BS”D By Dvir Cahana June 12, 2020
This week’s Parsha, Be’Haalotcha greets us during a very tenuous time. It seems like the country is in disarray. The National guard have been deployed onto the people and the riots have been in full vigour. There is clearly an incongruity between the demands of the impassioned riots and the willingness for the government to concede. Fittingly we find ourselves in a heated section of the Torah. Over the next two weeks we will witness two subsequent coups attempts in Parshat Shlach and Korach, but that is not to say that Be’Halotcha is spared from moments of tension. And it does not take long after the dedication of the Mishkan in last week’s parsha and the pristine image of designating the honour of lighting the Menorah to the Cohen Gadol that the murmurs and inital signs of revolution begin to evidence themselves.
In last week’s Parsha the Birkat Hacohanim serves as the central glue or pulse of the Parsha. The sentiment is one of unity disseminating from the Cohanim to the people. In this Parsha we have the Numbers 10:35:
“וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֗—ה וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃”
(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!)
This marked off section of the Parsha concludes the third of the five perakim in the and is the literal centrepiece of this complicated Parsha. Although there is unity amongst the people it is a different unity than that seen in Nasso;it comes from the people, and it is a militant one. I can hear the echoes of the battlecry to defund the police force scream from these pages. The unity of the Jewish people, is accentuated by the word “וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙” which G-d used as a descriptor for Abraham’s children, and is harnessed as a term that undermines the power of the enemies lurking in the wilderness. This line has continued to be viewed positively, and Chizkuni says that it is used as a partition between the three negative incidents on either side of it (This is because there is a belief that three consecutive negative occurrences act as a Chazaka). Every time the we read from the Torah we open the Aron and begin the Torah-led procession with the recitation of this phrase. This phrase notes the people’s increasing strength, and the explicit exposition of the exact choreography of the camp’s military formations denotes a foreshadowing to the coordinated efforts that await in the upcoming parshiot.
The development of the nation’s unity is key to the text and the portrayal of their mobilization also proves to unlock an interesting component of the challenges that they faced in the desert. Comparing the people to Foot-soldiers is not only resonates with what has been previously described, but is the very terminology that Moses employs when referring to the Jews in Numbers 11:21: “שֵׁשׁ־מֵא֥וֹת אֶ֙לֶף֙ רַגְלִ֔י הָעָ֕ם”. But a deeper meaning can be derived from this terminology when looking back at three moments of unity, each subsequently further entrenching their unity amongst themselves but distancing from G-d. The word Foot “רַגְלִ֔י” is a term that is given to the three pilgrimage festivals. And sure enough when looking deeper into the text, we can see an allusion to each of the three pilgrimage festivals. The first of the three Passover is commanded in this Parsha. Rashi teaches that it is the first and final Passover celebrated in the desert. Originally, this was supposed to be because the expected arrival into Israel would be within the year, however due to the upcoming uprisings these plans are short-circuited and 38 subsequent Passover-less years would follow. The unity of Am Israel first strikes during this section and, surprisingly, it is received warmly. The people request that those who were unable to participate in the Pesach festivities, be allotted a second chance at redemption, and be allowed to celebrate Paschal offering one month later. Not only was this request heeded, but the holiday was permanently engraved into the Jewish calendar. Analogously, in today’s current political climate, there is opportunity for reform. The instantiation of thinking about those that were incarcerated or unable to leave the house echoes today’s situation so much and marking this decree with a holiday, defined by the people, to exacerbate G-d’s own sense of compassion will return as a motif of this Parsha’s core message. Finally, it is important to note that the Paschal offering is the only obligation that an individual who wants to participate in Pesach Sheini needs to adhere. Passover is called both Pesach and Chag HaMatzot. Chag Hamatzot references the 7 days that one refrains from eating bread. Pesach Sheini returns Bnei Israel to that initial moment when they were still in Egypt; preliberation, preredemption. The evening in which the threshold of that liminal space was about to be crossed, and yet the status of the people were still slaves. They were still in the house of bondage. So too does the fervour of the BLM movement anguish in the legacy of slavery.
