Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beha'alotecha 06

This week’s Torah Portion is from the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) and is called Beha’a lot’cha, which means “When you light,” referring to G-d’s commanding Aaron to light the Menorah in the Temple.

Actually, this chapter is pretty complex in that it deals with a number of issues that don’t seem related at first. First of all, the Menorah – the chapter gives very specific instructions for the construction of the Menorah itself and for the lighting of it.

Second, it deals with the role of the Levites and instructs them as to how to prepare, behave, etc.

Third, it is in this chapter that the instructions for Pesach Sheni are given.

Fourth, this chapter describes the departure from Sinai and particularly how the people were guided by a fiery cloud that went in front of them by day (when they were to move) and settled on the Mishkan at night or when they were to remain camped.

Fifth, and related to the departure from Sinai, the chapter describes how the people became discontented and began complaining, particularly about having to eat Manna three times a day and having nothing else to eat, and how G-d became angry at this complaining and sent a fiery punishment into the camp until Moses prayed to stop the fire.

Sixth and finally, the chapter describes how Miriam came to Aaron and spoke ill of Moses behind Moses’ back, and the terrible punishment that G-d visited on Miriam for this. It is also here that G-d proclaims Moses the greatest prophet ever to be because G-d spoke to Moses directly, not in visions or dreams as He did the other prophets.

So what do we make of all this complexity? In studying the various Divrei Torah and commentaries that I was able to find, I think there are several themes:

First of all, there is the theme of sufficiency. When the people left Sinai, they did not travel for one day as G-d had commanded, but for three days’ journey. The teachers say that they did this because, having received the 613 commandments from G-d, they were afraid that if they stuck around, G-d would give them more! Later, in the wilderness, G-d provided Manna every day when the dew fell (and a double portion on Friday for Shabbat). The Manna could be prepared a variety of ways and provided a variety of tastes and textures, but still it was Manna every day and the people complained, remembering the fish and vegetables they had in Egypt. Even after the fiery punishment they kept complaining and cried for meat, so G-d provided so much meat that they gorged on it and sickened and died.

The Midrash suggests that the Israelites became embittered for two reasons: First, because they did not know whether the manna would descend the next day – that is they lacked faith in G-d; and second because although the manna had many and varied tastes, it did not contain the vegetables they remembered from Egypt. In other words, a miracle wasn’t miraculous enough for them. They lacked a consciousness of sufficiency, that what they had, what G-d had provided, was enough for them to be happy. By contrast, the chapter makes a point of the fact that the people would always move when the fiery cloud moved and would camp when it stood still, even though this meant moving from good campsites, travelling on consecutive days, etc. In this case the people accepted G-d’s judgement as sufficient. The teachers say that if we could only accept this concept, we would avoid most hardship. We have exactly what G-d want us to have, not an iota less. Any more is like wanting a sixth finger. Why, then, be jealous? Why steal or envy?

The second theme is that of humility. In the last chapter, when the princes of the tribes of Israel brought valuable gifts for the Mishkan, Aaron and the tribe of Levi were excluded. Aaron was upset about this, feeling it was G-d’s punishment for his participation in the affair of the Golden Calf. G-d told Aaron that this was not so, that he and the Levites would have a far greater honor, that of lighting the Menorah (for Aaron) and attending the Kohanim in the Temple for the Levites. In lighting the Menorah, the teachers tell us, Aaron used a step-stool with three steps. These steps represent the three evil personality traits of Jealously, Lust, and Pursuit of Honors, which drive a person away from G-d which must be overcome to truly serve G-d. Also on this theme of humility is Moses himself, who is described as the most modest man in the world. When Miriam and Aaron spoke ill of Moses, G-d Himself intervened because Moses would not have. Similarly, when, at G-d’s command, Moses created a Sanhedrin of 70 elders to help govern the people, and these elders were seized with an ecstasy and began to prophesy and teach the people, Moses, rather than being jealous, said: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” The other example of humility is when two of the people who had been engaged with burying Nadab and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, during the first Passover came to Moses and proposed a second Passover for themselves and others who were unable to observe, Moses took their proposal to G-d, who approved it.

The third theme is reflected in the establishment of the Menorah that opens the chapter. Why light the Menorah? G-d does not need our light – there is no darkness before G-d. In a house, windows are narrower on the outside and on the inside – this allows the most light to enter the house through the window. The Temple was constructed the opposite way, to allow the internal light of the Temple to radiate outwards. So G-d doesn’t need our light; what He wants is for Jews to be a light to others. The teachers say that, as Jews, we are obligated to light a candle if we find one that is not burning, and that if we find a soul that is “dim” it is our obligation to enlighten it. The Menorah opens the chapter, and the story of Miriam ends it. I believe that this indicates that gossip, Lashon Hara, dims the soul. Miriam is severely punished by G-d, but Moses’ plea that she has learned her lesson, that her soul is no longer dimmed by her lack of regard for the consequences of what she says, lightens G-d’s punishment.

Sufficiency, humility, and being a light to the world are the themes of this week’s Torah portion. In her book “A Return to Love,” Marianne Williamson could have been speaking of this chapter:

Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?" Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God; your playing small doesn't serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear our presence automatically liberates others.

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