This week's Torah portion begins with the lighting of the menorah in the sanctuary of God and ends with the "revolt of Miriam." Is there a connection between "When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. Aaron did so; he set up its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses." and "Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth." Well, there is!
The light in the sanctuary was not normal candle light, we are taught. It was a Godly light, from the first day of creation, when God said, 'let there be light.' Without this light, there is no religion, there is no sanctuary, because there is no creation -- and no world. When God created light, it was the beginning of existence, of life, of humanity. God distinguished humanity from all other life by making us in His image, giving us understanding and intelligence -- the ability to acquire wisdom. However, as we do that, we also tend to feel that somehow we are better than those around us. We become proud, and nothing is worse for us than pride. Pride has a way of eclipsing God's light, leaving us in darkness, far from God. Psalms [111:10] teaches us, "Resheet hokhma yir'at Adona'y - the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;" -- to have fear, or awe of God is to deflate our ego, to become less prideful, more humble.
Think about it: Who could have been more proud than Moshe Rabenu, our great teacher and liberator Moses, for whom our heritage was named 'Torat Moshe' -- and yet the text tells us, Ha'ish Moshe ha'ya anav" -- the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. What do you learn from this? You should learn that wisdom is only one half of the quality necessary to be close to God. It is like having one hand. You need two hands to do good work. You need two eyes to see "properly" -- and you need wisdom wedded with humility to be close to God. Today you have done well in leading the service. For this you can be proud. However, remember that it was God who gave you the ability, and who gave Israel Torah, so that you would have an occasion to stand here and celebrate. I wish you many more successes. I pray that you increase your knowledge ten fold, a hundred fold. And I hope and pray that you also grow up to walk before God in humility, like Moses -- for that is the mark of those who are truly God fearing, and of those who are truly blessed.
This weeks Torah reading is from the fourth book, Bemidbar, from the opening of the eighth chapter to the sixteenth verse of the twelfth, and is called Behaalotekha. This portion contains two particularly note-worthy passages: The opening verses speak of the Menorah the seven branch candelabra that stood in the Temple; and we also have the story of what we might call the "Manna rebellion." The text tells us, "And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat? We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of bdellium. And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of fresh oil. And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it." [Num. 11:4-9]
The whole time that the Israelites were in the wilderness God fed them with manna. This Miracle food fell like light rain every early morning except for the Shabbat. The manna was a great food and always tasted good. Still some of the Israelites complained that they 'only got manna' to eat. They demanded all kinds of other foods -- fish, meat and vegetable. One of the things the Torah tells us is that the rebellion did not start with the Israelites but with the "Mixed Multitude." This Mixed Multitude was a group of non-Israelites who took the opportunity of the act of God in the night of the Passover to escape from Egypt with the Israelites. They did not have the same background, family connection to each other, or the traditions passed down from father to sons since Abraham that the Families-of-Israel did. They did not have the same faith that the Families-of-Israel did. The Families-of-Israel knew, even though the Torah had not yet been given, that they had a future in the Land of Israel. The people of the Mixed Multitude were just running away from Egypt. When things got tough in the wilderness, the Mixed Multitude was the first group to complain. They started the rebellion and then the rest of the Families-of-Israel went along with them.
Certainly there is no virtue nor is it a good excuse to say "they started it." Nor did our sages wish to pretend that "non-Jews" are somehow inferior to the Israelites However, our sages always maintained that life mirrors and repeats itself, and the past can teach the present and prepare for the future. We have been taught that we are all like Israel in the wilderness. All of us have within us our own 'seed of Abraham' and our own 'mixed-multitude.' Recall the rebellious nature of your childhood. Did you ever crave, and maybe partook of the great cookies or pie your mother made that you were told you could not eat before dinner? The "Jew" in you said, honor your father and your mother you should not eat the cookies. But another part of you really wanted the cookies -- and right away, too. And then, all of a sudden and without a warning, even though you knew that you should not eat the cookies, they were in your mouth. A small part of you talked the rest of you into eating. That was a character flaw, a little anti-Torah force within you. That is how the mixed-multitude worked in Israel, and that is how our own mixed multitude works, too.
The time spent in the desert was supposed to teach the Israelites how to avoid following the inclination of the mixed multitude and learn to live by the teachings of the Torah. The Oral tradition, the Mishna, teaches us, "The world is based upon three things: The Torah, Divine service, and the practice of Acts if Loving-kindness." [Avot 1:2] We are taught that God Himself has set within us an "inner ear" to attune us to these three things I just mentioned. The wisdom God gave to king Solomon, Davids son and the builder of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes. Here's an example: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days." [Ecc. 11:1]
Listen to this true story: There is a Jewish diamond dealer, who also has rabbinical ordination, who lives in Montreal, Canada. He absolutely hates to fly. Every two to three weeks he drives to New York City, a distance of some five hundred miles, to transact his business. He usually takes a four-hour nap in the afternoon and then drives through the night. He is quite used to always refreshed and drives straight through without problems.
