fourth is auditory. A cloud will hover over the Tabernacle by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the cloud arises, the Israelites are to break camp. When the cloud comes to rest, the Israelites will encamp. The pillar of fire is the nighttime version of the cloud. Since it is the motion of the cloud and not the pillar of fire that determines travel, there are those who assume that the Israelites only move during the day. What is important is that God Himself, and no one else, determines the Israelites’ travel pattern. In addition to these three visual signs, God commands Moshe to make two silver trumpets which are to be sounded each time the Israelites are to start traveling. The Trumpets are also supposed to be blown when going into battle and at various times of joy.
The Journey Begins (10:11-12:16)· The First Stage - On the 20th day of Iyar in the second year after the Exodus, the Israelites follow the Cloud from Sinai to the Wilderness of Paran. They follow the previously prescribed line of march. At this point, Moshe’s father-in-law announces his plans to return to his home. Despite Moshe’s entreaties, Jethro, or as he is called here, Hobab son of Ruel, is determined to leave and go back to his people. As we shall see, this is not the last time we shall encounter the Midianites or the Kenites, the kinsmen of Jethro.
· The First Rebellion - No sooner do the Israelites make camp than the chronic complainers begin making noise. This so enrages God that he kills a group of them with a “fire” that was probably some form of lightning bolts.
· The Second Rebellion - Now another group complains about the food. They want meat. They yearn for the delicious foods of Egypt. They are tired of manna even though the text reminds us of what a perfect food it is. Now Moshe seems to be almost rebelling against God. He cries out that these people are too much for him. He reminds God that he did not ask to be the leader. God forced the job on him. And if this is the way things are going to be, Moshe tells God to just kill him right now. God responds in two ways. First he takes care of the leadership and spiritual void by creating the Sanhedrin, the Council of Seventy Elders. Then he sends the quail to meet the demands for meat. But the gift becomes a punishment as the gluttons die with their mouths filled with unchewed meat stuck between their teeth.
· The Third Rebellion - In what must have been one of the most painful moments in his life, Moshe now must face a rebellion by his sister and brother. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe regarding the Cushite woman he had married…They said, ‘Was it only to Moshe that God spoke? Did He not speak to us as well?’” In other words, first they gossiped about Moshe’s treatment of his wife and then they challenged his position, claiming to be his equal because they had also spoken with God. Moshe is too humble (and probably too hurt) to respond to the charges by his siblings. So God intervenes telling the sister and brother of Moshe’s unique relationship with Him and reminding them of his virtues. Having chastised them, God drives home the point with physical discomfort. Miriam is stricken with a skin disease. Since Aaron is a Kohein, he knows the diagnosis and begs his brother to intervene. Possibly remembering how she had saved him when he was a baby, Moshe intervenes with God. God agrees to spare her, but she must be quarantined for seven days. Was the separation only because of her physical impurity or was it in part also punishment for speaking evil against her brother? The text is mute and we are left to speculate. Once her seven days are over, the people renew their journey moving from Hazeroth to the Wilderness of Paran.
380. The obligation of one who was unable to bring a Passover offering at the appropriate time to do so exactly one month later on the 14th day of Iyar (9:10).381. The obligation of one who is able to bring the Passover offering on the 14th day of Iyar to eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (9:10).
382. The prohibition against leaving over any of the Second Passover sacrifice until the next day (9:12).
383. The prohibition against breaking any of the bones of the Second Passover sacrifice (9:12).
384. The obligations to sound a trumpet when an enemy attack occurs and during joyous celebrations at the sanctuary (10:9-10).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
MenorahThere are several commentaries about the importance of this ancient artifact. Some commentaries portray the Menorah as a symbol of God’s light. The light of the Menorah becomes fused with the concept of studying Torah, which is a manifestation of God’s light in our world of darkness. Others see the episode described in this sedrah as prophecy and relate it to the Menorah of Chanukah. In that time of spiritual darkness, the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, will protect the Israelites from the Hellenists. While the Menorah of the Torah has seven branches, the Menorah of Chanukah will have eight branches, possibly indicating the need for additional “light” in a period of greater spiritual darkness.
