Be’halotekhca 5784

To Raise Up the Light

Though our parasha this week opens with hope and harmony, it concludes with despair and dissolution. The first half of the story begins with instructions “to raise up the lights” of the menorah. This image of light and uplift is followed by other beautiful, harmonious stories of the Israelites, who, just after the celebration of the first anniversary of the exodus from Egypt, prepare for their march to the land of Israel under God’s protection. But suddenly the story shifts, and a totally disparate account is given—stories of excess and complaint. The ungrateful masses complain that manna from heaven is not good enough, they need meat to eat; Aaron and Miriam challenge their brother Moses’ leadership. What has happened to lead to this collapse remains a mystery.

However, in between these two starkly different narrative pictures are two verses, clearly separated in the Torah scroll and every printed text by two large, backward and upside-down letters “nun”, leading to much rabbinic commentary that they are a separate book of their own. In the context of the Torah, they speak of the war to conquer the land in militaristic imagery: “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: ‘Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered and may Your foes flee before You!’ And when it halted, he would say: ‘Return, O Lord, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!’” Numbers 10:35-36. We must acknowledge that our biblical record is one of conquest of the land through war against its previous inhabitants known as “the seven nations of the land.”

But Judaism developed beyond its original biblical texts, especially in the way it was constructed by the ancient sages after the destruction of the Second Temple. They placed these verses in the Torah service. We recite the verse: “Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered and Your foes flee before You!” just before we take the Sefer Torah from the Ark, and “Return, O Lord, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!” just after we return the Sefer Torah to the ark. The placement of these verses in this context encourages us to think about what it means to be “an enemy of God” and “for God to return” in terms of our ongoing reading and study of Torah.

Now, more than ever, we must be intentional in how we read and apply these verses. We can think of them in a narrow, literal way, constricting them to their original militaristic context— that we must continue to fight wars of conquest of the land as God’s wars—as some Jews do, or we can embrace the reading preferred by the sages.

The sages contextualized the verses from our parasha by adding others in the Torah service: the messianic peaceful prophecy “From out of Zion shall come Torah, the word of God from Jerusalem” when we take out the Torah and the proverbial “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” when we return it. The rabbis want us to understand that the essence of God is that all life is interconnected and all humans have dignity; to be an enemy of God is to reject that core principle of Judaism.

We also see this rabbinic message in the haftarah the rabbis selected for Beha’alotecha, the stirring words from the prophet Zechariah, “not by might nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord”. Perhaps the rabbis placed those verses in our parasha that separate the story of harmony from the story of dissolution in our Torah service precisely to teach us that “being in God’s army” is to be understood metaphorically, to be the ones who whenever and wherever there is darkness must “raise up the light”.


One thought on “Be’halotekhca 5784

  1. Pam Kilduff says:

    I have been questioning the war & slaughters of the Torah; Why?This Parasha explains much. Thank you.

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