On one such trip, soon after he crossed the border into New York state, the man could hardly keep his eyes open. He pulled off the highway at the nearest exit and was really surprise to discover that both of the motels are full -- an unusual condition since it was still two weeks until tourist season starts. Needing a place to sleep, he was told at the all-night gas station that a retirement home will rent him a room for the night.
In the morning, after he finishes praying the morning service, as he puts away his prayershawl and phylacteries, he begins to reflect -- God runs the world, everything happens for a purpose, I never before had to stop to sleep, what am I doing here? He approached the director of the home and said, "I am a Rabbi. Do you have any Jewish residents here?"
The director was startled. "How strange that you should ask... Actually, there was one Jewish man here, but he died yesterday." The rabbi asked what were the homes plans for burying him. The director replied, "The man was 100 years old and had outlived his money, his family and his friends; were planning to bury him in a common grave in the town cemetery."
The rabbi explained to the director the importance, in Judaism, of burying the man in consecrated grounds, in a Jewish cemetery. With the help of the director, he arranged to take custody of the remains and continued his journey to New York City with a plain wooden coffin in the back of his station wagon. Coincidentally -- and unusually -- the rabbi was driving his family station wagon, though he usually drove his sedan to New York.
The rabbi drove first to a Hevra Kaddisha, burial society, in Queens. They informed him that they had no provisions to help and sent him to Washington Heights. The Hevra Kaddisha in Washington Heights directed him to yet another burial society in the Bronx which supposedly has a fund for a levayat hamet mitzvah, burying the remains of one who has no relative or friend left behind to bury him. He called the Bronx burial society and was told, "Sure, it is true. Fifty years ago a philanthropist set up a fund specifically for this purpose. Bring your 'charge' over, we shall bury him."
Upon arrival, he presented all the documents he got at the home in upstate New York to the director. Immediately upon examining the papers, the director began to tremble and his face went pale. "Barukh Dayan Emet -- Praised be the Righteous Judge," he pronounced. "Not only will we bury him; we will bury him with great honors. You see, sir, this is the man who set up the fund!"
Now, ask yourself did the man who passed away know that he will some day benefit from his selfless act of charity of setting up the burial fund? Did the diamond merchant know that he had a task ahead of him to bring a man of the Jewish faith to proper burial? Or is it all manna from heaven, tasting just like the food that we fancy. Levayat hamet, burial of the dead, is a most selfless act, for the recipient of the help is totally unaware of our deed, and we certainly cannot expect reciprocity. Yet, "yesh din vyesh dayan" there is justice and there is a judge on high he metes out to us according to the deeds of Loving-kindness we have performed. The mixed multitude can be put down and made a part of Torah and Gmilut khasadim. It just takes "avodah" work on behalf of God, through Torah and mitzvot. So, going back to the first passage in this week's Torah reading, we are reminded of the lighting of the candles in the Temple. Each of us is a candle burning with the fervor of God, with the light of His spirit. We end up with ner neshama -- the 'spirit candle' for the dead whose spirit goes back to that source of all light -- the Sekhina. May we so live as to be a fine flame for His honor.
This week's Torah portion is called Be'ha'aloykha, and begins with the words"Va'ydaber Adona'y el Moshe lemor daber el Aharon ve'amarta elav, beha'alotkha et hanerot... The Lord spoke to Moshe saying, speak unto Aaron and say unto him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. Aaron did so; he set up its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses." This passage is the beginning of chapter eight in the book of Numbers, and it contains no numbers -- rather, it speaks of kindelling a flame that will shed light on the worship of God. What a fine idea that is! The light in the sanctuary was not normal candle light, we are taught. It was a Godly light, from the first day of creation, when God said, 'let there be light.' Without this light, there is no religion, there is no sanctuary, because there is no creation -- and no world. When God created light, it was the beginning of existence, of life, of humanity. God distinguished humanity from all other life by making us in His image, giving us understanding and intelligence -- the ability to be "enlightened" - to acquire wisdom.
The portion continues with the ninth chapter, where we read, "Thus the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, Now, let the sons of Israel observe the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall observe it at its appointed time; you shall observe it according to all its statutes and according to all its ordinances. So Moses told the sons of Israel to observe the Passover. And they observed the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the sons of Israel did." [Num. 9:1-5] This passage tells us that the newly liberated people of God were ordered to celebrate their freedom from bondage by 'binding themselves' to God's mitzvot by observing 'a lifestyle change' of diet and ceremony on an appointed date. The text goes on to tell us, "But there were some men who were unclean because of the dead person, so that they could not observe Passover on that day; so they came before Moses and Aaron on that day. And those men said to him, "Though we are unclean because of the dead person, why are we restrained from presenting the offering of the Lord at its appointed time among the sons of Israel? Moses therefore said to them, Wait, and I will listen to what the LORD will command concerning you. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'If any one of you or of your generations becomes unclean because of a dead person, or is on a distant journey, he may, however, observe the Passover to the Lord.
