Archive for Beha’alotcha

Beha’alotcha: Miracle of Liberation

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to God,they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs . . . (Bamidbar/Numbers 9:10-11)

Good morning!

I have no reasonable excuse, not even a note from my mother, for my absence from drashing. It’s good to be back!

This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotcha, which has the semi-famous commandment of Pesach sheni, or the “Second Passover,” which is an opportunity to bring the korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) on the 14th of the second month if you weren’t able to do so on the 14th of the first month, the usual date. According to the medieval textbook Sefer Hachinuch, the second Passover was observed by making the Passover sacrifice and eating matzah and bitter herbs, but one didn’t have to get rid of all the chametz and it didn’t last a week.

So it’s an interesting anomaly: there are lots of time-bound commandments related to the various holidays, but there’s no opportunity to hear the shofar a month after Rosh Hashana or sit in a sukkah a month after Sukkot if for some reason you weren’t able to do it the first time. Ditto lighting the Hannukah lights or hearing the book of Esther at Purim. You get your chance for the mitzvah, if you miss it, well, next year in Jerusalem, but this year you’re out of luck. So what’s so important about the Passover ritual that you get a second chance?

Sefer Hachinuch says that the events of Passover show that the One who rules the world must have created it: the plagues, manna, and splitting of the sea are all acts of overturning the laws of nature and therefore show there is One who created according to Divine will. At the time of the Exodus the whole world saw these miracles (according to Sefer Hachinuch) and it’s so fundamental to the Jewish religion that there is a Creator- and the world is Creation- that everyone must bring a Passover offering, even a month late, because we remember this truth through the contemplation of these extraordinary miracles. Sefer Hachinuch even says that if you converted to Judaism or became bar mitzvah (old enough for the commandments) after Passover, but before Pesach Sheni, you would bring the Second Passover offering.

Nowadays we don’t bring a korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) so there’s not much practical application of Pesach Sheni. However, let’s go back to the interpretation of the Sefer Hachinuch and add to it. We can certainly have different understandings of the miracle stories in the Torah- I personally tend to think they are metaphors or mystical teachings not to be taken literally. Thus what’s important to me is not whether the sea literally split in two, but that the Exodus represents an overturning of the usual way of the world, which is that Pharaohs rule and slaves are trapped.

God’s presence in the story changes the laws not only of physical nature, but also of human nature, in that the oppressed go free and the powerful are humbled. This, to me, is indeed a fundamental article of faith for Jews: there exists the possibility of liberation from what and who oppresses. The powerful can cause tremendous suffering, but that is not the only possibility: if the sea can be split, then so to can the enslaved be free, if we but remember who we are and why we are here.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Beha’alotecha: Embracing Diversity

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 12:1)

Greetings from the lovely (but soggy) Hudson Valley!

This week’s Torah portion contains all kinds of interesting stories and laws, from the duties of the Levites to a narrative of truly epic kvetching in chapter 11. After the people almost tear themselves apart complaining and challenging Moshe and Aharon, the story shifts into a much smaller scope. Apparently there is some tension among the siblings who lead the Israelites; Miriam and Aharon speak against their younger brother Moshe, perhaps using his wife as a pretext for their resentment.

Traditional commentators are perplexed about what, exactly, the siblings are saying about Moshe and/ or his wife. While the literal meaning of “Cushite” is “Ethiopian,” some commentators understand it to mean “beautiful” and interpolate a midrash in which Miriam was speaking out on behalf of Moshe’s wife, criticizing Moshe from separating from her in order to be constantly available for prophecy. Some believe this wife was Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife from Midian, but others think perhaps he married another woman at some point after the Exodus.

The conclusion of the story is stark: Miriam is punished by God with an outbreak of skin impurity, and banished from the camp for seven days. Moshe prayed for his sister’s healing, but something about what she did was so inappropriate that it caused her separation from the community. With that in mind, it’s hard to reinterpret the story as one of Miriam’s defense of her sister-in-law. While I’m certainly sympathetic to a reading which puts Miriam in a better light, I think the plain meaning of the text imputes a more serious misdeed than a misguided attempt to fix her brother’s marriage.

Perhaps the most salient reading of this text is not through the creativity of the ancient rabbis but its plainest meaning: e.g., that Miriam and Aharon spoke against their brother because he married somebody they didn’t like and didn’t accept. In this view, “Cushite” means just that, an Ethiopian woman, or in other words, somebody whose external features and cultural background may have been different from that of the Israelites. One modern commentator (and former colleague), rejects this interpretation as unlikely given the ethnically mixed background of the group who left Egypt, but I don’t think we’re talking about the larger social condition of the Israelites. Instead, this story focuses on the elite leadership, which could very easily be more susceptible to the idea that others unlike themselves were unacceptable or unfit to join their family.

