The following is the D'var Torah given by Lance Strate as lay leader on Shabbat evening, June 9, 2023:
This week’s Torah portion is called Behaalotecha, which means, when you ascend. It is the third parsha in the fourth book of the Torah, which is commonly referred to as the Book of Numbers. Of course, that was the name assigned to it by the Christians. In Jewish tradition it is known as Bamidbar, meaning in the wilderness or in the desert, as it takes place after Sinai and during the forty years spent in the desert separating Egypt from Canaan.
Behaalotecha stitches together several short items, jumping from one to another, wandering through topics much like the Israelites were said to have wandered through the desert. But as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings, "not all those who wander are lost." And contrary to popular misconceptions, nomadic people do not wander aimlessly. Nomads follow established paths, moving in conjunction with the changing seasons, following circuits that bring them back to the same places at the same time of year.
And when nomads change their way of life, forming settlements with agriculture, living in villages, towns, and cities, they find ways to symbolically reenact their movements, through ritual observances. This may well be the purpose behind the mysterious monuments left to us from prehistoric peoples, such as Stonehenge in England, and the statues on Easter Island.
For the Jewish people, the monuments by which we reenact our desert wanderings are not made of stone, but of parchment, they are our Torah scrolls. Through our weekly Torah readings, we travel through the Five Books of Moses, completing the circuit as we return again to the beginning following the High Holy Days. The word we use for repentance at that time, tshuva, means return, from which Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach wrote the lyrics, return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.
We return each year to the spiritual land of our soul, while the Israelites ultimately return to the physical land of our soul, the promised land. But at this point in the Torah, the Israelites are still very much in the wilderness, in a liminal space and time, somewhere between the slavery that remained a recent memory, and the freedom that comes with finding a permanent home.
Wandering into this week’s parsha, we find it begins with an instruction to Aaron about lighting the seven lamps of the menorah. We refer to the holiday of Hanukkah as the Festival of Lights, at which time we light the Hanukkah menorah, or Hanukkiah, which we say has eight lights, but technically has nine if you include the shamash candle. And the Hanukkiah is what tends to come to mind when we talk about a menorah, but actually it is a special kind of menorah formed by added an extra branch to each side of the regular menorah, giving it four arms on each side rather than three. The original, seven branched menorah was made from gold, according to the Torah, and placed in the holy Tabernacle, where the ark resided. One or more gold menorahs were also placed in the First and Second Temples, and became the symbol of the Jewish people long before we adopted the six-pointed star or shield of David.
You might note the significance of the number seven, which corresponds to the seven days of the week. As the Rutgers University sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel explains, while we take for granted the idea that a week is made up of seven days, that number is completely arbitrary. We know that a day is based on the earth turning around on its axis, a month is based on the moon circling the earth, and a year is based on the earth revolving around the sun, all of them a natural kind of nomadic wandering. Actually, the word planet comes from the ancient Greek word meaning wanderer. And like the days, months, and years, the week is also a circuit that we move through over and over again, but it is one that was entirely a human invention. This is why it requires a commandment to reinforce it, specifically the fourth commandment, which tells us to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” That commandment also emphasizes the idea of a seven-day week as it continues, “six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of Adonai your God”—we are actually commanded to work for six days.
The fourth commandment also goes on to remind us, “for in six days Adonai made heaven and earth, and the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” In observing the Sabbath, we not only obey the commandment, we also reenact the Creation. And in reenacting Creation, we connect to that sacred time and space, separate and removed from our everyday profane world. And just as the Sabbath is separated from and exalted above the other days of the week, the six branches on the side of the menorah are on the same level as one another, but the menorah’s central light stands above all the rest.
The parsha wanders on to establish the Levites as separate from the rest of the children of Israel, as they are placed in the service of God as a priestly tribe. Next, the parsha wanders into some instruction regarding the Passover sacrifice, and allows for a second Passover for anyone who was ritually unclean, due to handling the dead for example, and thereby unable to take part in the Passover ritual at its appointed time. And it allows for proselytes to also take part in the Passover, stating, “One statute shall apply to you, to the proselyte and to the native-born citizen.” This not only allows for what we now call religious conversion, but also emphasizes the ideal of equality before the law.