'In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight, they shall observe it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 'They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break a bone of it; according to all the statutes of the Passover they shall observe it. 'But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet neglects to observe the Passover, that person shall then be cut off from his people, for he did not present the offering of the Lord at its appointed time. That man shall bear his sin." [Num. 9:6-13] What is this all about? Serving God involved preparation ahead of time. One had to cleanse oneself, to prepare the body and thesoul to serve God. Some people, because of different circumstances, may not be ready to celebrate when an appointed time comes. The question that was raised in this chapter is, 'do they lose out on celebrating the holiday?' and 'are they forever after unwelcomed before the presence of God?' Well, the Torah answers these questions, and quite categorically.
The Torah, and its author, God Almighty, are very understanding and forgiving. If one is incapable of celebrating at the appointed time, he 'gets a second chance' a month later. By inference, one might conclude that if he or she is not ready by that time, another month may be taken -- the principle is that there is a recurring chance to serve God. However, there is a word of warning, 'But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet neglects to observe the Passover, that person shall then be cut off from his people, for he did not present the offering of the Lord at its appointed time. That man shall bear his sin.' -- informing us that only under special circumstances can the rules be bent.
There is no compromise on observing the seasons of God. The important events of the calendar, be they the three pilgrimage holidays or the period of renewal and return to God which we call the High Holidays, must be recognized and celebrated. Spring cannot be put off to mid-summer, and the winter solistice cannot be observed on Tu Bishvat. However, God is forgiving to those whose circustances prevent them from joining the entire people in their celebration. He hears their call whenever it comes, and He loves their service in its season. For His love and His acceptance we give thanks.
This week's reading in the Torah begins in the eighth chapter of the book of Numbers, And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to Aaron, and say to him, When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. And Aaron did so; he lighted its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as the Lord commanded Moses. And the workmanship of the lampstand was of hammered gold, its shaft, its flowers, was hammered work; according to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Take the Levites from among the people of Israel, and cleanse them. [Num. 8:1-6] The first four verses deal with the light in the sanctuary of God - but the fifth verse changes direction totally and begins instruction for the consecration of the Leviyim to serve God in the sanctuary.
We can ask two questions about the above text: Why begin with the lighting of the candles if you are going to speak about the Levites in this chapter. Why not leave the lighting of the candles to the chapter that deals with the Avodah, the service of God in the sanctuary; and, why do we not organize the Torah in such a manner that everything having to do with the consecration of the sanctuary would be in one place? Note that the dedication of the Tabernacle for the service of God is mentioned in Exodus:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, On the first day of the first month shall you set up the tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. And you shall put in it the ark of the Testimony, and cover the ark with the veil. And you shall bring in the table, and set in order the things that are to be set in order upon it; and you shall bring in the lampstands, and light its lamps. [Ex. 40:1-4]
Yet the dedication of Aaron and his sons to serve in the Tabernacle is mentioned in the next book, Vayikra: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and a bull for the sin offering, and two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread; And gather all the congregation together to the door of the Tent of Meeting. And Moses did as the Lord commanded him; and the assembly was gathered together to the door of the Tent of Meeting. And Moses said to the congregation, This is the thing which the Lord commanded to be done. And Moses brought Aaron and his sons, and washed them with water... And Moses took the anointing oil, and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it, and sanctified them... And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons, Boil the flesh at the door of the Tent of Meeting; and eat it there with the bread that is in the basket of consecrations, as I commanded, saying, Aaron and his sons shall eat it. And that which remains of the meat and of the bread shall you burn with fire. And you shall not go out of the door of the Tent of Meeting in seven days, until the days of your consecration are ended; for seven days shall he consecrate you. As he has done this day, so the Lord has commanded to do, to make an atonement for you. Therefore shall you remain at the door of the Tent of Meeting day and night seven days, and keep the charge of the Lord, that you die not; for so I am commanded. So Aaron and his sons did all things which the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses. [Lev. 8:1-6... 10... 31-36]
And now, in Bamidbar, we read again about consecrating the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle. Why this fragmentation of the task? Our sages explained that the tabernacle was created to serve a multitude of purposes, and each purpose had a different cast of characters. In Exodus, the Tabernacle is called mishkan which means residence. It is the place where the Glory of God appears; the meeting place for Moshe and God, where Moshe receives his inspiration from Gods instructions to him. In this connotation, Moshe is the sole actor in the establishment of the Tabernacle. He dedicates his office and its utensils, which include, quite coincidentally, the priests:
And Moses erected the tabernacle, and fastened his sockets, and set up its boards, and put in its bars, and erected its pillars. And he spread the tent over the tabernacle, and put the covering of the tent above it; as the Lord commanded Moses. And he took and put the Testimony into the ark, and set the poles on the ark, and put the covering above the ark; And he brought the ark into the tabernacle, and set up the veil of the covering, and covered the ark of the Testimony; as the Lord commanded Moses. And he put the table in the Tent of Meeting, upon the side of the tabernacle northward, outside the veil. And he set the bread in order upon it before the Lord; as the Lord had commanded Moses. And he put the lampstand in the Tent of the Meeting, opposite the table, on the south side of the tabernacle. And he lighted the lamps before the Lord; as the Lord commanded Moses... And Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet there; When they went into the Tent of Meeting, and when they came near to the altar, they washed; as the Lord commanded Moses. [Ex. 40:18-25... 31.32] The importance of the tent of meeting - Ohel Moed - is strictly the fact that God dwells in the midst of the camp of the Israelites, and is in constant communication with Moshe to instruct the people in His Torah.