SevenSome numbers seem to have mystical quality. While these numbers may have non-Jewish significance, we shall look at the meaning only within our tradition. The seven lamps of the menorah correspond to the Seven Days of Creation. The bride circles the groom seven times. Mourners sit Shiva for seven days. Pesach was originally seven days long. The Omer is counted for seven weeks. The Days of Awe come in the Seventh Month and Sukkoth was originally a seven-day observance. The Sabbatical Year is every seven years and Joshua circled Jericho seven times. And the membership of the Sanhedrin was seven times ten.
Non-JewsThis time of the year provides us with two views of non-Jews and their relationships with the Jewish people. On Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth, the Moabitess who accepts God and His Torah with the famous lines, “thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.”
This week we read of the “mixed-multitude” or “riff-raff” that went out of Egypt with the Israelites. These were non-Israelites who supposedly attached themselves to our ancestors to escape Egyptian slavery. According to some, they were the ones who instigated the rebellion of the Golden Calf. In this sedrah, they are the ones who complain about the food in the Wilderness (11:4-6). They crave the fish and meats of Egyptian slavery while sneering at the Manna from God. Unlike Ruth, this mixed-multitude attached themselves to the Jews for their own selfish purposes, not for the sake of God and Torah. Once we had satisfied their needs (getting them out of Egypt), they made trouble for us. This is to be a common thread in our history. Up to our own time, there have been plenty of groups who have attached themselves to the Jewish people and sought to use us for their own agenda. But when we have rejected their agenda, they have turned on us and become bitter foes.
Pesach SheniThe story of the Second Pesach serves two purposes. First it points out the importance of observing Pesach and the seminal nature of the Exodus in Jewish history. Second, it points out the importance of interpretation. Based on the events described, the goal should be to help people find ways to observe the mitzvoth even if that takes a little creativity. On the other hand, that “creativity” needs to be consistent with the Torah, which means those making such decisions must be fully knowledgeable about all aspects of Jewish law.
GeographyThe Torah appears to give very specific names for the different places through which the Israelites journeyed on their way to Canaan. However, it is difficult, if not impossible to find places in the Sinai or Negev that correspond to them. Those who are concerned about this might want to look at Walking The Bible by Bruce Feiler. Does our inability to locate the places named in Bamidbar mean that the trek across the Wilderness did not take place? From the point of view of traditional Judaism, the answer is “no,” it does not matter. For others the historicity of the journey is open to question and may even be rejected as mere myth.
The SanhedrinA Council of Seventy Elders is a recurring theme throughout Jewish history. Although the term Sanhedrin appears frequently, it refers to different institutions. In an oddity of history, Napoleon Bonaparte convened a Sanhedrin to determine the role of the Jews in post-revolutionary France. According to some, the creation of the Sanhedrin is proof of God’s (Judaism’s) commitment to diversity. But this pluralism takes place within the framework of respect for the Torah. Jewish literature is replete with Rabbinic debate, but these debates are “disputes for the sake of Heaven” i.e., like those between Hillel and Shammai, not like those led by Korach. Why Seventy Elders, as opposed to any other number? One commentator cites Maimonides as saying that number included all opinions that are permissible in a given case.
Customs and CeremoniesAs we have seen before, the Torah and the events it describes are a source for different prayers and practices in our various worship services. This week’s sedrah provides some of the utterances found in the Torah Service. The words in 10:35-36 are intoned when we take the Torah from the Ark and when we return it to its resting place after reading from it.
Gossip and The Evil TongueMiriam and Aaron’s rebellion against Moshe began with gossip. As we have said before, Judaism takes a dim view of those who “speak evil” about another. There are many cautionary rules and commentaries warning us about being careful with our words. This episode is so important that in Devarim, it becomes the source for one of The Six Remembrances, which are recited daily at the end of the Morning Service. Why is Miriam the one who suffers physical harm? The text says, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe…” By putting her name first, it would indicate that she was the leader and Aaron merely went along. Unfortunately, this would be consistent with Aaron’s behavior of just “going along” as we saw with the Golden Calf. Aaron’s punishment is twofold. First, he must watch helplessly as his beloved sister suffers. Then he must beg his brother, whom he sought to supplant, to intervene with God to save Miriam. While we have talked about Moshe’s anger, here he shows compassion and understanding by praying for his sister’s recovery.