As we continue to travel through the parsha, the next section provides some detail about the Israelites’ wandering, with God’s presence signaled by a cloud over the Tabernacle. As long as the cloud remained in place, the Israelites stayed where they were. And when the cloud moved, the Israelites would follow and settle wherever it ended up. As the parsha explains,
Whether it was for two days, a month, or a year, that the cloud hovered over the Tabernacle, the children of Israel would encamp and not travel, and when it departed, they travelled.
Along with the cloud hovering over the Tabernacle, in the evening there was “an appearance of fire” over it that lasted until morning. Fire, like light, is a symbol of the divine presence, from the burning bush to the pillar of flame that kept the Egyptians at bay while the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, and fire is the means by which we light the lights of the menorah, and the Shabbat candles. The cloud obscures the sight of God, but the glow establishes God’s presence.
Next the parsha wanders to God’s instructions to make silver trumpets, which are to be used to summon people to assemble, by blowing a long blast, a tekiah, or to announce that it is time to travel by blowing a series of short blasts, a teruah. God also tells the Israelites to blow a teruah if they have to go to war against an adversary who oppresses them, and to blow the trumpets on holidays and new-moon celebrations. We of course associate tekiah and teruah with the shofar, the ram’s horn, rather than silver trumpets, and only on the High Holy Days.
In this parsha, the sounding of the trumpets serves as a signal, just as God’s voice signaled the beginning of Creation, when God said, Let there be light! The sound came first, and only after came the light that enables us to see. In the same way, before we are born, we exist in complete darkness inside our mother’s womb. But not in silence, as we can hear the sound of our mother’s heartbeat, her voice, and even something of the voices and sounds nearby. Sound comes before sight.
Wandering on through the parsha, next comes a listing of the leaders of each tribe, as the children of Israel prepare to travel away from Mount Sinai for the first time. And then we come to one of the many points where the Israelites complain—they are always complaining it seems—this time about not having any meat to eat, and saying how much better things were back in Egypt. This naturally angers God, while Moses says to God,
Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers? Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, 'Give us meat to eat.' Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.
And God responds, saying
Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people's elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone.
In this passage, we have the idea of delegating power, with Moses as the central figure, and the tribal leaders as being given local authority. This served as a model for the framers of the American constitution, with the states being granted authority over anything not specified by the federal government. Also note the number here, 70, reminding us of the seven branches of the menorah, and the seven days of the week, as well as the sabbatical year which comes every seven years, and the jubilee year coming after seven sabbaticals.
This section also relates how God increases his spirit on Moses so that it could be bestowed on the 70 elders, so that they begin to prophesize. Hearing about this, Joshua, who serves Moses, implores Moses to imprison them, thinking that they are false prophets. But Moses responds, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all of Adonai's people were prophets, that Adonai would bestow God’s spirit upon them!”
These events are weaved together with the story of the Israelites craving meat, as God also goes on to tell Moses
And to the people, you shall say, 'Prepare yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, because you have cried in the ears of Adonai saying, "Who will feed us meat, for we had it better in Egypt." [Therefore,] Adonai will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat it not one day, not two days, not five days, not ten days, and not twenty days. But even for a full month until it comes out your nose and nauseates you. Because you have despised Adonai Who is among you, and you cried before God, saying, "Why did we ever leave Egypt?"
Moses questions how God will provide enough meat for six hundred thousand people, to which God responds, “Is My power limited?” In other words, he says, How will I do it? I’m God! God provides them with an enormous quantity of quail as it turns out, but being angry about their lack of faith, also punishes them, striking down the gluttons among them.
