Sermons and Parsha'iot               Parshat Behaaltotekha:   Numbers 8:1-12:16

Summary

This week's Torah portion begins with God telling Moses to instruct Aaron about how to kindle the seven lights (Beha'alotecha et ha neirot) of the Menorah. The Torah then describes the consecration ceremony for the Levites, and they are officially accepted as substitutes for the first-born Hebrews. The Levites are told to cleanse themselves in a particular fashion and make a certain offering in front of all of the people so that they can assist the priests in the Tent of Meeting. Levites will work between the ages of twenty- five and fifty, at which time they will retire from service.

Chapter 9 begins with a description of the first Passover in the desert, a year after our redemption from Egypt. Some Hebrews were ritually impure, and they asked if there was any way they could participate. Moses checked with God and was informed that a month after Passover, a second "mini-Passover" could be celebrated by Hebrews who had been ritually impure or on a long journey. The "mini-Passover" lasted only one day.

The chapter ends with a description of God as the Hebrew's "tour guide." A cloud would lead the Hebrews. Where it settled, the Hebrews would camp. At night, the cloud became fire. If the cloud didn't move from above the Tabernacle, the Hebrews didn't move that day. Whenever they started out and whenever they camped, Moses recited special prayers. (We still recite these prayers in shul whenever we remove the Torah from or return it to the Ark.)

Chapter 10 begins with the making of two silver trumpets made at Moses' direction and then blown by Aarons's sons for a variety of reasons: to enhance festivals and celebrations, to summon the leaders to meetings, to announce to the people when it was time to move on, and to communicate signals during battle. The chapter ends with a description of the first three-day journey from Mount Sinai and what Moses said each day when the Ark set out and when it halted. This paragraph contains two sentences which were considered by some sages to be an entirely separate book of the Torah. It is highlighted in the Torah with two inverted nun's.

In Chapter 11 the riffraff complain to Moses about having to eat manna. They crave meat and claim that food in Egypt was plentiful and free. Moses is overwhelmed and tells God that dealing with the complaints of the people is too much for him. God instructs Moses to appoint 70 elders to share the burden of ruling the people. Two of the elders, Eldad and Medad began "prophesying" (probably speaking in ecstasy). Joshua advised Moses to restrain them, but Moses indicates to Joshua that this is all right: "Would that all of the Lord's people were prophets!" he replied. God also says that people will have meat to eat every day for a month "until it comes out of their nostrils." God sends quail for the people to eat and they gather the birds in great quantities. Everyone who eats them is struck dead by a plague.

Aaron and Miriam criticize their brother Moses because he married a Cushite woman from Ethiopia. They also express their jealousy, claiming that they are prophets of equal stature with Moses. God speaks angrily to Aaron and Miriam, saying that they should respect Moses since he is God's trusted friend, to whom God speaks directly and plainly. As punishment, Miriam is stricken with the white scales of the disease tzara'at (see Leviticus 13:2-3). Aaron asks Moses not to let Miriam suffer. Moses utters the shortest prayer in the Bible - El na rifah na la - "O God, pray heal her" (Numbers 12:13) and God relents. Miriam is to be separated from the camp for seven days, after which she is readmitted and the people set out on their journey again.

Commentary

When the people complain about having to eat manna, they say "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons ." (Numbers 11:5). As slaves, they suffered many hardships in the land of Egypt, yet they idealized their past, remembering things that may not have really happened. Although they had their freedom in the desert, they hadn't yet learned that freedom means the beginning of taking responsibility. They didn't understand that the future is determined by choices made in the present. They complained and as a result, they were severely punished.

Complaining Israelites are not limited to this parasha. Nehama Leibowitz has written that "we have very often in Scriptures similar accounts in which a person or group of persons experiences on different occasions parallel happenings. They are to teach a specific lesson regarding their reactions. The character of the person is revealed in his/her success or failure, showing us the way the person or group stands up to a series of challenges. The real test of strength or weakness is in the outcome of the final challenge or trial. (Studies in Bamidbar Numbers p.114)  The Israelites faced many challenges on the road to freedom from slavery in Egypt. Sometimes they rose to the occasion, sometimes Moses intervened, or God intervened. Sometimes they suffered for their behavior.

Questions and Discussion Points

  1. According to this parasha, Aaron lights the Menorah exactly according to the directions that God relays through Moses. The Rabbis noted that it was remarkable for Aaron to do this task repeatedly with enthusiasm, day after day, in the precise and correct manner and never tire of it. Menachem Mendl of Kotsk said that Aaron's service was directed from his innermost heart, which made Aaron perfect for the job he held as high priest. Think of one important responsibility that you must perform day after day? What is it? Do you remember the first time you did it? Have your feelings about doing it changed as time has passed? Do you think about it anymore, or is doing it just an automatic thing? If you have kept your enthusiasm, what has enabled you to keep it? Do you think that consciously paying attention to it would change your performance?

  2. Moses feels that God has laid too big a burden upon him and that list ening to the people complain is too difficult for him to bear. God tells Moses to appoint seventy elders to share the burden of leadership. Using this advice as a model, we learn that by consulting others according to their age or experience in life, they can help resolve our problems more easily. How does your family make decisions about important matters? Are the elders in your family consulted? What do you do when you feel overwhelmed by things at school or with your friends? With whom do you share your burdens? What do you think are the benefits of talking to other people?

  3. Do you think the people should have been satisfied with the manna? Manna is described in the Torah as "tasting like rich cream." In the midrash we hear that the manna acquired the flavor that each person desired to taste. Do you think you would have been happy with manna? What would your manna have tasted like? What do you think would have been the drawbacks to a steady diet of manna? Might the Israelites have been justified in their complaints? Do you think it was only the manna they were complaining about?