HumilityIn Humility of a Prophet, Yeshayahu Leibowitz examines Miriam and Aaron’s challenge to the leadership of Moses. He draws our attention to the statement that “the man Moses was very humble, more than any other man” (Num.12:3). He points out that the Torah provides us with no descriptions of Moses’ personality. All that we know of him we deduce from his behavior with the exception of this direct mention of his humility. From this we can deduce that humility must be a human trait of great importance - possibly more important than being wise, witty, compassionate, etc. Why is humility of such importance? What is the nature of humility? Is there more than one form of humility? We do know that Jewish sages place more emphasis on presenting the message than they do on taking credit for words of wisdom. The literature is replete with sages who credit their teachers for the words they are speaking. With several of the prophets, we have their wisdom not their biographies. The ultimate example of this is unknown person who wrote the words that we ascribe to the “Second Isaiah.” Leibowitz finds part of the answer to the questions about humility in Rashi’s commentary about Moses. Remember, Moses is the one to whom God spoke “face to face.” Yet Moses knew that truly understanding God was beyond the comprehension of man. “All the prophets looked through a murky glass - and thought that they saw; our Master Moses through a clear glass - and knew that he had not seen Him to His face.” If humility was important for Moses, how important a role should it play it in our own lives?
Meat and MilkThere are a myriad of laws prohibiting the mixing of meat and milk. These all stem from the injunctions that we not cook a calf in its mother’s milk. So, it is asked, why can we not eat dairy products when we are consuming chicken, turkey or other fowl? After all they produce no milk so there is no way one could cook a baby chick in its mother’s milk. In this week’s portion, the people demand “Ba-sar” which is translated as flesh, or in modern parlance, meat. God tells Moses that He will send “Ba-sar” - meat. And when God sends Ba-sar, what does he send? He sends an unlimited supply of quail - fowl. Now if God considers fowl to be Ba-sar, meat, who are we to risk eating chicken parmesan?
Travel Plans: Divine and HumanThis week’s reading reminds us again that when it comes to matters of this world, God has a role to play but so do human beings. When it came to travel in the wilderness, God had his way of providing guidance, “And as the cloud arose from over the tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where they could abode, there the children encamped” (32:17).
But Moses must have felt the need for some human guidance since when his father-in-law announced his plans to leave the Israelites, Moses responded, “Do not leave us, I pray thee; since thou knows how we are to encamp in the wilderness and thou shall be to us as eyes” (10:31). Is this an extension of that aphorism, “Pray as if everything depends on God; act as if everything depends on you”?
Travel Plans: Predestination and Free WillIn this week’s reading we see that the Israelites had a path to follow on the way to Eretz Israel and that God, through the signs like the cloud and the pillar of fire showed them the way. Many Jews believe that God has a plan for each of us. This is the pre-destination part. But we have to figure out what the correct signs are so that we will choose the path that will lead to the successful journey which is the Free Will part of the equation.
Jewish JourneysOnce again, we are reminded that for Jews life is a journey. Starting with Abraham, generation after generation of Jews have had to take a physical journey which is matched by the spiritual journey. This week’s journey from Sinai towards the land beyond the Jordan is just one more example of this. As we know from the Golden Calf tale, many of the Israelites making this trip would not complete it - they would not reach Eretz Israel and they knew it. Yet they made the trip anyway. This might serve as a reminder for us that the important thing is to make the journey, learned the lessons along the way and not worry whether we complete it. As the Cunard Shipping Lines said, “Half the fun is getting there.”