The Tabernacle, though, was not merely Moshes place of business. Indeed, historically speaking, we view it as the precursor of the Temple in Jerusalem: the place where the priests of the Lord served God in the sacred Avodah - the Labor of maintaining the balance between a stiff-necked people and a deity that demanded exemplary behavior. The priests brought absolution and pardon to the people through sacrifice offerings of different kinds, most holy of which was the Atonement sacrifice made on Yom Kippur. It is in this connection that we read the entire book of Leviticus, which is called Torat Kohanim in the Hebrew and which deals with a profusion of offerings which Aaron and his decedents would offer to God to keep Israel as a goy kadosh - a consecrated people.
The third, and maybe most important purpose of the Tabernacle, was to serve as a center and a uniting force for the twelve tribes. It is in this connection that we read this weeks text. The matter began, actually, in the second chapter of our current book, Bamidbar, where we read, And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, Every man of the people of Israel shall camp by his own standard, with the ensign of their fathers house; far from the Tent of Meeting shall they camp. [Num. 2:1,2]
So the Tabernacle was to serve as the hub of the habitation of the Israelites, and consequently we read of the twelve heads of tribes dedicating the Tabernacle, And it came to pass on the day that Moses had finished setting up the tabernacle, and had anointed it, and sanctified it, and all its instruments, both the altar and all its utensils, and had anointed them, and sanctified them; That the princes of Israel, chiefs of the house of their fathers, who were the princes of the tribes, and who were over them who were counted, offered; [Num. 7:1,2]
It is in this multi-tribal dedication that the place of the Levites, the replacement for the first born dedicated to God, comes into place. The Levites serve God as representatives of the entire people, a constant and never-ending love offering to keep the flame burning, to maintain the eternal light from going out. Thus the Menorah, which is mentioned first in our portion, and the Levites, who are mentioned next, bring us the message of eternal Israel, dedicated to the service of God in His hub of our habitation and of our very existence. May we always be a people dedicated to His service and His praise. Amen
This week's Torah portion, beginning in chapter eight and going to chapter thirteen in the book of Numbers, is called Behaalotkha, and begins with the words "Va'ydaber Adona'y el Moshe lemor daber el Aharon ve'amarta elav, beha'alotkha et hanerot... The Lord spoke to Moshe saying, speak unto Aaron and say unto him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. Aaron did so; he set up its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses." This short passage contains no "numbers" - but does shed light on the custom of having a menorah, a seven candle lamp in the sanctuary of the Israelites, first in the wilderness, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
One of the strangest passages in the Torah is found in this portion, in chapter eleven, which begins with the words, "And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed those who were in the outlying parts of the camp. And the people cried to Moses; and when Moses prayed to the Lord, the fire was quenched." [Num. 11:1,2] We are not told what it was that the people complained about - at least not in this verse. But this is only the opening verses. It goes on to say that the people had much to complain about: "Who shall give us meat to eat?" [Num. 11:4] "We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;" [Num. 11:5] "And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. And they said, Has the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? has he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it." [Num. 12:1,2] We read here about a mood of dissatisfaction with Moshe and God by the Israelites which came close to open rebellion by the people and even by the second echelon leadership - Moshes own sister and brother.
