by Cindy Bernstein
Our Torah portion, Parshat Beha’alotcha resumes the narrative left off at Har Sinai. 1 The book of Exodus after the sin of the golden calf, the entire book of Leviticus and the book of Numbers thus far, have contained meticulously detailed commandments to build the tabernacle and create an elevated society. God has outlined the parameters for the Israelite encampment, counted the people, appointed the leaders, and created structures for an ideal society, a model for what the Israelite community should be. The story of the Jewish people in the desert now resumes.
In our portion, the nation is commanded to travel for the first time following its arrival at Sinai. As they literally travel further from the place of the giving of the commandments, they are forced to figuratively leave behind the perfection of the community at Sinai, where they stood “as one man, one heart”, and learn to function as a community in the wilderness. 2 It is these lessons that will be models for the establishment of Jewish communities for thousands of years to follow.
Although our portion begins with instructions to Aaron and the Levites concerning their leadership roles, as the text continues it becomes clear that an ideal community is hardly a reality. The Israelites are dissatisfied with the food situation and need additional guidance in other matters as well. Rather than the nation traveling to Israel in a utopian like setting, Moses must now speak with God to learn how to accommodate these new requests, and work to improve the community.
For example, Moses is approached by people who have been rendered impure but would nevertheless like to participate in the communal Pascal sacrifice. 3 Moses must consult with God and create a “make up session” so that they can be included in this Jewish communal ritual. In another case, God sends flocks of quail to satisfy their food yearning. 4
Moses must also create an efficient way to resolve disputes and God helps him create a “council of elders” to share his administrative burdens. 5 We are reminded again that this is not an ideal society, but rather one in which people have problems that need to be managed. Likewise, thinking of strategic ways to further better his community, Moses approaches an outsider, Chovav the Midianite and asks him to guide the Israelites in their desert travels. 6 Moses understands the power of forming such a friendship, which will eventually serve as the basis for a strategic alliance in the book of judges. 7 At the end of the portion, the Israelite community is forced to accommodate sinners, when the entire camp must wait to travel until Miriam, who has been punished with a leprosy like condition, can re-enter the camp. 8
The establishment of a stable community is complicated by the people having to travel in an unpredictable manner. God instructed Moses that whenever the special cloud rose above the tabernacle, the Israelite camp should travel and when the cloud rested, they should encamp. Our text notes that the Israelites never knew the length of their encampment and needed to establish a society able to relocate at any point in time. 9 The fast-paced nature of the text demonstrates the inherent instability that Moses needs to deal with.
As British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks writes,
To be the citizen of a state, or a resident in a neighbourhood, is inevitably to be involved in a collective fate of some kind. If my neighbours let their properties deteriorate, the value of my house declines. If our fellow citizens allow moral standards to disintegrate, the resulting lawlessness affects us all. What happens to me is only partly determined by what I d. It is also determined by what others d. With or against our will, we are affected by those around us. 10
As can be seen through Moses, each individual must learn to accommodate and accept all members of the society. In the case of the Pascal sacrifice, Moses adds legislation in order to include a minority in the community. Further, the entire camp is inconvenienced in order to provide for disgruntled sinners, whether from the upper echelons of society like Miriam or more marginalized people.
The translation of Beha’alotcha, is “as you go up.” As we strive to elevate our own communities and societies around us we must ask ourselves the same questions that challenged the Israelite camp in our portion. In our own community building, have we included more marginalized members of our community? Reached out to form faith-based partnerships? Welcomed people into our homes even if some feel they have sinned?
With the model of the Israelites as our guide, let us keep in mind these messages learned from our portion, and continuously strive to build an ideal and inclusive community.
- Trumath Tzvi: The Pentateuch With a Translation By Samson Raphael Hirsch and Excerpts From The Hirsch Commentary. New York: The Judaica Press Inc, 1986. ↩
- Rashi Shmot 19:3 – Vayechan Sham Yisrael Neged Hahar ↩
- Bamidbar 9:6 ↩
- Bamidbar 11:31 ↩
- Bamidbar 11:17 ↩
- Bamidbar 10:29 ↩
- Judges 4:11. See Midrash Michilta Parshat Yithtro, Shmot 18:1 (v’yeshma yitro choten moshe) for further information on connection between Yitro and Keni. ↩
- Bamidbar 12:15 ↩
- Bamidbar 9: 17-23 ↩
- Sacks, Sir Rabbi Jonathan. To Heal A Fractured World; The Ethics of Responsibility. New York: Schocken Books, 2005, P.88 ↩