Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, 17 June 2016
What we read – and don’t read: A survey of Beha’alotecha
Like other Jewish denominations, Liberal Judaism follows the annual Torah reading cycle. However, since LJ congregations do not read each weekly portion in its entirety – largely because this would make the Torah reading far too long – Liberal Judaism’s Lectionary sets out three alternative passages from each parashah, to be read in a three-year cycle. For parashat B’ha’alot’cha, which begins at Numbers 8:1 and concludes at chapter 12:16, we find the following three texts: Numbers 8:1-14; 10:1-10; and 11:1-14. Why have these three passages been chosen? And: why have other passages not been chosen? Has the selection been guided by the values of Liberal Judaism? Perhaps, we will find answers to these questions if we survey the whole portion?
So, first: the selected texts. Numbers 8:1-14 begins with the lighting of the seven lamps on the m’norah by Aaron, the High Priest (8:1-4), and goes on to describe the separation of the tribe of Levi from the other tribes for the service of the Eternal One (8:5-14). Numbers 10:1-10 focuses on the making of two silver trumpets to be blown by the sons of Aaron, when calling the congregation together and, in particular, for summoning the tribes for their forward march through the wilderness. The silver trumpets were also to be blown at times of joy, to mark the changing moons, and to accompany burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being. Numbers 11:1-14 relates two incidences, when the people became troublesome. The first incident is dealt with very swiftly: the Eternal One’s anger kindled, a fire burnt among them and devoured the edge of the camp. The second incident centres on complaints about food: loathing manna, the people longed for the delicacies they used to eat in Egypt. The passage colludes with Moses complaining to God about having to bear the burden of the people alone.
These are three fine passages. So what don’t we read? Numbers chapter 8 goes on to describe the replacement of the firstborn tribe by the Levites, summarises their duties, and clarifies that they become eligible for service from the age of 25 until retirement at 50 (15-26). Numbers chapter 9 begins with the celebration of Pesach in the first month of the second year of their journey. Those who were unclean by contact with the dead were nevertheless to observe the Festival, and there was to be ‘one statute’ for both the sojourner and the native-born (9:11-14). Next, Numbers 9 turns briefly to the setting up of the mishkan – the tabernacle – detailed at the end of the Book of Exodus, focusing on the cloud above the mishkan: when it was stationary, the camp stayed put; when it moved, the people continued on their journey (9:15-23). Numbers 10 continues, after the silver trumpets, with a description of how the Israelites, newly organised into tribal divisions, went out on their first journey from Sinai, on the twentieth day of the second month in the second year. We learn that Moses’ father-in-law declined to journey with them. The chapter concludes with two verses, quoted at the beginning of the Torah service in Orthodox and Movement for Reform Judaism congregations, and set apart in the Hebrew text with an upside down Nun consonant before and after: “It came to pass, when the Ark set out, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, Eternal One; let Your enemies be scattered; and let them that hate You flee before You.’ / Then when it rested, he said: ’Return, Eternal One, to the ten thousands of Israel’” (10:35-36).
After the rebellions described in Numbers 11 and Moses’ frustration with the people, the text continues (11:16-35) with the Eternal One instructing Moses to gather seventy men of the Elders of Israel, and then to prepare the people to eat so much flesh that it will become disgusting to them. We read that after the seventy elders received the spirit from Moses, they began to prophesy and then stopped. However, two of them, Eldad and Meidad, remained in the camp and continued to prophesy. When Joshua complained to Moses, he responded: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Eternal One’s people were prophets, that the Eternal One would put His spirit upon them (11:29). Then, after the Eternal One caused a wind to blow, bringing the quails across the sea into the camp, the anger of the Eternal One was kindled against the people in their orgy of gluttony, and they were destroyed with a great plague. Finally, following the burial of those who did not die in the plague, the people set off for Hazeirot.
B’ha’alot’cha ends with what happened at Hazeirot. We read in Numbers 12 that Miriam and Aaron – but chiefly Miriam – spoke out against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married, and because they resented his exclusive relationship with the Eternal. Miriam alone was punished: struck with temporary leprosy. Aaron was dismayed and Moses prayed for her healing. We learn that Miriam was shut up outside the camp for seven days, but the people did not journey on until she was brought into the camp again.
As we can see, B’ha’alot’cha is packed with themes. Clearly, choices have to be made. However, since both those passages included and those excluded vary in their ethical import, the rationale for the selection is not clear. When we survey the portion as a whole, the issue of leadership comes to the fore. All the leaders were men: Moses and Aaron; the Priests; the Levites; the tribal leaders; the seventy elders. In this context, the conclusion of the parashah provides a critical commentary, as we are reminded that Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron, was the only female leader in evidence. No wonder, this final chapter of B’ha’alot’cha begins: Va-t’dabbeir Miryam v’Aharon b’Moshe – literally: ‘Then Miriam spoke – Va-t’dabbeir is in the feminine singular – and Aaron against Moses. Perhaps, next time the LJ Lectionary is revised, the selection of passages should be reconsidered, and this crucial final chapter included?
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