Next we see an allusion to Shavuot in the phrase Numbers 10:33, “וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵהַ֣ר יְהוָ֔—ה דֶּ֖רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים” Three days before receiving the Torah, the children of Israel prepared themselves to receive the Torah. These three days are mirrored when they leave Mount Sinai. And as they leave, Rashi notes that they are being led by the Aron that Moshe shattered upon his first descent of Mount Sinai. On Shavuot we repent for this moment through the practice of Tikkun Leil Shavuos, where we study Torah all night. Chizkuni comments that although this moment of unity is commanded Top-Down (it is literally prompted by the cloud of glory) it still constitutes an ominous moment and thus the “Vayehi Binso Ha’Aron” is pivotal it breaking up the negative sequence. But the Mefarshim also note the attitude of the people as they are being commanded to leave. Rashbam teaches that the strain of the three day journey seeded the complaints that are seen in Numbers 11:1. Although the people are ready to heed the rules, they begin to feel subordinated by them and here is when we see the first seeds of the distancing between the nation and G-d begin. The attitude of the people can even be observed in the wording of “מֵהַ֣ר יְהוָ֔—ה”, the word can both mean “from the mountain” or “in haste”. This haste is reminiscent of the haste of leaving Egypt, and at the very best it defines a fearful obedience. The practice sprint to synagogue in the morning and to mosey ones way back home is more than just a Jewish propendency to shmooze, it is found in one of the first halachik discussions of the Talmud (Berachos 6a), and can be found in the Shulchan Aruch 90:12.
The Second Passover, and the desertion from Mount Sinai can both be seen as dangerous departures from the divine ideal, but they also represent moments of unity that inspire a sense of ownership and authenticity with their relationship to Judaism. They acknowledge the reality of the sub-optimal challenges that we encounter on a daily basis. The third pilgrimage holiday is Succoth, and we have many allusions to this holiday in the confrontation between the nation and Moses in chapter 11. Sukkoth is a universal holiday that commemorates the inclusivity between the other 70 nations of the world and the Jewish people. Rashi takes particular interest in the word “וְהָֽאסַפְסֻף֙” which he clarifies that this word is in reference to the mixed multitude that joined the Jews in the desert. Rashi also explains that the word itself means to gather; from the root word, “אסַף֙”, which is one of the names for Sukkoth, Chag Ha’assif. The word Assaf continues to be a motif in this section and is used when the people gather the quail. It is also used when Moshe gathers 70 elders to encircle the Tent of Meeting. The number 70, as we have already seen, is a very central number to Sukkoth. On Sukkoth there are two sets of 70 meat offerings that every individual is supposed to bring. This image is paralleled with Moses’ proclamation that they will have 600,000 sacrifices in which they will need to ritually slaughter sheep and cattle Numbers 11:21-22 “הֲצֹ֧אן וּבָקָ֛ר יִשָּׁחֵ֥ט לָהֶ֖ם” …”שֵׁשׁ־מֵא֥וֹת אֶ֙לֶף֙ רַגְלִ֔י הָעָ֕ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י בְּקִרְבּ֑וֹ”. The idea of the entire nation being recalled and the words “בְּקִרְבּ֑וֹ”and “צֹ֧אן” “וּבָקָ֛ר” “יִשָּׁחֵ֥ט” all hint at this sentence being a reference to the Sukkoth sacrificial service. This phrase would not make any sense with a literal interpretation of this text, because there was no cattle involved —G-d fed their hunger for meat with quails. Furthermore, it is odd that Moshe would use this phrasing 600,000 feet, which is the exact phrase that is used when Bnei Israel left Egypt through the storage house that they had built as slaves. Exodus 12:37 “וַיִּסְע֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מֵרַעְמְסֵ֖ס סֻכֹּ֑תָה כְּשֵׁשׁ־מֵא֨וֹת אֶ֧לֶף רַגְלִ֛י”. Also in this phrase we see that the first destination that they arrive at is fittingly called Sukkot. And so similarly to the previous two Pilgrimmage holidays we are being pulled back to the moment of emancipation. But this parallel does not stop here, the Pesach Sheini, they asked solely to hold onto the aspect of the Passover holiday that revisits a moment when the people were all still slaves. This request only demonstrates what resonated with the people but when they left Mount Sinai we see that their demeanour was still shaped by their relationship with pharaoh at