Beha’alotechah: Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

Shalom Friends!

Before we look at this week’s Torah portion, a word from our
sponsor: Although I will be
leaving my position at Temple Israel (now Congregation Shirat Hayam)
in a few weeks, my
intention is to continue writing a weekly Torah study, and you are
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When I am traveling this summer, I may have to give you some parshiot
(plural of parsha,
or portion) in advance, or present some of the best Torah studies on
the internet instead
of writing my own every week, but I am committed to putting Torah
study into your inbox
for the indefinite future.

Now, back to our Torah portion. Beha’alotecha begins with a
review of the commandment
to make a seven-branched menorah (lamp) in the Mishkan [portable
Sanctuary]. (Cf.
Exodus 25.) Aharon, the priest, dedicates the entire tribe of the
Levites for service in the
Mishkan. Then the trouble begins: first a group of men want to make
the Pesach [Passover]
offering after the appointed season, but it turns out that they
should, in fact, get a second
chance.

There is a great grumbling and complaining in the camp of Israel (the
more things change.
. . .) and God sends a great swarm of quail to satiate the
people’s cravings. Finally, there’s
a family spat between Moshe and his siblings Miriam and Aharon, in
which Miriam is put
outside the camp for a week after defaming Moshe’s wife.

The parsha begins with a review of the menorah, or seven-branched
lampstand. (What
most people in America call a “menorah” is technically a
“Hannukiah,” a special menorah-
lamp- for Hannukah.) Moshe is told to tell Aharon to kindle the lamps
in a special way, but
Rashi wonders what this commandment is doing here at all, stuck
in-between two
different topics: the long story of how the 12 princes brought gifts
for the dedication of
the Mishkan (the end of last week’s portion, in chapter 7) and
the dedication of the Levites
who serve in it (the next topic in chapter 8).

Rashi’s question makes sense: last week the 12 princes brought
their silver gifts for the
dedication of the Mishkan, this week all the Levites are dedicated to
serve in it, and what
you’d expect to follow next is some description of the ritual of
the Mishkan when it is
actually operational. The detail of the menorah seems out of order, a
detail stuck in the
wrong place.

Rashi brings an interesting midrash [interpretive story] to answer
his question: he says
that when Aharon saw all the silver gifts being brought by all the
princes, he felt badly that
he wasn’t also bringing a gift for the dedication ceremonies. So
God (in Rashi’s
commentary) offers Aharon a consolation: “”By your life, yours
is greater than theirs, for
you will light and prepare the lamp!”

This is a great midrash, for several reasons. First, I think it
accurately captures a feeling
that I suspect is widespread among spiritual leaders, a feeling of
discomfort when
somebody else is in the “spotlight” of the community.
It’s hard to give up being the High
Priest, as it were, and it’s hard to acknowledge that one’s
role doesn’t allow for the kinds
of philanthropic contributions that others can make.

The midrash also points out an interesting tension: the Torah itself
gives over many, many
verses (in chapter 7) to describing, detailing and honoring the gifts
of the princes for the
Mishkan, but Rashi wants to say: lighting the lamp is a greater
honor. What I think this
means is that lighting the lamp symbolizes the core purpose of the
Mishkan, which is to
help the people feel God’s Presence in the world. Where one can
perceive a greater
Presence, then there is hope in a brutal world, and even today, we
speak of hope and
despair using the metaphors of light and darkness.

So God says to Aharon: not everybody can bring gifts of silver, but
you have been given
the task of bringing light into darkness, both literally and
metaphorically. Gifts to the
Mishkan sustain this work, but don’t lose sight of what the work
actually is: bringing light
into darkness, hope where there is despair, compassion where there is
alienation, justice
where there is cruelty. That’s the work of Judaism, for Aharon
and for all his spiritual heirs.

shabbat shalom,

rnjl

PS- as usual, you can read the Torah portion and the haftarah in, in
translation, here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

PPS- the subject title this week refers to the title of a wonderful
African-American
Spiritual with this theme of light and hope. Google will lead you to more.

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