Oy! There's a lot of whining in this week's Torah portion, B'haalot'cha. It has such a promising beginning-the training and blessing of the Levites for their special role among the people Israel, including the lighting of the golden seven-branched menorah; the poetic and comforting description of the cloud by day and fire by night that will signal when to make camp, and when to break camp and journey on; and the silver trumpets sounding to gather the people and God together in bad times and in good-"an institution for all time throughout the ages" (Numbers 10:8).
What happened? Why all the complaining? (Not that complaining is new to the Israelites.)
Some of the complaining proves legitimate. God appreciates it when some of the men, unable to celebrate the Passover sacrifice at its proper time, ask for another opportunity to do so. If the reason for delay is legitimate, says God, then offer it a month later on the same day of the month (9:6-13)-and the idea of Pesach Sheini is born, a second Pesach, this one, importantly, not imposed by God, but desired and requested by the people.
In this parashah the Israelites, at God's instruction, take their leave of Mount Sinai: "They marched from the mountain of God a distance of three days" (10:33). The commentator Rashbam (twelfth century, the grandson of the more-famous commentator Rashi) theorizes that the cause of the Israelites' complaining was the unexpected difficulty of the three-day journey.1 Given all the organizing beforehand, and the presence of the cloud and Moses to guide them, they were expecting an easier time of it.
It's such a wary time for God, for Moses, and for the Israelites. They want their bonds to deepen; they want all that comes next to go well. Yet they barely seem to understand one another. Some commentators suggest the Israelites ran from the mountain, eager to get away lest God give them still more laws to follow, "like a child running from school," says Ramban (Nachmanides, thirteenth century) leading him to wonder if the words, "they marched from the mountain of God," suggest a spiritual distancing in addition to a physical one (10:33).
It's one thing to remain close to people when you sit around a campfire together, but quite another when you are all spread out, following the same pillar of cloud perhaps, but traveling at your own pace, no human leader in sight, never knowing how long you'll be walking, how soon you might rest, or where you are going.
I can relate. I recently went on a journey with friends that included a four-day trek in the middle Himalayas of Nepal. I definitely thought it would be easier. After the first day of our trek we noticed our smart and exceedingly competent guide was deliberately short on information for us. Had we known we'd be walking eight hours that day, would we have continued or just sat down? It was a delicate balance for him-when to gather us together for a rest, when to let us spread out and keep walking. His nephew followed at the back of the group, making sure no one got lost or left behind. At the ready with a polite, "Do you need help?" he let us do it ourselves whenever we could. In our Torah portion, God assigns the tribe of Dan to this task (10:25), cryptically appointing them as "gatherers" (m'aseif)-perhaps of lost objects, stragglers, or morale. I can attest to the comfort of having a steady guide in front and a reliable gatherer in back.
But the Israelites weren't facing a four-day trek over known trails. When the travel got hard, they complained. Tired of trail mix (manna), no fresh vegetables in sight, they reminisced the delicious cucumbers left behind in Egypt (11:4-8). Frightened, weary, and anxious, the families stood, each one at the entrance of their own tents, crying out loud (11:10).
Can you blame Moses for not wanting to be the only leader? Signs and wonders may make for impressive visuals, but not necessarily soothing ones, or easy ones to follow. Moses had tried to get his father-in-law to go with them: "Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide" (10:31). Left to lead alone, Moses makes a shocking request of God: "I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me . . . kill me rather, I beg You," (11:14-15).
When Moses says "kill me," God responds, "Gather for Me seventy of Israel's elders . . . they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone" (11:16-17).
Moses appreciates the help. When others think that two of the seventy-Eldad and Medad-are "acting the prophet" and need to be restrained, Moses disagrees, "Would that all the Eternal's people were prophets" (11:27, 29).
And a little later when his sister Miriam is struck ill by God for seeking, with their brother Aaron, to set themselves on an equal level with Moses, Moses doesn't condemn them as upstarts, but simply prays for her recovery, using for the first time the oft spoken prayer for healing: El na r'fa na lah, "God, please, heal her please" (12:13). It's lonely at the top and he doesn't seem eager to do without his siblings.
Longing for what's gone, uncertain of the future, and expecting rough terrain ahead, the Israelites and Moses sometimes waver. But God, sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely, guides them again and again back toward each other.
It's no easy task, as our next few Torah portions will reveal.
- The Commentator's Bible: The JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot, Numbers, ed. Michael Carasik (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005 ) p. 71
- Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (Philadelphia: JPS, 2001), p. 827
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D., is the leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world's first gay and lesbian synagogue. She is a thoughtful and reasoned advocate for same-sex marriage, environmental protection, and social and economic justice. Her writing appears in books including Kulanu: All of Us (a URJ handbook for congregational inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews) and The Women's Torah Commentary.
According to Numbers 9:10-11, if Passover comes and you are away, say on a long journey, you may bring the Passover sacrifice precisely one month later to the day and thus mark the virtual birthday of the Jewish people a whole month late. Note the curious blend here of exact timing and the freedom to be late. The Passover Haggadah glories in asserting that "this very night" we went forth from Egypt. It's a precision it inherits from Exodus 12 where the fleeing slaves are given the new laws of time, which establish liberation from Egypt as the first moment of the new calendar. Passover, the pivotal moment of liberation, evoked in every recitation of Kiddush on Friday night, in every reading of the Sh'ma, is a historical fact that possesses a specific chronological locus. We may think, "But darling, if we can't celebrate our anniversary on the night we actually got married, no big deal. Our love transcends dates; we'll defer the party."
And yet dates are important: think of 14 Nisan, 10 Tishrei, 25 Kislev, 15 Sh'vat, 9 Av, 1948, 1967, 1776, 9/11, and so on. The institution of a Second Passover was beyond Moses's capacity to formulate. When men who were barred from offering the sacrifice because of ritual impurity appealed to Moses, he responded to them, "Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Eternal gives about you" (Numbers 9:8). The law of time seemed unambiguous and unalterable to the prophet of the law, but the Source of law understood that law must accommodate to life's messiness, to human frailty and freedom.
So God rules one month late to the day, conjoining legal boilerplate to human messiness. The implications of God's intervention spin my spiritual wheels. The origin of the Jewish people, like the origin of my marriage, is a historical, empirical fact. Like my wedding, Exodus inhabits the past, but my marriage changes the meaning and moment of my wedding every day. Love, like freedom, is now or never, for in a deep sense, the number of years you live is irrelevant; what matters is that you live today. Surely this is what the psalmist intuited, in words attributed to Moses at Psalm 90, when he chanted, "Teach us to number our days that we may acquire a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12). The heart of wisdom pulses with blood, beats in a chest, is subject to fibrillation and infarct, the latter a phenomenon we call a heart attack, an assault, that is, on the poor vulnerable circulator of life's blood. It will one day cease its beat. But there is a second heart of wisdom, which like the Second Passover exists both inside and outside of time, functioning as the origin of time. This heartbeat cannot cease, for it never began; it simply is, the way love is, the way freedom is.
Rabbi James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale University.
B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868