the moment that they no longer were slaves, and finally they took this devolution to its final step and explicitly asked to return to Egypt in drawing the memory of the first place that they went to right after slavery. The three festivals collapse onto the singularity of the moment just before freedom, the exact moment of freedom, and the moment right after. Simultaneously, their actions go from a potent symbolism, to action to demands. The fire that ensnared the camp therefore once again begs to call upon the enflamed fire that fills American streets today. Finally, it is important to note that the dichotomy between Chag Hamatzot and Pesach applies to this story as well. Bnei Israel reject the Manna, and instead beg for meat. Manna is represented in modern ritual through the Challah. Furthermore, the original complaint goes from, Numbers 11:4 “בְּקִרְבּ֔וֹ הִתְאַוּ֖וּ תַּאֲוָ֑ה” to the name of the place Numbers 11:35, “קִבְר֣וֹת הַֽתַּאֲוָ֑ה”. The idea of stretching out the faint desire of the taste is central to Matzah, so Moshe asks G-d twice whether providing meat would be enough for the people, but Moses uses the word Motzi when asking whether their desires will be satisfied Numbers 11:22, “וּמָצָ֣א לָהֶ֑ם” G-d rhetorically responds to Moshe Numbers 11:23 : “Will I shorten my hand?”. The Quails also act as a device to return them back to an earlier time. They first complain about a lack of food right after passing through Yam Suf. They are given both Mannah and quail. In this section when the quail arrives it says that G-d caused a gust of wind to conjure back the quail from the sea.
This third reference to the Shalosh Regalim is more challenging to interpret. It is accompanied with death and punishment. The stage is set with the request for the nation to want to return back to the status of when they were in Egypt. If we look at the particular words that are employed in this section, however, we see a different conflict emerge. If we look at the words Bnei Israel we see a different request. A request similar to the one of reconciliation that we hear on the streets today. The phrasing of their original question is Numbers 11:4 “מִ֥י יַאֲכִלֵ֖נוּ בָּשָֽׂר”. The phrase can be translated to “Where will we get meat to eat?”, however it can also be read as a question with its own response. “Who will we eat? Bassar” Bassar can be meat but it can also be euphemism for a human. The Midrashim and Talmud use the phrase בשר ודם in this sense often. Bnei Israel are once again begging for the humanity to be restored. This is in response to a fire that killed armless individuals who were merely complaining. There is some semblance of logic in the hierarchical structure that was laid before them in Egypt, however when the system itself seems to be fear mongering and murdering individuals who already came into the camp from marginalized positions, then the injustice seems to be overwhelming. The next phrase can be read as a play on words, because Numbers 11:5 “זָכַ֙רְנוּ֙ אֶת־הַדָּגָ֔ה” uses the same letters as Haggada. The request of the people is to retell their own liberation story, to reclaim it and to understand their own self-perception in a way that is different from former slaves. Moses responds by suggesting that he has birthed this mindset. Moses assumes the failure and sees himself as the problem and asks G-d to sacrifice him. As the people have so vividly depicted themselves as attempting to return to the moment of Yetzyat Mitzraim, Moses also perceives himself as Pharaoh when he says that they have hardened him too much Numbers 11:14 “כִּ֥י כָבֵ֖ד מִמֶּֽנִּי”. Interestingly, when Moshe quotes the people he says “give us a man, and we will eat him” Numbers 11:13, “תְּנָה־לָּ֥נוּ בָשָׂ֖ר וְנֹאכֵֽלָה”. G-d’s response can be beautifully seen in how he quotes the people differently than Moshe. G-d quotes them verbatim, but then adds Numbers 11:18 “כִּי־ט֥וֹב לָ֖נוּ בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם”. The Midrash teaches us that Moshe’s name as a baby was Tov. When Yochevet sees her son it says Exodus 2:2 “כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֔וּא”. G-d tells Bnei Israel to sanctify themselves, and that he heard their cries. G-d responds to their plea for humanity and says that Tov was a baby like one of them in Egypt. Tov was theirs. Moses didn’t give birth to the people, the people gave birth to Moses. G-d says that the deification of Moses is too much, The image of the baby Moses shows his vulnerability. In America, xenophobia sometimes blinds individuals to not recall their own