Parshat Beha’alotekha: A change in attitude

Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn her seven pillars. Proverbs 9:1

This is a peculiar statement from the book of Proverbs. Wisdom, often personified as a women, here is depicted as someone who cuts stone and creates structure.

Would it shock you to learn that the Rabbis read this verse, and think immediately about this week’s Torah portion?

Let’s look at the very beginning of what we read from the Torah this morning. The first two verses should sound familiar – the first is the verse we sing before we take the Torah scroll out of the ark, and second one we sing right when we put the Torah away. These two verses are together here as a small literary unit, bracketed by two inverted Hebrew letter nuns, and this is how it appears in the Torah scroll as well. They are part of the scribal tradition of the Sefer Torah, and without them, the scroll is not kosher. There is no other punctuation like this in the Sefer Torah, and we can assume that these two verses are special, and that their location is also significant.

There is a sugya/section in the Talmud (Shabbat 116a) where the rabbis discuss them:

The Rabbis taught: When the ark would travel, Moses would say… God made signs before and after this section to teach that this is not its proper place. Rabbi says this is not the reason for the signs, but rather this is an important book by itself, as Rabbi Sh’muel bar Nachman says in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: She [wisdom] has hewn her seven pillars. These are the seven book of the Torah. Who teaches this? This is like the teaching of Rabbi, who says that in the future this section will be removed and written in its proper place. So why is it written here? To separate the first set of tribulations from the second set of tribulations.

What are the rabbis saying? These two verses constitute their own book of the Torah, which means that the book of Bamidbar is actually composed of three books: Bamidbar up to these two verses, these two verses and the rest of Bamidbar. So it is not the Five Books of Moses, but the Seven Books of Moses!

How is Bamidbar up to now different from Bamidbar after this point?

If Breisheet is all about God’s choice of Avraham, and Shemot all about God’s redemption of B’nai Yisrael from slavery, and Vayikra all about Kedusha/Holiness in the Mishkan and in the land, then Bamidbar has been all about getting ready to enter the Promised Land.

So far, B’nai Yisrael has:

  1. Organized and counted their army.
  2. Placed the Mishkan in the center of the camp.
  3. The national leaders participated in its dedication ceremony.
  4. The Levites have been appointed the spiritual leaders of the people up to this point.
  5. The nation has celebrated Pesach for the second time.
  6. The people have received final instructions on how and when the camp is to travel.

All indications are that B’nai Yisrael are headed right for the Promised Land.  But they don’t. They don’t inherit the land, at least not for a long time. Things go horribly astray from this point onward in the “sixth” book of the Torah. Rebellion, betrayal, self-centeredness, gluttony and more.  These two verses lie at the junction that divides Sefer Bamidbar into two distinct sections.

Chapters 1-10 are the preparation for the journey.

Chapters 11-25 are the actual journey.

The first section are their own book, since it forms a complete unit, describing all the preparations. The second section, also a complete unit, describes their failures and shortcomings of that generation.

These two verses not only divide these two sections from each other, but they also represent the ideal, the “what could have been.”

So what went wrong? What changed?

The Rabbis find a hint right in the section before these two demarcated verses.

“And they travelled from God’s mountain…”

In the midrash, the Rabbis comment that Israel “was like a child leaving school – running away, in the same manner B’nai Yisrael ran away from Har Sinai a three day distance, for they studied too much Torah at Har Sinai.”

They may have learned the laws in a technical sense, but had not yet internalized the meaning and the spirit of the laws. They looked forward to leaving Har Sinai, but were not looking forward to enter the Promised Land and applying those laws in the real world. They were educated and prepared, but not ready. They left the mountain with the wrong attitude.

So who is to blame?

We might point the finger at the students, the people themselves, but looking back at the school analogy, the “faculty” might share some of the burden as well.

In Beha’alotekha, we see the first signs of teacher burn-out. Right after our mini-book, we see the growing strain between Moses and the people. Not only do the people constantly complain to Moses, which they have been doing since the very beginning, even his own siblings, Miriam and Aaron, complain about him!

The scouts that Moses will send to check out the land will incite a national revolt that calls for a new leader to take the back to Egypt, and in the wake of that, Korach leads a rebellion that threatens to undermine both Moshe and Aaron.

So what went wrong?

Right away, we can see a crisis in the leadership. Right after they leave Mount Sinai, some of the people, the asafsuf, the riff-raff, complain about their cravings for meat. They are not hungry, but they are bored with the monotony of the food, the mannah. Listen to Moses’ plea to God:

And Moses said to the Eternal, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”

This is not the Moses we are familiar with! The Moses we know always stepped into the breach to defend the people before God. When Moses defended the people after the Golden Calf, he said that if God were to wipe out the people, that God should wipe him out as well. There, Moses was willing to die to save the nation, but now he would rather die than lead the nation. Has Moses given up?

Could it be that Moses acted in an improper manner? Is the greatest prophet of all time giving up? Is Moses no longer fit to lead the people?