There are many explanations for these acts of complaint and displeasure by the people. When the Israelites were in the desert they were fed manna. The sages tell us that this manna was a miraculous food that was "the sustenance of angels." It came about by a miracle of God, and had amazing qualities. It stretched to human needs: slow people picked what they needed, and fast workers could not over-pick. It had no particular form or taste, and yet it could be made to resemble in shape and taste any food that one wished to have. If you fancied bread - it was a fine, fresh loaf of khallah; if you preferred a roasted lamb, it became a fine roast - and if your choice was a salad, it became a bowl of tomatoes and cucumbers. Yet the people were not happy, and the people did not find satisfaction with their Godly sustenance.
Our commentators suggest that the reason for their unhappiness was either because they were not ready to live on "angel food" - they were too earthly in their concerns and orientation. They were the people who came out of Egypt, a nation of recently released slaves, and they were not ready for self discipline. They asked Moshe for meat, no, fish, no, vegetable, no, fruit... In other words, they didnt know what they wanted. They had flocks, but they asked for meat. They has manna, which was all they could desire, yet they asked for something else. They wanted that which they did not have. They asked for the sake of asking. They complained because they had nothing better to do but complain. Even Moshes own sister and brother became displeased with their position. "Why him, and not we?" They asked.
In Egypt the Israelites suffered under the yoke of slavery, under the heavy hand of the Egyptian taskmasters. They cried out to God Almighty - and he took them out of bondage, to be His people, to live by His Torah. Now they looked back with jaundiced eyes to the "fleshpots of Egypt..." Never satisfied with their condition, unsure of their future, they wished to slide back to their "known condition" of the immediate past. This pattern of behavior demonstrated the fact that they were not ready quite yet to move on to the next stage of their journey - the conquest of the land of promise. Again and again God would send the fire of his wrath to consume the weak, the doubter and the spreaders of the spirit of defeat and distrust. The Israelites had to be purified, prepared and steeled to the task ahead. God took the people out of bondage, but they had to learn to live the independent life. Freedom is a great ideal, but it comes at a price. We must never forget this. It is the distillation of all that Moshe has taught us, all that God wanted us to follow and do.
This week's Torah
portion is called Beha'alotkha. It is from the fourth book, Bemidbar, from the
opening of the eighth chapter to the sixteenth verse of the twelfth chapter.
The portion may be said to span the distance of day to night - or enlightenment
to ignorance: the opening verses speak of the Menorah -- the seven sticks candelabra
that stood in the Temple, and the last verse tell the story of what we might
call the "Manna rebellion," and the "Aaron and Miriam betrayal."
However, there is a little passage, seven verses, tucked in the midst of all
the other matters, that are often overlooked. This Shabbat we shall look at
these verses. Listen to the text:
"And Moses said to Hovav, the son of Re'u'el the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law, We are journeying to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it you; come with us, and we will do you good; for the Lord has spoken good concerning Israel. And he said to him, I will not go; but I will depart to my own land, and to my kindred. And he said, Leave us not, I pray you; for you know how we are to camp in the wilderness, and you may be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if you go with us, it shall be, that whatever goodness the Lord shall do to us, the same will we do to you.
And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp. And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered; and let them who hate you flee before you. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, to the many thousands of Israel." [Num. 10:29-36]
Let me review and summarize: Moshe asks his father in law to "join Israel." Hovav chooses to return to his homeland. Moshe implores again, promising God's favor to Hovav. The text then tells us of how the people traveled and rested by the Presence of the Almighty. What is it about the text that does not sit well with us? Our sages argued over the centuries about this text. First they questioned the opening verse, asking, "who is Hovav?" After all, we were introduced to the priest of Midian when Moshe arrived at his encampment and helped his daughters to water the sheep. The text said, "And when they came to Re'u'el their father, he said, How is it that you have come so soon today?" [Exodus 2:18] Later, when Moshe married Tziporah, and tended the sheep of his father-in-law, we read, "And Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian;" [ibid 2:1] Now the text speaks of "And Moses said to Hovav, the son of Re'u'el the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law" - so, what was the man's name?
Next question was, "who leads the Children of Israel to their destination?" Traditionally we are told that God led Israel out of Egypt, through the sea, to Mount Sinai - and on to the Promised land. However, in this text Moshe tells his father-in-law, "you know how we are to camp in the wilderness, and you may be to us instead of eyes."
Finally, the sages ask, "what happened in the end?" The text does not tell us if Hovav stayed or left the camp - it goes on to speak of the routine in the camp of the Israelites - when they rested, when they traveled, when they stopped. What is this all about? Are there verses missing here, maybe?
Our great sage and interpreter of Torah, Rashi, answers the question of the name of the father-in-law: "Hovav is Moshe's father-in-law, as it is written, "Now Heber the Kenite, who was of the descendants of Hovav the father-in-law of Moses, had separated himself from the Kenites, and pitched his tent near the terebinth in Zaanannim, which is by Kedesh." [Judges 4:11] But what of the text, "they came to Re'u'el their father" [Exodus 2:18] ? This teaches us that children call their grandfathers "father." He had many names, Yitro for the portion of the Torah named for him, and Hovav [whose root in Hebrew is "to like" or "to love"] because he loved the Torah." So, it would seem that Hovav is another name for Yitro. Others comment that his name was Yitro when Moshe married his daughter, but when he came up to the camp of the Israelites he felt such love for God that he changed his name to Hovav.