immigration stories. And so G-d listens to Moses and sacrifices him, but the child version of him. G-d answers Bnei Israel’s desire to start over and get a second chance at connecting to their Brit, but Hashem says that such a request is an impossibility. We need to play with the hands we are dealt and even if that means our history is tainted with blotches, those blotches are important to commemorate every time we retell the story. It says that the meat filled their teeth and that G-d hit them Numbers 11:33, “הַבָּשָׂ֗ר עוֹדֶ֙נּוּ֙ בֵּ֣ין שִׁנֵּיהֶ֔ם טֶ֖רֶם יִכָּרֵ֑ת וְאַ֤ף יְהוָה֙ חָרָ֣ה בָעָ֔ם וַיַּ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ בָּעָ֔ם מַכָּ֖ה רַבָּ֥ה מְאֹֽד” This is very reminiscent of the false narrative that the wayward son tells himself at the seder that we read in the הַדָּגָ֔ה… I mean Haggada. But on a deeper level the word for teeth can also be read as Shneihem. Moshe’s character is being bifurcated and this Parsha turns out to not really be a critique on the people but Moshe himself.
It can be deceptive, but the real character development that we should have been tracing throughout this parsha is that of Moses. The three places that the camp travels to tells the real story of this Parsha. They go from Mount Sinai to Paran (Numbers 10:12), then they go from Paran to Chatzrot (Numbers 11:35), and then at the end of the parsha they travel back to Paran (Numbers 12:16). The Aron is the centerpiece of the parsha, and like we stated earlier it exists as two copies of itself. The broken one leads the way, and the intact one is in the middle of the camp. The word Paran, is a compound word of “Peh”, the mouth, and “Aron” from the Aron. Moshe acts as the mouthpiece of G-d, but in doing so he diminishes his own humanity, and puts excessive pressure on himself. In staying so close with the laws, he also loses sight of those who exist on the periphery. He is so tightly tethered to the Aron that his back is facing the Hatzerot, the courtyard and the outward concentric circles of the camp.
Let us return to the image of the Aron. In modern synagogues, the Aron has above it the Ner Tamid, the original Ner Tamid was the Menorah, which is where the Parsha begins. The Parsha’s namesake comes from the phrase Be’Haalotcha, in the rising. But the thing that is rising in this phrase is not the person, nor is it the light but it is the candle itself. The Chassidic comparison of Ner Mitzvah V’Torah Or, can give us clarity on what this could represent. Moses struggles with elevating the Mitzvahs above all else. In America, we have seen debates about whether the the laws themselves are actually enforced or whether we need to reassess whether radical reformation is truly necessary. Chizkuni tries to understand why the parsha proceeds the dedication of the temple and one of the reasons he cites is that the Levites had wanted to also contribute sacrifices to the dedication of the Mishkan. This shows the desire to do more than the requirement which in many cases is seen as a positive attribute, but as a leader Moses’ hyperconnection to G-d will get in the way with his connection to the people. The seven candles follow a seven-step-progression with one another and we can see this play itself out in the wording of this section. The phrase exhausts the linear direction of transmission from G-d to the Jews and back to G-d. 1) G-d told 2) Moses who told 3) Aaron who acted as a model for 4) all future generations who executed the law exactly how 5) Aaron had done it based off of how 6) Moses instructed him exactly how 7) G-d had told him to do. From commandment to execution, everything was attentive to detail and exacting. This demonstrates the ideal that was so challenging for the people to keep up with (as discussed earlier). However this commandment was directed to Aaron and we can clearly see Moshe’s micro-managing hand in everything. But what is important to note is that Moshe’s character is not criticized in this Parsha for listening to G-d rather it is that he remains out of touch with the people and the reality on the ground. In the quail incident Moses misquotes the people, while G-d says that he has heard the cries of the people and quotes their exact words correctly. In the description of lighting the Menorah, the mirroring image is specified. The Cohen faces the Menorrah and each of the candles are facing each other. And the actual image of a mirror is mentioned as well Numbers 8:4, “כַּמַּרְאֶ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֶרְאָ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֔ה”.
