Double Vision: Beha’alotecha

Image: Eyeglasses, a blurred page. (By Free-Photos /Pixabay)

Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) is a study in pairs, a study in contrasts. God guides the people as a cloud by day, and as fire by night, yet within those two manifestations are another set of pairs. A cloud may guide, but it also obscures; fire may guide, but as the portion shows, it may also kill and terrorize. There are those that are ritually pure for Passover, and those who are ritually impure who need a way to observe the mitzvah.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild points out the contrast between the black skin of the Cushite woman, and the whitening of Miriam’s skin with tzra’at. Miriam, a woman is powerless to do anything about her punishment the skin disease, which contrasts with Aaron and Moses, who pray for Miriam’s healing. Indeed, there is also a contrast between silence and speech in this passage: Miriam sins with her speech, and the Cushite woman is silent in the text.

Perhaps more than anything, this portion illustrates the inclination of the human mind to divide things into binaries. Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, in a lecture on ethical decision-making at HUC in Los Angeles, taught me that human beings tend to frame our choices as “this” or “that,” but a good counselor will assist people in seeing as many alternatives as possible. In that way, we can escape the illusion of black-and-white, and see our world in its true colors. It is important to look beyond the yes/no or this-one/that-one binary in order to see the true spectrum of our options.

Shabbat Shalom! – Beha’alotecha

Beha’alotecha (pronounced beh-hah-ah-LOH-t’khah) is a mouthful. It means “When you go up” and as with all names of Torah portions, it comes from the first distinctive word of the portion. which is the third portion in the book of Numbers. We’re deep into the Wilderness now, reading difficult stories and learning challenging mitzvot.

According to Maimonides, there are five mitzvot in this parashah. Four have to do with Passover, but the fifth has to do with sounding the alarm in time of war:

When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God and be delivered from your enemies. – Numbers 10:9

This is followed immediately by the commandment to sound the trumpets at other times. I’ve never understood why the Rambam doesn’t count this as a mitzvah as well:

And on your joyous occasions—your fixed festivals and new moon days—you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the LORD, am your God. – Numbers 10:10

Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten us about this: why doesn’t this count as a mitzvah? Or maybe the point is doing it, not counting it!

Note also that the word for “trumpets” here is khatzotz’rot, not shofarot. These are silver trumpets, not rams’ horns. However, in Joshua 6, the priests are told to blow rams’ horns (shofarot.) Apparently knocking walls down requires shofarot!

Here are some of the divrei Torah available online for study this week:

The Silencing of Miriam and the Cushite Woman by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

The Real Beneficiaries of Our Rituals by Rabbi Marc Katz

May It Be His Will by Rabbi Rafi Mollot

Power and Prophecy by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Light by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Out, Out, Damn Tamei! by Rabbi Ruth Adar

If You Missed It the First Time by Rabbi Vered Harris



Out, Out, Damn Tamei!

Image: A red calf. Photo by bluesnap/pixabay.

Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Eternal gives about you.” – Numbers 9:8, Parashat Beha’alotecha

In Numbers 9, the Israelites celebrated Passover in the wilderness, following the instructions of Moses. One had to be ritually clean (tahor) to participate in the sacrifice. Some of the men approached Moses with a problem: they were ritually unclean (tamei) “because of a corpse.”

The modern reader may wonder  why they don’t just take a bath? But in fact it’s a serious problem and not easily repaired. We won’t learn details of the problem until Numbers 19, which is another issue* but for now let’s just look at the rule regarding ritual purity and corpses:

He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days. – Numbers 19:11

There is a ritual for purification, however. First we have to prepare the materials for purification:

This is the ritual law that the LORD has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included— and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening. He who performed the burning shall also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. – Numbers 19: 2-9.

This is what is known as the “Ritual of the Red Heifer.” Notice that it requires a very special cow, a priest, and the proper setting for a sacrifice. The only such place is the Tabernacle, and then after the Temple is built, the Temple in Jerusalem.

Once you have the ashes, then the unclean person can take action:

He shall cleanse himself with it on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be clean; if he fails to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, he shall not be clean. – Numbers 19:17

“With it” in this verse refers to the ashes mixed with water, according to Rashi. So we are to take the ashes of the cow, and mix them with water for cleansing. This, too, is a ritual:

Some of the ashes from the fire of cleansing shall be taken for the unclean person, and fresh water shall be added to them in a vessel. A person who is clean shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on him who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. The clean person shall sprinkle it upon the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus cleansing him by the seventh day. He shall then wash his clothes and bathe in water, and at nightfall he shall be clean. If anyone who has become unclean fails to cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the LORD’s sanctuary. The water of lustration was not dashed on him: he is unclean. That shall be for them a law for all time. Further, he who sprinkled the water of lustration shall wash his clothes; and whoever touches the water of lustration shall be unclean until evening. Whatever that unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches him shall be unclean until evening. – Numbers 19: 17-22

So the person who touched the dead body (to perform a mitzvah) can’t purify himself. He faces a week-long process in which someone else has to mix the cow ashes with water and then sprinkle the first man with the mixture.

To return to Beha’alotecha, this week’s portion, the men who were handling the dead body can’t celebrate the Passover sacrifices on the appropriate day, because it will take a week for them to become tahor [ritually clean.] What are they to do? Moses doesn’t know, so he tells them to wait while he consults with God.

Finally, they get an answer: for people like themselves, or who cannot celebrate Passover because they are away, they can observe Passover a month later! This is the origin of Pesach Sheni, “Second Passover,” which you may have seen on a Jewish calendar.

In the midst of what seems an utterly arcane, impossible set of rituals, we still have this important principle: Torah is not meant to be impossible.