Line of MarchPreviously we have read about the positioning of the various tribes around the Mishkan and the positioning of the Levites within the precincts of the “Divine Dwelling.” This week we actually read about the tribes heading down the road, with each of them assuming the positions assigned to them by God. For anybody who has ever orchestrated a move, you can imagine the amazement our ancestors must have felt when they saw the whole thing working smoothly, just as had been commanded. Leading the line of march was the Tribe of Judah - a fitting positioning for the tribe that would produce the Davidic Kings and would essentially survive as The Jewish State until the Destruction of the First Temple. One can imagine the sense of pride that filled them as they stepped off. But let’s look to the rear of the line at the Tribe of Dan. For those of you acquainted with 19th century cattle drives, this corresponded to “riding drag.” These were the people who spent each day “eating the dust” of those marching ahead of them; the last to drink at the waterhole, the last to eat the evening meal. But drag riders played a crucial role. They were the ones who picked up the stray cattle and brought them back to the herd, thus helping to insure the economic success of the cattle drive. Based on the commentary of Rashi, the Danites gathered up the belongings of the other Israelites as they dropped them and returned them to their owners. They also brought back those of their co-religionists who strayed from the Israelites. There are plenty of people who want to play the role of Judah - strutting their stuff for all to see. But we need the Danites, those willing to labor in the background who do the necessary work of bringing back those of our fellow Jews who, for whatever reason, have wondered from the “herd.” Just as no cattle drive could afford to lose even one cow, so the House of Israel cannot afford to lose even one of its members.
The Man: Zechariah is the eleventh of the so-called Twelve Minor Prophets. Along with Haggai and Malachi, he is one of the three Post-Exilic Prophets. In other words, these prophets were active after the Babylonian Exile. The destruction of the First Temple took place 586 B.C.E. and marks the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. The descendants of the exiles started returning from Babylonia in 538 B.C.E. during the reign of the Persian King, Cyrus. We have few facts about the life of Zechariah. According to tradition, he began preaching about 520 B.C.E. and he was a younger contemporary of Haggai. The Book of Zechariah consists of fourteen chapters. As far back as the time of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, there has been some question as whether the “book” really had two authors. There is a distinct difference in the tone and style between the first eight chapters and the last six chapters. The first eight chapters contain a lot of visionary material complete with the appearance of angels. The last six chapters contain no references to angels, focus more on messianic visions and mention Greece. There are those who contend that the reference to the Greeks means that the last six chapters were written some time after the death of Alexander the Great, which would have been about two hundred years after Zechariah was supposed to have begun preaching. On the other hand, as at least one commentator points out, the reference to the Greeks could have been as a result of the battles of Marathon (480) and Salamis (490). If Zechariah had been a young man when he began his mission, these last chapters would have been the work of an older man, prophesying about a future world where the menace of Greece had replaced the comparative comfort of Persia. Zechariah may have been a member of the priestly class since he was either the son or grandson of Iddo, one of the priests who returned from Exile with Zerubbabel and Joshua. Zerubbabel was a descendant of the House of David and was the governor appointed by the Persians. Joshua was the Kohein when the exiles first came back to Jerusalem.
The Message: Zechariah began preaching during the reign of Darius. He called upon the returning exiles to finish rebuilding the Temple. The original returnees had laid the foundation, but work on the Temple had been stopped due to a variety of political and economic problems. He urged the Jews to complete the work as part of a larger effort, “the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.” He saw the need for proper ritual to go hand in hand with just and merciful behavior to reach that goal. The first four verses of the haftarah are an almost messianic vision of the joyful return of the people and God’s presence to Jerusalem. The tone then shifts to a confrontation with Satan, the accuser, assaulting Joshua, the high priest, as being unworthy of his exalted position. But God intervenes, describing Joshua as an ember plucked out of the fire. In other words, whatever his shortcomings, Joshua is a survivor of the Babylonian Exile. If Joshua and his companions will faithfully obey the laws of God, He will forgive them whatever sins they may have committed. The haftarah finishes with a visit from an angel and a vision that includes a menorah with seven lamps. When the prophet asks the angel what the vision means, the response includes the famous quote “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit said the Lord of Hosts” (4:6).
Theme-Link: The sedrah begins with commands concerning the seven lamps and the menorah. The haftarah ends with reference to another menorah with seven lamps. While it is obvious from the Torah portion that the menorah is important, it takes the words of the haftarah to give explicit meaning to the importance of the seven lamps. The message of the seven lamps must be extremely important since this haftarah is read twice during the year. The haftarah is also read on Shabbat Chanukah since Chanukah is the festival on which we light the lamps of the menorah. Why use the same haftarah twice? Why not use another prophetic reading that deals with the “seven lamps.” According to some, it is because of the paucity of mentions of the seven lamps in any other prophetic writings.
Copyright; June, 2016; Mitchell A. Levin