To say yes would be controversial and maybe even blasphemous, but to say no would seem to be naive!

Perhaps the reason for the change is the motive behind the people’s complaints. Despite the serious nature of the crime of the Golden Calf, the motive behind it was understandable. For many commentators, B’nai Yisrael’s desire, misguided it may have been, was to fill the gap left by Moses while up on the mountain. Here, with the sin of those who are craving meat, it seems to be a totally physical uncontrollable lust for food.

Helping the people understand a new relationship with God and avoiding idolatry was something that Moses was willing to undertake and go toe to toe with God over. But after this, Moses simply gives up. How could the people who saw what they have seen, stood at Sinai, lived there for a year, possibly have become so focused on this level of mundane concern. Moses may be saying – I am a teacher, not a baby-sitter!

God’s reaction is instructive. Right away, God instructs Moses to assemble seventy elders to share Moses’ Ruach, his divine spirit, with them. Moses must now share his leadership with the elders, who may be able to lead the people more realistically with the type of crisis. Moses may be overqualified, maybe “too holy.” Ultimately, Moses does not lead the people into the Promised Land. Instead, Joshua is the one who possesses the qualities needed to lead the people, a more down to earth leader.

So what we do learn from Moses’ “failure”?

When we teach, and we all teach in some way, we must be mindful of who we are teaching, their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. When we learn, and we all learn in some way, we must be mindful of the potential of how much we can gain from our teachers.

As it says in Pirkei Avot: From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.


Parshat Emor Scavenger Hunt

First Set of Questions (Begins with Vayikra 21:1 and goes until 23:21)

  1. The Kohanim were not allowed to defile themselves by coming in contact with dead bodies. What were the exceptions to this rule? How is this rule different for the High Kohen?
  2. What are the three things that a Kohen is not allowed to do with his body?
  3. Who is not allowed to serve as a Kohen?
  4. What does a person who cannot serve as a Kohen still get to do as part of the Kohen family?
  5. What kind of animals are the Israelites to use as offerings in the Beit Mikdash? Animals that have injuries or defects may not be used. What is the exception to this rule?
  6. How many days does an ox, sheep or goat stay with its mother until it can be used as an offering?
  7. What is the first holy day mentioned in the parashah?
  8. Which holiday takes place in the first month?
  9. In Parshat Emor, on what day does Passover take place? What begins the next day?
  10. For how many days do the people bring a sheaf (bundle) of grain to the Kohanim?

Second Set of Questions (Begins with Vayikra 23:22 and goes until the end)

  1. When a farmer reaped his harvest, he was required to leave certain portions for the poor. What portions were they?
  2. Besides the poor, for whom were the corner and the gleanings left?
  3. What is B’nai Israel supposed to do on the first day of the seventh month?
  4. What is B’nai Israel supposed to do on the tenth day of the seventh month?
  5. What is the reason that B’nai Israel live in booths for seven days?
  6. During which part of the day does Aaron keep the menorah lit?
  7. What do Aaron and his sons do with the twelve loaves of bread from the showbread table?
  8. Who was purported to be the father of the blasphemer? What was his mother’s name and of which tribe was she?
  9. Who decreed the punishment for the blasphemer, and who carried it out?
  10. In this parashah, there is a famous saying used today for punishment: an eye for eye, a tooth for tooth, and what else?

Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23)

Chapter 21
1 The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, 2 except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; 3 also for a sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. 4 But he shall not defile himself as a relative by marriage, and so profane himself.

5 They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh. 6 They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God; for they offer the Lord’s offerings by fire, the food of their God, and so must be holy.

10 The Kohen who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been ordained to wear the vestments, shall not bare his head or rend his vestments [as a sign of mourning]. 11 He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. 12 He shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God, Mine the Lord’s.

16 The Lord spoke further to Moses: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be able to offer the food of his God. 18 No one at all who has a defect shall be allowed: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; 19 no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; 20 or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar…

21 No man among the offspring of Aaron the Kohen who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; 23 but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places holy to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them. 24 Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and his sons and to all the Israelites.

Chapter 22
17 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 18 Speak to Aaron and his sons, and to all the Israelite people, and say to them:

When any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers in Israel presents a burnt offering as his offering for any of the offerings for fulfilling a vow or any of the freewill offerings that they offer to the Lord, 19 it must, to be acceptable in your favor, be a male without blemish, from cattle or sheep or goats. 20 You shall not offer any that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor.

21 And when a man offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord for a vow or as a freewill offering, it must, to be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. 22 Anything blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a growth…— such you shall not offer to the Lord; you shall not put any of them on the altar as offerings by fire to the Lord. 23 You may present as a freewill offering an ox or a sheep with a long or short limb; but it will not be accepted for a vow. 24 You shall not offer to the Lord anything injury. You shall have no such practices in your own land, 25 nor shall you accept such [animals] from a foreigner for offering as food for your God, for they are mutilated, they have a defect; they shall not be accepted in your favor.

26 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 27 When an ox, a sheep, or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Lord. 28 However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.

