Beha’alotecha: Direct Reconciliation

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

Greetings! It’s summertime, otherwise known in Judaism as “the Season
of Reading the Stories of the Israelites Kvetching.” That is, we’re
reading the book of Bamidbar/ Numbers, in which there are numerous
stories of the Israelites (and even Moshe and his family) complaining,
rebelling, questioning, being fractious, etc. Then again- traveling is
stressful enough, never mind with 600,000 of your closest friends, and
going through a wilderness, no less.

With that thought- on to parshat Beha’alotecha, where indeed, we find
an episode of the Israelites complaining in the desert:

“The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord
heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them,
ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses.
Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down.” (Bamidbar 11:1-2)

We learn just a few verses later that the people are craving meat
(apparently manna gets boring after a bit), and it’s not hard to
imagine their anxiety and fear of the unknown turning into complaints
about their present situation. It’s a bit harder to grasp why God sent
a “fire” against the complainers, rather than addressing issues of
faith or confidence more directly, but perhaps the “fire” is really a
metaphor for anger or how bitter rumors can spread like “wildfire” in
a community.

Rashi quotes an earlier text to explain why the people approached
Moshe after the fire broke out:

“The people cried out to Moses. . . . This can be compared to a mortal
king who became angry with his son. That son went to his father’s
friend and said to him, Go and ask [forgiveness] on my behalf from
father.”

On the one hand, this is a fairly straightforward allegory: the king
is God, the son is the people Israel, and Moshe is the king’s friend.
If it were a human being who was angry with his (or her) friend or
family member, then it makes perfect sense to send a message of
reconciliation through a trusted intermediary, since one might assume
that the angry person wouldn’t want to listen at first, or might even
become angrier when seeing the object of his anger in person.
Yet taking Rashi’s little allegory seriously, and imagining the
scenario in human terms, poses a problem when applied to the
human-Divine relationship, namely, didn’t the people think that God
knew already about their prayers and penitence? Why did they ask Moshe
to intervene – after all, if God could see their suffering in Egpyt,
the Holy One could certainly perceive their penitence in the desert!

My sense is that the Israelites, who had been emotionally and
spiritually scarred by the experience of slavery, didn’t really feel
worthy of approaching God in prayer. You may recall that even after
the revelation at Sinai, they asked Moshe to receive the rest of the
Torah from God, but they didn’t want a Divine Voice speaking to them
directly (cf. Shmot/ Exodus 20). Furthermore, the people had just been
“complaining,” and were probably not feeling particularly
self-confident or spiritually dignified. Finally, consider that Moshe
had proven his mettle as an intermediary during the confrontation with
Pharoah, the god of Egypt; perhaps it was simply too soon after Egypt
for the people to fully grasp the difference between a human dictator
and a Divine Liberator.

Thus I understand Rashi’s little allegory as teaching empathy for the
estranged “son,” that is, the people, who asked Moshe to intervene not
because they thought that God only heard Moshe’s prayers, but because
they themselves didn’t feel ready to face God in t’shuvah. They needed
Moshe to go before them, not because God wouldn’t receive their
prayers, but they felt that Moshe was better able to present them.
Moshe prayed for the people, not only because of his humility, but
also because of the people’s humiliation by Pharoah- after suffering
under a king who thought he was a god, how could they even imagine
that the God of Israel does in fact love each person and desire their
constant return and growth and spiritual uplift?

Sending a message of reconciliation to a human being through a
messenger could be a fine idea, depending on the circumstances.
Reorienting ourselves to sacred principles and practices, however, is
best done one-on-One in prayer and meditation, with the human soul
communing with its Divine Source. No matter what has enslaved us in
the past, none of us are unworthy of standing before the Holy One in
prayer, and all of us deserve the blessings of reconciliation and
return to the path of being our best self. We may feel momentarily
estranged from the Source of our Being, but never forget the real
point of Rashi’s allegory: all the people are the children of the
Living God. That was true in the wilderness, and it’s true today.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- As usual, you’ll find a summary and further commentary here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/
bhaalotkha_index.htm

and the text of the portion and haftarah here:

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

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