Next we resolve the question of who leads Israel through the desert - Moshe tells Hovav that he, Moshe, wants him to stay. Hovav prefers to return to his own place. Moshe refuses to take no for an answer, and he tries to convince his father-in-law that he is needed in the camp of the Israelites. So he fabricates the excuse, " you may be to us instead of eyes." We need you, he says to his father-in-law, as a man needs his eyes. Another interpretation is "you are the apple of our eye" - you are very dear to us.
The text does not tell us if Hovav stayed or if he left. We have two different times in the book of Judges that speak of the descendants of Hovav, "And the descendants of Keini, Moses' father-in-law, went up from the city of palm trees with the sons of Judah into the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the south of Arad; and they went and lived among the people." [Judges 1:16] and the verse we have quoted above, "Now Heber the Kenite, who was of the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, had separated himself from the Kenites, and pitched his tent near the terebinth in Zaanannim, which is by Kedesh." [ibid. 4:11] We do not know if the fact that he stayed is the reason that his descendants are among the Israelites, or if they joined our people at a later date. The text wishes to tell us, though, at the end of this episode, that it is God who leads the Israelites through the desert, and thus the text speaks of "And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them." This text tells us that it was God who marched ahead of the camp of Israel to scout the land and prepare their next encampment.
There are two more comments concerning this passage that I wish to bring to your attention. What do we learn from this passage? Our sages tell us that one lesson concerns righteous proselytes. Moshe speaks to Hovav, a non-Israelite, about joining the covenant of God by joining himself to the people. That means conversion! Moshe says, "whatever goodness the Lord shall do to us, the same will we do to you." There will not be any difference between you, who are just now joining our camp, and those who are direct descendants of Avraham, Yitzkhak and Yaakov. All that God will do for us - he shall also do for you. This is a most generous offer of equality that was not extended in any other society - not only in antiquity - but until rather recent times.
Finally, why do we not hear the "end of the story" of Hovav? There is no explanation in the Torah. However, I think that there is a hint a little further on in our text. Aharon and Miriam speak out against Moshe, and the text says, "veha'ish Moshe anav meod mikol haadam asher al pney haadama - And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other men which were upon the face of the earth." [Num. 12:3] Moshe was not only humble, he was self-effacing. The Torah notes that he heard what his brother and sister said against him - but did not respond at all. Moshe submerged his own personhood in his love of God and His people Israel. His love was not reflected not conditional. It was total and complete. That is why we did not read in the Torah about his wife, about whom Aharon and Miriam complain. He did not commission his sons to work in the priesthood or among the Levites - in fact, most people totally forget that Moshe had sons.
It is this self-effacing humility that prevents the text from telling us what happened to Hovav. The story is told only because of the object lesson it contains. Here was a stranger, who fell in love with our God - though he was not one of us. What should be done with such a "lover?" Moshe invites him to join, and promises him total equality with the rest of Yisrael. The point is made. The rest is the private business of the man Moshe - and it does not enter our text.
May we learn and live by the lessons of our Torah portion - the love of the stranger in our midst; the need to invite him to come closer and join us; the ideal of treating the proselyte with total equality and equanimity; and the worthy personal trait of serving God with self-effacing humility.
This week's Torah
reading is from the fourth book, Bemidbar, called "Numbers" in English
from the opening of the eighth chapter to the sixteenth verse of the
twelveth, and is called Beha'alotkha. The exact translation of the word is:
when you elevate, or raise up. The opening text reads, "Va'ydaber Adona'y
el Moshe lemor daber el Aharon ve'amarta elav, beha'alotkha et hanerot... And
the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to Aharon, and say to him, When you light
the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. And Aharon
did so;" [Num 8:1-3] The first four verses in our portion deal with the
light in the sanctuary of God but the fifth verse changes direction totally
and begins the instructions for the consecration of the Levites to serve God
in the sanctuary.