29 When you sacrifice a thanksgiving offering to the Lord, sacrifice it so that it may be acceptable in your favor. 30 It shall be eaten on the same day; you shall not leave any of it until morning: I am the Lord.

31 You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Lord. 32 You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Lord who sanctify you, 33 I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Lord.

Chapter 23
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as holy occasions. 3 On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Shabbat of complete rest, a holy occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a Shabbat of the Lord throughout your settlements.

4 These are the set times of the Lord, the holy occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time: 5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a Passover offering to the Lord, 6 and on the fifteenth day of that month the Lord’s Feast of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened bread for seven days. 7 On the first day you shall celebrate a holy occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. 8 Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the Lord. The seventh day shall be a holy occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.

9 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 10 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the Kohen. 11 He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance in your behalf; the Kohen shall elevate it on the day after the Shabbat. 12 On the day that you elevate the sheaf, you shall offer as a burnt offering to the Lord a lamb of the first year without blemish. 13 The meal offering with it shall be two-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord; and the libation with it shall be of wine, a quarter of a hin. 14 Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements.

15 And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering — the day after the Shabbat — you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: 16 you must count until the day after the seventh week — fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. 17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering; each shall be made of two-tenths of a measure of choice flour, baked after leavening, as first fruits to the Lord. 18 With the bread you shall present, as burnt offerings to the Lord, seven yearling lambs without blemish, one bull of the herd, and two rams, with their meal offerings and libations, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord. 19 You shall also offer one he-goat as a sin offering and two yearling lambs as a sacrifice of well-being. 20 The Kohen shall elevate these — the two lambs — together with the bread of first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord; they shall be holy to the Lord, for the Kohen. 21 On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a holy occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a law for all time in all your settlements, throughout the ages.


22 And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.

23 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 24 Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a holy occasion commemorated with loud blasts. 25 You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord.

26 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 27 Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord; 28 you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God. 29 Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin; 30 and whoever does any work throughout that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people. 31 Do no work whatever; it is a law for all time, throughout the ages in all your settlements. 32 It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Shabbat.

33 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 34 Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days. 35 The first day shall be a holy occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; 36 seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day, you shall observe a holy occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.

37 Those are the set times of the Lord that you shall celebrate as holy occasions, bringing offerings by fire to the Lord — burnt offerings, meal offerings, sacrifices, and libations, on each day what is proper to it — 38 apart from the Shabbat of the Lord, and apart from your gifts and from all your votive offerings and from all your freewill offerings that you give to the Lord.

39 Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. 40 On the first day, you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. 41 You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. 42 You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, 43 in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. 44 So Moses declared to the Israelites the set times of the Lord.

Chapter 24
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

2 Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. 3 Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. 4 He shall set up the lamps on the pure lamp before the Lord [to burn] regularly.

5 You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves, two-tenths of a measure for each loaf. 6 Place them on the pure table before the Lord in two rows, six to a row. 7 With each row, you shall place pure frankincense, which is to be a token offering for the bread, as an offering by fire to the Lord. 8 He shall arrange them before the Lord regularly every Shabbat day — it is a commitment for all time on the part of the Israelites. 9 They shall belong to Aaron and his sons, who shall eat them in the holy precinct; for they are his as most holy things from the Lord’s offerings by fire, a due for all time.

10 There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. 11 The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses — now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan — 12 and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.

13 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.

15 And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; 16 if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.

17 If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. 18 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. 19 If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. 21 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. 22 You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God.

23 Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Parshat Naso: The Blessing and Gift of Making Space

One part of Parshat Naso is a listing of the elaborate gifts that each tribal leader brings during the Mishkan’s dedication, and it begins right after Moses complete the Mishkan.

Rashi: On the day that Moses finished setting up the Mishkan. The vowels for finished read kallot, “finished”, but the letters simply spell kallat, “bride”. On the day when the Mishkan was set up, the Jews were like a bride entering under the wedding canopy.

According to this tradition, it was not at Mount Sinai where Israel and God were “wed” but months later, after the smoke, lightning and earthquakes were all done, and it was quiet, like that still small voice Elijah heard on the same mountain centuries later.

It is the completion of the Mishkan, the portable sacred space, that is the moment when God and Israel are “wed.” What can we learn from this? Kedushah, holiness is not limited to a single place that you have to go back to in order to experience it. Holiness is something that we create, something that you take with you, something that is not limited to a single place.

Holiness is that place where God and Israel come together, that place where we make heaven and earth touch. It is a Mishkan, which literally means a Dwelling Place, so wherever we create space for God to dwell in our lives, that is a kind of Mishkan that we can create anywhere and at anytime. Shabbat is a temporal Mishkan, a period of time that we create every week, with as much detail and skill and those who used their skill to make the Mishkan.

As we sing Lekha Dodi, and rise right before the final verse, to welcome in Kallat Shabbat, the Sabbath Bride, let’s also recognize and remember that we have the capacity to make space for God, to make space for holiness, in our lives as well.