Beha’alotcha: Torah In Front

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

Beha’alotcha has the Israelites preparing to leave Sinai. There are instructions for how to break camp, carry the Mishkan, and travel in formation, but as soon as the Israelites go into the wilderness, complaining and rebellion begin. At the conclusion of the portion, Moshe has a sibling conflict with Aharon and Miriam, for which Miriam is punished.

Greetings! I’ve been at the Rabbinical Assembly conference in New York, where there was much light (and some heat), appropriate for the week of Torah portion Beha’alotcha, which begins with the commandment to Aharon to light a lamp in the Mishkan or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan also contained the Ark of the Covenant, which was usually carried along with the other implements of the Mishkan by various families of Levites. (Cf. Bamidbar ch. 4)

Ok, so far, so good, but in our Torah portion this week, we read that Moshe made a prayer that the Ark of the Covenant would go in front of the camp:

“They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them; and the Lord’s cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp.

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:

‘ Advance, O Lord!
May Your enemies be scattered,
And may Your foes flee before You! ‘ ” (Bamidbar / Numbers 10:33-35)

Those familiar with the morning synagogue service will recognize this verse- at least the half quoted above- as a congregational prayer, usually sung, said right as the Ark is opened and before the Torah is taken out. This connects the story of the Biblical Ark, or aron, which contained the tablets of law given to Moshe, with the story of Torah and the very scrolls in front of us. In this understanding, the Torah scroll is like the tablets given to Moshe, containing words handed down through generations.

The problem is: didn’t we just learn, earlier in chapter 10 (verses 12-21) that the Ark is carried by Levites after the tribes of Yehudah and Ruven? How can Moshe pray that it goes first to scatter enemies? How come it’s traveling in front in these verses but in the middle in verses 12-21?

Various commentators struggle with this contradiction, and explain that there were two Arks (one for the first, broken tablets, and another for the second set)  or this was a one-time exception. Modern Bible scholars assume that these two traditions reflect different historical sources of the text, yet the Torah as we have it includes both images- Ark in front, and Ark in the middle of the camp- for our contemplation.

The brilliance of taking this verse and putting it into our Torah service is that it connects the idea of journey with the routine religious act of taking out the Torah for its weekly readings. We may not be shlepping through the wilderness, but we are- as individuals and as a community- on a journey, one from spiritual constriction (= Egypt) to spiritual liberation and full responsibility for ourselves (= land of Israel.) The Torah “goes in front” when we seek in Torah discourse the challenge to take the next step along our way; the Torah is “in the midst of the camp” when we recognize that Torah (broadly conceived) is what holds us together and gives us common purpose and destiny.

When we open the Ark- in Beacon, Biloxi, or Bozeman- we sing the words of our ancestors on their journey because we hope that the Torah’s message of love and justice will break apart- scatter- the hardness of the heart and enable us to go on our journeys with faith and courage. “Advance, O Lord”- and let us go forward together.

Shabbat Shalom,


1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for these insights! Credit given where due – thanks!

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