Perhaps that’s why Miriam drew such strong rebuke from Heaven (we’ll address another time why Aharon didn’t merit the same rebuke): rejecting Jews based on appearances or family background indicates a profound misunderstanding of what defines us as Jews. We are emphatically not a race, nor an ethnic group, but rather a people defined by our religious culture and commitments (understood broadly) and a shared global destiny. We are a people with a mission, not only because of a common history but more importantly because of a shared commitment to live a joyful, ethical Judaism (though there’s more than one way to do that) which binds us in obligations of caring and responsibility.

“That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish” is the punchline of jokes, but it’s a phrase without meaning in a world where Jews by choice and Jews by parentage are of every skin color, cultural background, native language and citizenry. Diversity is our strength and blessing, and embracing every Jew and their family within our communities is a sacred task.

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Beha’alotecha: Keep Asking

 

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

“But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moshe and Aharon,  those men said to them, ‘Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?’ “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 9:6-7)

Good afternoon! This week’s Torah portion contains the commandment of Pesach Sheini, or “second Passover,” which is given to the people after a group of men who were ritually unclean- and therefore unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time- approach Moshe and Aharon and ask them what to do. (Cf. the verse above.)

Our friend Rashi says that the men approached Moshe and Aharon as they were sitting and learning Torah, but Rashi can’t believe that the Torah is reporting the sequence of events exactly as it happened. He asks: “if Moshe didn’t know [the answer], would Aharon know?” That is, the verse could be understood as:  they asked Moshe and then Aharon- but Rashi has a problem believing that they asked them in that order.

From the standpoint of traditional rabbinic understandings of the roles of Moshe and Aharon, I fully understand Rashi’s question: Moshe was the teacher and prophet, and if Moshe, the source of the teaching, didn’t know the answer to the men’s question, how could Aharon, the student, know the answer?

On the other hand, doesn’t the Talmud tell us that the one who is most wise is the one who can learn from any person? Perhaps the Torah is, in fact, implying that the men sought their answer first from Moshe and then from Aharon; after all, perhaps Moshe forgot, or was preoccupied, or didn’t pick up on some nuance that another understood. None of us can predict exactly where wisdom can be found, and indeed, an aspect of humility is the realization that learning can happen at the most unexpected time and places.

Seen this way, Rashi’s question- “if Moshe didn’t know, how could Aharon know?- begs another question: “if Moshe doesn’t know, why not ask Aharon?” Judaism admires an inquisitive mind, and surely the greatest teachers are most delighted when their students seek the truth with resolve.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Beha’alotcha: The Greater Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

“The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying:  Speak to Aharon and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand. . . .’ “(Bamidbar/Numbers 8:1-2)

Good evening! For those who just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, I hope you had a wonderful and inspiring holiday. The weekly Torah reading rolls on (as it were) through the book of Bamidbar, or Numbers, so called for its theme of counting and organizing the Israelites as they prepare to go on their journey.

Last week, the portion ended with a dramatic scene: 12 princes, one from each of the 12 tribes, brought gifts of gold and silver for the dedication of the Mishkan. This week, the portion opens up with the commandment for Aharon and his sons- the priests- to light and maintain the menorah, or lampstand, in the Mishkan, as part of their daily duties.

In the Torah text itself, there is no particular connection of the narrative of the dedication to the giving of additional laws pertaining to the service in the Mishkan, but our friend Rashi brings an older midrash which sees the commandment to light the menorah as a consolation to Aharon, the High Priest.

Rashi’s comment goes something like this:

“Why was the section [of the Torah] pertaining to the menorah connected to the section of the princes? [who each brought a gift for the Mishkan in the previous chapter.] When Aharon saw the princes doing the dedication [of the Mishkan], his spirits fell, because he was not with them in the dedication- not him and not his tribe. So the Holy One said to him: ‘by your life! yours is greater than theirs, because you will light and maintain the menorah! ‘ ”

Remember, the tribe of Levi was separated from the other tribes, set apart for religious service to the community. So Aharon didn’t get to bring a gift of gold or silver, but according to the midrash, he was consoled with the idea that  the merit of his deed was even greater. Other commentators suggest that the menorah was assembled, lighted, and cleaned every day; this was not a dramatic act of great ceremony, but a quiet act of inner dedication and humble service.

What’s striking about the story Rashi brings is that Aharon, as High Priest, does all kinds of important rituals and is a great public leader among the Israelites. He even atones for the entire community on Yom Kippur, going into the Holy of Holies, where nobody else is permitted to enter! Given Aharon’s very prominent role in the life of Israel, the idea that simply lighting the lamps is of such importance reminds us that small acts which benefit others can be more important to the religious life of the community than even gifts of gold.

Think for a moment about a typical synagogue: there are countless small tasks that keep it going, from organizing the Torah readings to ordering the cakes and cookies to overseeing the budget and maintaining the building. Many of these tasks are true gifts of love performed by volunteers, often without recognition or public appreciation. What Rashi reminds us is that the merit of giving of oneself is great indeed, and should be honored greatly.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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,

RNJL

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B’ha’alotecha: New Garments

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

This week’s Torah portion and haftarah both speak of lighting the
lampstand in the ancient Temple (which is one of the links between the
two texts) and I have to say it’s an appealing image after a mostly
cloudy and dark week here in the Hudson Valley.