Moses’ loneliness is exemplified when the individual who taught Moses to not overburden himself, Jethro decides to leave the camp. In this section Moses tries to persuade Jethro by saying it was good, goodness exists and it will be good. These three words, as we have noted earlier, are all Moses’ name. When Jethro, a first and foremost a father figure, leaves Moses confronts that he cannot cling to a childhood that he never had. Moses never got to live amongst his people, and perhaps this causes him to have a psychological disconnect between himself and the people. He relates to G-d, but not to his own people. When there is crisis and a fire burns the whole camp, Moses knows how to pray and quell the flames, but when the people ask Moses that their desire is different than that of the grand vision, Moses does not know how to compute this information. And so G-d suggests that Moses divvy up the labour and alleviate his burden with 70 elders. Inside the Aron is the ten commandments. And so an allusion to Moses’ extra zealousness is with the measurement of 10 Chomrot (stringencies) that the Quail filled the camp.
The final story of this Parsha is when all of these themes come to a head and Moses finally learns the much needed lesson. Unfortunately he will heed the advice too strongly which will lead to the sin of the spies, in which he gave the people too much free rein to make decisions of what was needed. The Parsha starts with G-d telling Moses to tell Aharon, and it concludes with Miriam telling Aharon about Moshe. There are many interpretations of who the Kushite woman is, but it is interesting to note that the word Kushite is the same as the word Ke’Shtei, which means like two. This duality is both a reflection of Moses’ own disconnect with himself, but it also describes how he had not been showing love to his own wife. It is interesting to note that when Moshe talks to G-d in his prayer to be killed he refers to G-d in the feminine Numbers 11:15 “ אַתְּ־עֹ֣שֶׂה לִּ֗י הָרְגֵ֤נִי נָא֙ הָרֹ֔ג”. The Gematryia of the first two and last letter of the word “כֻּשִׁ֖ית” is Moshe, Zipporah. But the Yud that stands in the way explains that his relationship with G-d has gotten in the way of his own marital relationship. The Gematryia of the word Bamidbar is equivalent to the number of positive commandments, but the word “כֻּשִׁ֖ית” is double that of the number of negative commandments. This shows how Moses has doubled the burden upon himself and at the same time has imposed an existence on two planes that not only blocks him from seeing the humanity in other people, but relating with others in a way that allows him to be a great leader. When G-d tells Miriam and Aharon that Moshe converses with G-d mouth to mouth it can be seen as a criticism more than praise. When facing Hashem’s mouth Moses is not able to face the rest of the people. Simultaneously this phrase reminds us of the image of “P”aran to “P”aran. And Miriam and Aharon’s criticism of Moshe can be, not questioning whether or not G-d only speaks to Moshe, but rather that Moshe only speak to G-d. Because there is no punctuation in the Torah Rebbe Natan notes that the sentence can be read Numbers 12:3-4 “וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יְהוָֽה” “וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה ענו [עָנָ֣יו]”. That Moses and G-d had heard these things. Because the word for humility is pronounced differently than how it’s spelled we can continue this interpretation and say that they both responded simultaneously. With this unique interpretation we see an even scarier synchronism between Moshe and Hashem, but we also get a different response as well, The phrase Numbers 12:4 “מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃” The phrase reiterates the word Adam three different times, and it really responds to Miriam and Aharon’s criticism with a mature philosophical stance. Humans are always in competition with one another, and in this pursuit of comparing you will always be left anchored in the earth. You will be facing the ground and you will lose sight of the bigger picture in facing G-d. Remembering that G-d called the creation of Adam Tov Meod, expands the meaning of this phrase even more, and provides an embedded rebuttal (Perhaps the first is Moses’ response and the second is G-d’s reply using the same words). Moshe is Tov, but he forgets that the creation of humans is only complimented by it’s Me’od (other Adams). It is true that there is frivolity in being grounded by our mortality, but we must each perceive ourselves as Adam HaRishon, and in doing so see that the entire world is precious and that it is important to face the earth first and foremost before seeking the affection of G-d on high. We have a duty to be responsible to those around us, and that the purpose of developing a relationship with G-d is to be able to harness that energy to elevate those around us.