Tucked away, inconspicuously, is this passage: "And Moshe said to the Lord, Why have you afflicted your servant? and why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? Have I fathered them, that you should say to me, carry them in your bosom, like a nursing father carries the sucking child, to the land which you swore to their fathers? From where should I have meat to give to all this people? for they weep to me, saying, Give us meat, that we may eat. I am not able to carry all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if you deal thus with me, kill me, I pray you, at once, if I have found favor in your sight; and let me not see my wretchedness. And the Lord said to Moshe, Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you." [Ibid 11:11-16]
This is not the first time that Moshe has this kind of a conversation with God, and this is not the first time that God tells him to gather the elders. In fact, from the time Moshe goes down to speak to Pharaoh in Egypt, God tells him, "Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt." [Ex. 3:16] Moshe does, in fact, as God Almighty told him. "And Moshs and Aharon went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel; And Aharon spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moshe, and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped." [Ibid 4:29-31]
The leadership of the elders failed, however, in Egypt. Even before Pharaoh refused to let Israel depart, and took harsh measures to punish the Israelites for their demand to be allowed to leave, the elders dropped out of the company of "the trouble makers" Moshe and Aharon. Still, God wished to have good leadership for His people, and supported the concept of "elders" who can form a "parliament" that would lead Israel. We see this idea in the first oasis Israel comes to in the Sinai desert: "And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and seventy palm trees; and they encamped there by the waters." [Ibid 15:27] Rashi explained that the twelve wells were for the twelve tribes, and the seventy palm trees are for the seventy elders. In a further Godly acceptance of the role of the elders, at Mount Sinai God instructed Moshe to, "Come up to the Lord, you, and Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and worship from afar." [Ibid 24:1]
The leadership of the Israelites failed to rise to the challenge. In the days of bondage in Egypt, in the desert, and at other times. The unique nature of God cannot be transmitted by a committee - it needs to be articulated by one teacher - by a Moshe, or a prophet like Jeremiah or Amos or Isaiah, or a great teachers such as Hillel or Akiva. Our Torah is derived from one source, and its authority is not open to question. The great strength of elders is their ability to compromise and find a good consensus. However, Torah does not seek consensus - it seeks understanding and acceptance, training and discipline. Committees are great if you wish to design a camel but if you want to find a horse, look at God's handiwork.
The history of Israel is replete with examples. In the days after the death of Alexander the Great, our land and people came under the rule of the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy, who wanted to investigate the "famed book of the Jews," which he called in his tongue, "bible." The Talmud relates this story: "King Ptolemy once gathered 70 Elders. He placed them in 70 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: 'Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.' God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did' [Tractate Megillah 9].
The story goes that King Ptolemy found that each translation was exactly, word for word, the same as all the other. Even in places where the Sages, for their own reasons, intentionally altered the literal translation, the texts of the different sages were still identical. This constituted a public verification of the Divine source of the Torah and a sanctification of God's Name. It is reasoned that if the texts of these Elders had varied widely, it would not blemish either the Torah or its interpreters in Jewish eyes, since we know that the Torah is open to different interpretations. To the Greeks and Egyptians, however, any dispute in the words of the Torah text would cast blemish on the Torah, and dishonor on the Torah Scholars who translated it. Thus, God Himslef, in His infinite mercy, directed the minds and hands of the 70 scholars and allowed all of them to render the Torah identically.
Some sources suggest that there was actually an evil plan in Ptolemy's commission to the sages. He wished to prove that the Torah is not God inspired, and he planned to prove it by showing the differences in the different sages' texts. A true miracle had occurred in that there were no differences in any of the translations, thereby foiling the king's plan.
It is worthy of note, however, that the day on which the 70 Elders concluded their Greek translation of the Torah, the 8th of Tevet, was a day of sorrow for Israel, despite the clear hand of God in the event, and God's Providence on behalf of His people which was made manifest that day. Even though the matter evoked general wonder in the general community, the day was nevertheless a very tragic day for Am Yisrael, because the translation of our Book of Books made it possible for Jews to assume the ways of the Greeks. The Talmud, in Megilat Ta'anit, records the event as follows: " On the 8th of Tevet, the Torah was rendered into Greek during the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness descended upon the world for three days.' To what may the matter be likened? To a lion captured and imprisoned. Before his imprisonment, all feared him and fled from his presence. Then, all came to gaze at him and said, 'Where is this one's strength?'
Likewise the Torah, as long as it's text was in Hebrew, it evoked reverence, and many feared to cast blemish upon it. Even non-Jews who desired to study Torah, had no chance to do so until they had acquired a knowledge of the Holy tongue and the prescribed ways for understanding Torah text. Once the Torah was "fixed" in the Greek translation, it was as if it had been imprisoned, limited in scope and divested of reverence. Whoever wished to do so could now gaze at the Torah while being totally ignorant of the circumstances of its original linguistic genius. Anyone who wanted to find fault with its logic, could now do so based on a translation.
The Sages, therefore, likened this event to the day on which the golden calf was made. For just as the golden calf had no connection to the reality of God Almighty, and yet its servants regarded it as having real substance, "and they said, These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt." [Ex. 32:4] Likewise the translation of the 70 Elders, devoid of the true substance of the Torah, allowed non-Jews to imagine that they already know the Torah, and challenge the Jews as to its text and context..
