Light from the Sidra

Beha’alotcha ('When you set up'') 25th June 2016. 19th Sivan 5776

Torah: Numbers 8:1-12:16. Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14(10)-4:7*

The garden of Eden redux

This week’s Sidra reading signals the beginning of a dramatic downturn in Israel’s fortunes. 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 at Marah by means of a tree. At Sinai, after the people committed themselves to obey all that HASHEM had said, Aaron fashioned a graven image which the people worshipped in contravention of HASHEM’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 sincerely obedient to every mitzvot.

The camp of Israel has been at Sinai for a year and they are approaching the first anniversary of the exodus from Egypt. Pesach is coming and the people appear enthusiastic about keeping the festival, so much so that some who have been rendered ceremonially unclean request some arrangement by which they may keep it without violating the words of HASHEM. And God allows them to observe the festival one month later, after they have been cleansed of their defilement.  

The people need further instruction in the meaning of the Torah. But if, as the Rabbis claim, Moses received the Oral Torah at Sinai, why would Israel require 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. If that was the case, why did Moses seek further instruction on the observance of Pesach? Why did he, in chapter 27, have to receive clarification on inheritance laws on behalf of the daughters of Zelophehad? The faintest ink is more reliable than the best memory and so God’s Torah – his instruction – was delivered in written form.

Israel was God’s new humanity, a fact that become evident when we compare Israel with Adam. When God created man, he placed him in a garden and met with him there. In the garden, Adam received God’s instruction to subdue the earth, which suggests that the world outside Gan Eden was an uncultivated wilderness that Adam had to tame.

The camp of Israel, with the tabernacle in the midst became like a new Garden of Eden in the midst of a wilderness. In the heart of the tabernacle was the Menorah, as a reminder of the Tree of Life. The tabernacle was where God met with man and man met with God. So far, so good. However, chapter 11 begins with a complaint that centres around food. God provided manna for the people every day. If they followed his instruction, they would have enough food to satisfy.

In Eden, Adam and Eve became dissatisfied with the fruit of the trees of the garden; they wanted to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Likewise, in the wilderness, Israel becomes dissatisfied with God’s provision. They want cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic, all of them tasty but none of them substantial enough to satisfy a hunger! Like Adam and Eve, Israel is heading for a fall. And 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) comes upon the people. They are out of Egypt but Egypt is not out of them.

Like the first humans, HASHEM’s new humanity has fallen. As in Eden, the consequence of Israel’s fall is plague and division: Miriam and Aaron suddenly reveal that they have issues with the authority bestowed on their kid brother Moses. From this point, it’s downhill all the way for Israel. But even though the people are unfaithful to their God and suffer serious consequences, HASHEM will remain faithful to his people and to his promises to bless the nations through Abraham’s descendants.

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