In contrast to how G-d tells Moses who intern tell Aharon what to do, when Miriam develops leprosy it is not Moses who prompts prayer from G-d or even from within. His prayer emerges out of Aharon desperately begging Moses to pray to G-d. Moses is so disconnected from the people that it is even challenging for him to humanize his own immediate family. And Moses’ “הָרְגֵ֤נִי נָא֙ הָרֹ֔ג” becomes “נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א”. Moses’ formulated “hitpallel” becomes a “Tzaak”. Moses learns how to pray authentically. The Aron with the shattered ten commandments reminds Moses of the strength he had to act defiantly but in the name of the people. But in that moment Moses’ anger had gotten the best of him, his actions were marred by a sense of dutifulness as opposed to being a civil servant, he was still a servant of G-d. Aharon the one who says the prayer of love in last week’s Parsha, the one who pursues Shalom Bayit needed to teach Moses this final lesson. Aharon uses Moses’ own metaphor of carrying a baby and that he should die by saying that Miriam is a still born that has left her mother’s womb Numbers 12:11, “כַּמֵּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר בְּצֵאתוֹ֙ מֵרֶ֣חֶם אִמּ֔וֹ”. And he deepens the comparison between the moral that Moses was supposed to learn from the quail incident in saying that her meat was eaten, “וַיֵּאָכֵ֖ל חֲצִ֥י בְשָׂרֽוֹ”. It is in seeing that his sister is the one that was being sacrificed and not Moses that he comes to his senses and internalizes the message.
In response to Moses’ prayer G-d forces Moses to humanize her by having him empathize with her humiliation and to tell Moses to look beyond the extremity of the camp, outside of the אסַף֙. The word “בְּפָנֶ֔יהָ” helps Moses shift his perspective and the cloud of glory reiterates the lesson by not moving until Miriam has fully healed. The process of 7 days that it took her to heal, are in contrast with the perpetually lit seven candles that started the Parsha.
Throughout the Parsha the outer circles are continuously referenced, in the Chatzotsrot, in the formation of the camp, in the fire, in the 70 elders, in the swirling of the quails, in telling Moses Miriam and Aaron to leave the Tent of Meeting, but it is only in looking out at his sister that Moshe’s heartfelt intensity could look beyond Bein Adam L’Makom and could see the necessity in prioritizing Bein Adam L’Chavero.
There are mysterious backwards Nuns that act as the parentheses for the Parsha’s centrepiece. Rashi explains them away by saying that they denote that it is not in its proper place. However, perhaps they symbolize Moses’ transformation towards becoming an impassioned leader who seeks first and foremost the wellbeing of his people. The prayer that went from “הָרְגֵ֤נִי נָא֙ הָרֹ֔ג” to “נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א”. Perhaps that is the reason why this book began with a census, and leaders are continuously named, In each Parsha thus far and the trend continues into next week there is a moment in the par shah when individuals not named Moses and Aharon are mentioned from each tribe. The recent mobilization of BLM advocates emerged from a single individual being humanized when he was previously dehumanized. Viewing each life as an entire planet is a lesson that even Moses needed to learn, but it is when he was finally able to change his perspective that he was finally able to let go of who he thought he was.