The Torah portion is B’ha’alotecha, which has many topics and laws,
but begins, as noted, with the commandment to Aharon, the HIgh Priest,
to light a seven-branched menorah [lamp] in the ancient Sanctuary. The
haftarah, from the book of Zecharia, lived at the end of the period of
the first Exile (about 538 BCE) and conveys a hopeful message to the
Israelites about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and a re-lighted menorah
in Jerusalem’s Temple. That’s also why this haftarah is read during
Hanukkah- so if after reading this commentary you have a craving for
jelly doughnuts, now you know why.

There’s another interesting set of images in the haftarah, concerning
the High Priest of the day, who the prophet sees as dressed in filthy
clothes, standing before the “Accusing Angel,” who is in turn rebuked
by an “angel of the Lord:”

“Now Joshua was clothed in filthy garments when he stood before the
angel. The latter spoke up and said to his attendants, ‘Take the
filthy garments off him!’ And he said to him, ‘See, I have removed
your guilt from you, and you shall be clothed in [priestly] robes.’ ”
(Zechariah 3:3-4)

One commentary suggests that Joshua, the High Priest, represents the
spirit of the nation in exile- that is, as I understand it, the
“filthy robes” are the condition of humiliation and alienation of a
defeated people. The “Accusing Angel,” then, is that natural human
tendency to say: because of their sins, they deserved their suffering,
and do not deserve redemption.

According to this reading, that harsh view of history is what is
rebuked by the “angel of the Lord.” The High Priest, representing the
people, is to be clothed in new garments- that is, given a new spirit,
a renewed confidence and sense of moral purpose. Note, please, that
the “angel of the Lord” doesn’t tell us why Joshua deserved his new
garments, but that’s the way of Divine hesed [lovingkindness]: it
forgives, takes back and reconciles without needing to answer all the
objections of “the Accuser”- that is, the impulse to keep account of
every misdeed and failing.

Sometimes it seems that the loudest voices representing “religion” are
those of strict judgment- self-appointed keepers of public morality
who claim to speak for God and never miss an opportunity to do so in
front of a microphone. The prophet Zechariah, however, gives us an
entirely different perspective: it’s the Accuser who is rebuked, while
the orientation of the Divine is seen in the “new garments,”
representing the redemptive act of disregarding previous failings in
order to renew covenantal relationship and lift up the people in love.
That, to me, is a truer message of prophetic religion, one applicable
to individuals and nations, in the past and in this very day.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Beha’alotcha: Prayer and Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’aloteha

In any event, this week it’s full steam ahead in the Torah portion
Beha’alotcha, which has many and varied laws and narratives: the lamp
of the Mishkan, the “second-chance” Passover, grumpy and complaining
Israelites, prophets among the people, and a bit of a family conflict
between Moshe, Aharon and Miriam- the “first family” of the wandering
Israelites.

This sibling squabble occurs at the end of the portion, and it’s not
exactly clear exactly what happened, but the basic idea is that Aharon
and Miriam said something uncharitable about Moshe (and maybe his
wife) and as a rebuke, God punishes Miriam with “tzara’at,” or the
sort of scaly skin disease that is commented on at great length back
in Vayikra/Leviticus.

Moshe, to his credit, prays for Miriam’s recovery using just a few
short words in Hebrew, in a verse which has been incorporated into
many prayers and liturgies. (Cf. Bamidbar/Numbers 12:13). Connecting
this story with a contemporary mitzvah practice, we may note that
several traditional sources say that praying for a sick person is an
essential part of bikkur cholim, or “visiting the sick.” Moshe wasn’t
exactly visiting Miriam, as such, but his response is nonetheless
deeply moving; at that moment of crisis (emotional, physical,
theological) he put aside any personal issues and offered his
compassion in the best way he knew how.

By praying for the sick, we are not necessarily relying on miracles or
a suspension of the laws of nature to take the place of modern
medicine. Rather, I see prayer as part of strengthening and lifting up
the whole person and defining them as more than their illness or
symptoms. To put it another way, illness can be demoralizing, and
deeply felt prayer communications connection, dignity and love freely
offered. Prayer on behalf of the sick says: “I care about you so much
I’m going to bring your pain into my relationship with the Holy One,”
and this in itself gives strength to the spirit.

That’s why prayer is such an important part of visiting the sick, to
the extent that some commentators say you haven’t done the mitzvah if
you haven’t prayed for them.

Returning to our Torah portion, we note that Moshe prayed for Miriam
using only five words- demonstrating that prayer doesn’t have to be
poetic, alliterative, metaphorical, rhetorical, elegant or literary.
It has to be honest, heart-felt and real in the moment, and when it
is, hearts are connected and made strong.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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