Light from the Sidra

Beha'alotcha  ('When you light') 6 June 2014. 9 Sivan 5774

Torah: Numbers 8:1-12:16. Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Eden all over again

Although he hates the term, the English playwright Alan Bennett is regarded as a ‘national treasure.’ I love his plays, especially those that are set in the north of England because that’s where my roots are. As I listen to Bennett’s dialogue, I’m transported back to my childhood as I hear terms and expressions I’ve not heard in decades. There’s a point in his monologue A Chip in the Sugar, in which the narrator, Graham, recalls his fears when his elderly mother first encounters a cheeseburger. ‘I could see it was going to be the pizza all over again. . .’ says Graham.

The Parasha this week signals the beginning of a dramatic change in Israel’s fortunes. It was going to be Eden all over again. There were problems when the people came out of Egypt. They murmured about the lack of food and water but God provided daily manna and freshened the water of Marah by means of a tree. At Sinai, after the people committed themselves to obey all the words of HASHEM, Aaron fashioned a graven image which the people worshipped in contravention of God’s second commandment.

What strikes us when we read the early chapters of Numbers is the people's obedience to the words of HASHEM. The priests, the Levites and the people really do seem to be obedient to every mitzvot.

The camp of Israel had been at Sinai for a year, and they were approaching the first anniversary of the exodus. Pesach was approaching and the people appeared enthusiastic about keeping the festival, so much so that some who had been rendered ceremonially unclean wanted some arrangement by which they might keep it without violating the words of HASHEM, and they were allowed to observe the festival one month later, after they had been cleansed from their defilement.

The people needed further instruction on the meaning of the Torah. If, as is claimed, Moses received an Oral Torah at Sinai, Moses would have had no need of extra revelation and instruction.

According to Pirke Avot, God committed to Moses the contents of the entire Talmud, which he passed on to Joshua, and so on. But if that was the case, why did Moses need to seek further instruction on the observance of Pesach? Why did he need clarification from HASHEM on inheritance laws on behalf of the daughters of Zelophehad in chapter 27? The faintest ink is better than the best memory and so God’s Torah – his instruction – was delivered in written form.

Israel was God’s new humanity. When God created man, he placed him in a garden and met with him there. His instruction to Adam to subdue the earth suggests that the world outside Gan Eden was an uncultivated wilderness which Adam had to tame. Adam received God’s Torah in the Garden and, in the heart of the garden, was the Tree of Life. The camp of Israel, with the tabernacle in the midst, was like the Garden of Eden in the midst of a wilderness, and the Menorah was like the Tree of Life. The tabernacle was where God met with man and man met with God.

So far, so good but Numbers 11 starts with a complaint that centres on food. God provided manna for the people every day. If they followed his instruction, they would have enough food to satisfy them. In Eden, Adam and Eve were not satisfied with the fruit of the trees of the garden; they wanted to eat also from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the wilderness, Israel wanted cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic, all of them tasty but none of them substantial enough to satisfy a hunger! They were heading for a fall. Just as there were consequences for eating from the forbidden tree in Eden, there were consequences for complaining against God. A plague (a reminder of what happened to the Egyptians) came upon the people. They are out of Egypt but Egypt is not out of them.

Like the first humans, the new humanity had fallen. As in Eden, the consequence of Israel’s fall was plague and division, as we observe when Miriam and Aaron suddenly revealed that they had issues with the authority bestowed on their kid brother Moses.

From this point, it’s downhill all the way. But even though the people were unfaithful to their God and suffered serious consequences, their God will remain faithful to his people and to his promises to bless the nations through them. 

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