Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Parshat Beha'alotecha

Shining brightly

The portion opens with the commandment for Aharon to light the menorah daily. Rashi (on Numbers 7; 1) explains the juxtaposition between this and the offerings of the twelve princes of the tribes: "When Aharon saw the dedication offerings of the princes he grew despondent, that neither he nor his tribe was involved in the dedication ceremony. G-d said to him, 'By your life, your [offering] is greater than theirs, because you will light and prepare the candles [of the menorah]'." Ramban asks why the menorah should console Aharon more than any of the other tasks which he performed, such as offering the sacrifices, or burning the incense. He answers that the Midrash is referring primarily to the future dedication - the story of Chanukah. At that time the Hasmoneans, who were Cohanim, descendants of Aharon, rededicated the Temple, and through the miraculous kindling of the menorah this event is remembered for all future generations. Because of Aharon's great desire to take part in the dedication offerings of the Mishkan, his great grandchildren merited to be the agents through which the miracle of Chanukah took place.
Later in the portion (chapter 9) we find another group of people who gained merit because of their desire to be involved in the performance of a Mitzvah. When the nation was commanded to celebrate Passover in the desert, a group of people came to Moshe and complained that they were in a state of tumah (ritual impurity), and thus unable to bring the Pesach sacrifice. They didn't want to be denied the opportunity to perform this mitzvah. Therefore G-d gave Moshe the laws of Pesach Sheni. Someone who is unable to bring the Passover sacrifice at the proper time is given a second chance to fulfil the Mitzvah one month later. Rashi (9; 7) says that this section should have been given directly to Moshe, however through their desire to be involved, these people merited to be the catalysts for this commandment.
G-d commanded Moshe about the order of travel of the tribes. Moshe invites his father-in-law, Yitro to accompany them into the Land of Israel. In the Torah Yitro has seven different names (see Rashi to Exodus 18; 1). In this portion Moshe calls him particularly by the name 'Chovev', which Rashi explains as meaning 'love', signifying his deep love for the Torah, beyond that which is normally expected.
These three sections of this Parsha show the reward of going beyond the letter of the law in a desire to draw closer to G-d. We also find times when people are criticised for not going beyond the letter of the law. Chapter 10 contains two 'upside-down' letter 'nun's (verses 35-36). The Talmud (Shabbat 115b) explains that these verses really belong elsewhere (Numbers chapter 2). Rashi says that the reason that they were placed here is to separate between two consecutive narratives of sin. The following verse states, "The people took to seeking complaints...". However the sin preceding these 'nun's is not explicit in the text. Siftei Chachamim explains that it was the eagerness with which the people left Mount Sinai. Verse 33 says that the people journeyed from the Mountain of G-d. Certainly they should have been happy that they were traveling towards Israel, which they thought that they would be entering within a few days. However they should also have shown some remorse that they were leaving the site where they had received the Torah; perhaps they were afraid that G-d would give them more commandments if they remained there. This shows a great lack of eagerness to perform the Mitzvot.
The portion ends with Miriam speaking against Moshe. Rashi explains that she learnt that Moshe had separated from having marital relations with his wife, in order that he should always be in a state of readiness for G-d to speak to him. Miriam's complaint was that both she and Aharon were also prophets, yet felt no need to separate from their spouses. G-d punished Miriam with tzara'as for speaking against her brother, and explained to her and Aharon that Moshe's level of prophecy was quantitatively different than that of any other prophet before or since. Moshe's desire for intimacy with G-d, even at his own personal loss of intimacy with his wife, was rewarded by having the closest relationship with G-d that is possible for a human being to attain. Conversely, Miriam, who criticised Moshe for his devotion and stringency, was punished severely. Again, this is in contrast to the opening of the portion where Aharon strives for a closer relationship with G-d.
Perhaps this idea of striving for closeness is hinted at in the title of this portion. Beha'alotecha means 'when you cause the lights to become kindled'. The Talmud (Shabbat 21a, quoted in Rashi) derives from here that the light must be kindled so that the flame rises by itself. This tells us that the flame must be made stronger than necessary, so that it shines brightly while being kindled. The menorah is a symbol for G-d's presence in this world, and the flames striving upwards seem to be a metaphor for our relationship with Him. We must not be content to remain 'alight' with the flame of Judaism, but must constantly strive to draw so close to G-d that we radiate His presence to all we come in contact with.

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