The parsha’s wandering closes with a final vignette, which tells the story of how Aaron and Miriam criticized their brother Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. They believed that they had the right to criticize Moses because God had spoken to them as well, but we know that their criticism is unwarranted, if not prejudicial, especially from the line that follows, which tells us “Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.” As a consequence, God once again is angered, and summons the three siblings to the Tabernacle, where he rebukes Aaron and Miriam in a passage that relates
Adonai descended in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tent, and called to Aaron and Miriam, and they both went out. God said, "Please listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] will make Myself known to them in a vision; I will speak to them in a dream. Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth… and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of Adonai. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?
Apart from putting Aaron and Miriam in their place for their unwarranted criticism, this passage tells us something about our prophets. God’s relationship with Moses is unique and separate, it stands above all the rest, it is only with Moses that God communicates directly, mouth to mouth. All of the other prophets hear from God via visions, dreams and riddles.
Unlike the older gods of polytheistic religions in antiquity, who take familiar shapes and forms and interact with human beings directly, sometimes intimately, the concept of God that is associated with our tradition, the first of the monotheistic religions, is of a God that is transcendent rather than immanent, beyond human understanding. But our God is not a God who is unreachable or uncaring.
God may be distant, and as Marin Buber suggested, God may sometime be in eclipse, hidden from us, just as we sometimes grow distant from God. But we are always in a relationship with God, one that is or ought to be what Buber referred to as an I-You relationship. Not an I-It relationship where God is treated as a means to an end, where prayer and ritual are treated as magic formulas employed to achieve a desired result. No, not like Harry Potter casting a spell. But in an I-You relationship where we encounter God person-to-person. Not face-to-face of course, but maybe mouth-to-mouth.
That phrase, in Hebrew peh el-peh, is commonly used in contemporary English in the context of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But this also resonates with the fact that the Hebrew words for soul and spirit, nefesh and ruach, also mean wind and breath. In Genesis the Torah says that God breathed life into the earth, into Adam, whose name means earth, and it is perfectly natural to associate breath with life and spirit. The Latin word for breathe is spirare, from which we get English words like inspire and inspiration, literally to breathe into, words like aspire and aspiration, meaning simply to breathe, words like conspire and conspiracy, meaning to breathe together, and words like expire and expiration, meaning to breath out.
The parsha ends with Miriam being punished with a skin disease for belittling Moses. Aaron begs Moses to intercede with God, which he does, and God says she will be cured after being quarantined for seven days. Once again, we find the number seven being invoked in this parsha. Seven days for the quarantine, seventy tribal elders, seven lamps in the menorah. And seven days in a week, Shabbat being the seventh day, reflecting the six days of Creation, and how on the seventh day God rested.
We mark the beginning of Shabbat by lighting candles, just as God’s labors began with the creation of light. By extension, following a Kabbalistic interpretation, all of Creation is formed from that first light, all bits and pieces of that splintered, fractured light. Today we understand that our planet and all of life is made up of the same atoms as the stars, that we are the leftover material from the sun. As the astronomer Carl Sagan once put it, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” And as Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
In other words, we’ve got to complete the circuit. To return again. Not to a state of complete innocence, that would be impossible. But to a time when we lived in harmony with the world, with all of life, and with the sacred and the spiritual. The divine light is all too often clouded, obscured, in shadow and eclipsed, and the light within us is itself fractured and splintered, because, according to Kabballah, God’s Creation was incomplete, was left to us to complete, to heal and repair this broken world, to heal and repair our broken selves. We presently find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, but that does not mean that we are lost, and that does not mean that we are wandering aimlessly.
As we kindle the Sabbath lights, we can kindle the lights of renewal. As we breathe on an ember to help it catch fire, we can breathe life and spirit wherever and whenever a spark still remains. As we grow closer to one another through family, friendship, and community, as we grow closer to the divine through worship, communion, and good works, as we grow closer to Creation through acts of conservation and preservation, and by embracing our role as caretaker and protector of the natural world, so do we grow closer to a time when we return to a world that is healed and repaired, a time when all of humanity will follow the words of the prophet Micah, to do justly, love mercy, and, like Moses, to walk humbly with our God, wherever we may wander.