The Torah teaches us the lesson of leadership by accepting and honoring the Elders, and at the same time teaching the Elders "Khakhamim hizaharu bedivreykhem wise men, be cautious in your speech." Sometimes a God inspired act of our leaders can be the opening for national disaster.
The reading in Torah
this week is from the fourth book, Bemidbar, Numbers, from the opening of the
eighth chapter to the sixteenth verse of the twelfth chapter, and is called
Beha’alotkha. I would like to throw the stoplight on two passages: The
opening verses, which speak of the Menorah — the seven branch candelabra
that stood in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple of Solomon; and we also
have a story that I like to call the "Manna rebellion." The text tells
us, "And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving;
and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to
eat? We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers,
and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; But now our soul
is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.
And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of bdellium.
And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat
it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and the taste of
it was like the taste of fresh oil. And when the dew fell upon the camp in the
night, the manna fell upon it." [Num. 11:4-9] But more about that later.
Let us examine the first verse of this week's Torah portion: "Va'ydaber Adona'y el Moshe lemor daber el Aharon ve'amarta elav, beha'alotkha et hanerot... And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to Aaron, and say to him, When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand." [Num. 8:1,2] The passage speaks of kindling a flame that will shed light on the worship of God. What an excellent idea that is! The light in the sanctuary was not normal light, we were taught. It was a Godly light, from the first day of creation, when God said, 'let there be light.' The act of kindling this light, furthermore, is not really what we read in the English text.
To kindle is what we do to the Shabbat lights – and you all know the blessing of the candles: “lehadlik ner shel Shabbat.” However, the text in the Torah this Shabbat says, “Beha’alotkha et hanerot” – where is the “kindling” – “lehadlik?” It is just not there! And what is it that we DO have there? “Beha’alotkha” – a word from the root “oleh,” which means ‘to elevate,’ or ‘to raise.’ From that root we get the word “olah,” which means a sacrifice. Thus, the kindling of the flame in the Menorah was not an act of kindling, but rather a raising of the light, and of rising to the level of God’s lighting up all existence.
This “lifting up” of the light in the Holy place of the Jews reminds us of the very concept of sacrifice for the purpose of enlightenment. To be sure that is a subject that we can relate to this week-end, as we recall and commemorate the events of June 6th, 1944. On that day, which will forever be known as “D-day,” the combined forces of the Allies: American, British, French, Dutch, Belgians, Polish, Danes and others, invades “fortress Europe.” The invasion was expected ever since the Germans lost the initiative in their determined drive to conquer the world. The Germans knew that if the Allies would establish a beach-head, their days would be numbered. Therefore, they fortified the entire coastline of Europe, from the northmost tip of the continent to the border of Spain in the Iberian Peninsula. The “Atlantic Wall” was a formidable line of fortifications, and the Allies knew that scaling that wall would be an act of sacrifice unlike any undertaken by an army before.
I traveled in France less than ten years after the end of the war, and the sea-coast of the Atlantic and the British Chanel was still untouched since the war. The poured concrete bunkers were still there, imposing in their size and girth. The coast itself was strewn with anti-tank, anti-landing crafts obstacles, and in many places still covered with barbed wire. Only the mines, thank God, were gone. I remember clearly standing on the beach near Normandy, looking up at one of those fortresses. It stood some two hundred feet above the beach, a grey concrete colossus, with a wide open mouth, where once stood a one hundred and five millimeter cannon. It looked as menacing as an old primitive god-figure, its mouth spewing flames, ready to accept the human sacrifices the tribe would “feed” it to sooth the anger of the spirits. “Not much has changed,” I thought to myself. “Before this monster bunker American boys from Minnesota and Louisiana bared their chests and shouted “Charge!” A hundred fell, and a thousand followed – and some reached the top and captured the fortress from the enemy.
That was then, and today our boys are once again in battle. But today we don’t have the devotion and the sacrificing spirit of yesteryear. Today we are likened to the Israelites who came to Moshe and Aharon and complained. “We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; ” Yes, our men and women are on the battle front - but at home we remember the “easy days” of cucumbers and melons, the easy times when gas was cheap and security was not an issue. We want to know who turned of the spigot and allowed the good times to stop.
Well, friends, look at the text – the light does not come easy, it has to be lifted up, it has to be dressed and maintained. Freedom’s flame is never out of danger of being snuffed out. To have good times in California, we must stand firm in Falluja. The sooner we realize it, the sooner we shall regain our balance and rediscover our self respect and our pride. Bless our troops, dear God, this night of the dedication of your light, the light of reason, of love and of goodness. And, dear God, soon in our times, let the good time roll again, let freedom flow like a river, and peace descend upon all that you created.
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