When all seems impossible (How shall these men observe Passover?)  and at other points, Moses returns to the Tent of Meeting to ask God for clarification about rules that don’t quite work. Later on in our history, it would become the task of rabbis to figure out how to make Torah do-able for real live Jews. Or, as teacher and writer Blu Greenberg writes “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.”

As for the issue of tamei/tahor, ritual purity, that became effectively moot with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, since the whole Ritual of the Red Heifer requires the Temple. The act of immersion in a mikveh [ritual bath] substitutes for the purification ritual of Biblical times. As my Talmud professor Rabbi Dr. Dvora Weisberg used to point out, it is merely a substitute and in fact, since 70 CE, the state of ritual purity is impossible.

What are we to take from this? Ultimately observance is up to each Jew. For some, observance according to traditional rules seems the best way. For others of us – myself included – some rules belong to history. I am more concerned about whether my words and actions are pure than whether my person is in a state of ritual purity. And you, dear reader? Your choices are up to you.

*The Red Heifer and the purification ritual are from Parashat Chukat, three weeks after this portion. One of the curiosities of Torah is that it doesn’t always present things in an order that seems logical to modern, post-Enlightenment minds.



Shabbat Shalom! – Beha’alotecha

Whew! This week’s Torah portion has a l-o-n-g name: Beha’alotecha. It means “when you ascend” or “when you mount” and as always, it’s the first striking word in the portion. In this case, it comes from a command given to Aaron:

When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp stand. -Numbers 8:2

This parashah begins with directions about the great menorah in the Tabernacle. It continues with the consecration of the Levites, directions about Passover, the cloud and pillar of fire that led the Israelites, silver trumpets, and then, at the end, two disasters. The first is a fateful meal of quail, and the second is a famous story about Miriam, Aaron and Moses.

For more about this portion, here are some divrei Torah from around the Internet:

The Heaviness of Leadership by Anita Silvert

The Silencing of Miriam and the Cushite Woman by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

The Fine Art of Complaint by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Offering God Compassion by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Nachshon Moments, on Land and on Sea by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

When You Ascend by Rabbi Ruth Adar

And Nun Shall Be Afraid by Rabbi Philip Rice


Beha’alotecha: “When You Ascend”


Once upon a time, thirteen years ago this month, a certain rabbi was in Jerusalem to attend the World Zionist Congress. While he was there he met one of his students for lunch. The student had been in Israel only two weeks, but she had already begun to fear that she had made a terrible mistake.  She had broken up housekeeping, sold her house, and moved to Israel to go to rabbinical school.

El Al security had questioned her for two days before they let her even get on the plane. Border security had quizzed her for another two hours upon her arrival. Two weeks later, all of her clothing – all of it! – was still lost somewhere in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Israeli security. It had never occurred to her that her story might sound odd to security, or that sounding odd might generate so many problems.

She could not speak Hebrew very well and she felt lost nearly all the time. She had already begun to suspect that she’d spend the year near the bottom of her class, struggling with the language.

It was June in the Middle East. She was hot, dirty, and scared. But she was determined not to disappoint her rabbi, so she met him for lunch with her chin up. Because he was a wise man, he saw right through her. Because he was a very gentle man, he chatted with her about this and that. Then right before lunch was going to end, and he was going to go home to Oakland, he said something to her that would carry her through the rest of a wonderful, difficult, terrible, miraculous year of transition:

“Do not be intimidated.”

She clung to those words through the next eleven months, through her struggles with her studies, through the violence of the Second Intifada, through the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, through the deaths of friends back home, through the cancer treatments of her dearest friend, through illness of her own, through everything that year threw at her. Those words reminded her that someone whose judgment she trusted believed in her.

She heard his words again and again in the words of the Torah, every time there was a challenge to be met, or a transition to be made.

Sometimes it was direct, as in Exodus Chapter 20, when Moses told his people, “Do not be afraid.” They were trembling at the foot of the mountain, afraid of the God with whom they were making the Covenant, afraid to move forward to become the People they were destined to be.

I hear those words, less directly but still quite clearly, in the words of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha. The Hebrews are making the final preparations before leaving Sinai and going out into the midbar, into the wilderness.

They’ve gotten comfortable in their camp while they built the Ark of the Covenant. Now the time is coming to leave that comfortable camp to move onwards into the unknown. They’re scared.

To help them, God gives Moses a ritual for the beginning and the end of every day of marching:

In the morning, when the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:

Advance, Adonai! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!

And when it halted, he would say: Return, Adonai, you who are Israel’s myriads of thousands! –Numbers 10:35-36

When we are starting a new phase of life, two things can make all the difference: first, the encouragement of a mentor, and secondly, ritual that marks the passage of time and works to contain the stress. During my long, tough year, I held on to my rabbi’s reassuring words while self-doubt battered me.

And during that year, ritual sustained me. Every week, Shabbat would come and for a few hours, put a pause to the study. I would email my kids and write in my journal. I’d pray and listen to Torah for sustenance, not for recitation or a test.

Even more homely rituals sustained me day to day: in the morning I made eggs sprinkled with za’atar on my hot plate and ate them, always the same way. And at the end of the day, I’d put on my nightgown, creep into bed, and read the bedtime Shema from my old prayer book from home.

There are things we can learn here: first, it is normal to be nervous about a big life transition. Graduations, weddings, funerals, new jobs, new cities – all are scary. Second, there are things we can do to make these transitions easier: we can accept encouragement from our mentors (as opposed to pushing them away with “I’m fine!”) and we can look for rituals to help us persevere in the task before us. Neither is a magic pill (there are no magic pills.) Rather, they will sustain us as we put one foot in front of the other, traveling a challenging road towards a distant goal.

If you are on a new road right now, I wish you a kind mentor and comforting rituals. I wish you a safe arrival at some future time and place, when the unfamiliar has become familiar, and the wilderness has given way to home.