This week’s parasha has two opposite pictures: it opens in harmony, with the establishment of the Tabernacle and the beginning of our ancestors’ march to the land of Israel, and closes with stories of complaint, conflict and dissolution. In between these two starkly different narrative pictures come two verses, separated out in a way that has led tradition to speak about them as a book of their own. To many these two verses would be familiar because they have since become part of the Torah service. In their Torah context they have 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!’”. If these verses form a book of their own, it is a short, two verse book, with a beginning and an end, but nothing in between. With the Ark guiding the people on their way, not just to the Holy Land but also into battle, perhaps the missing content is the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” referred to later in B’Midbar (Numbers 21:14).
It is most likely because of this “militaristic imagery” that these verses have been removed from many Reform Siddurim. Ironically, it is the removal of these verses from the Siddur that maintains their more militaristic image, while the inclusion of them in the Torah service itself enables us to approach them as yet another teaching about the essence of Torah. Reciting, “Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered and Your foes flee before You!” just before we take the Sefer Torah from the Ark makes us reflect on what it means to be “an enemy of God”. While there will be some who suggest that this concept of “God’s enemy” proves that religion is the cause of all wars and God an evil projection of humanity, deeper reading can take us elsewhere.
Everything written – whether in Torah or another’s scripture is a story about God, not necessarily an expression of God Itself. We must always remember that the name of God in Hebrew is a conjugation of the verb “to be”. God is another name for being and existence. Understood in this context, “God’s enemies” are forces of death and destruction. Hearing this verse chanted as we take out the Sefer Torah we recall that Torah itself is ultimately a teaching to overcome these forces. Most of Torah, from its opening teaching of God as life force, is life affirming. As we learn in the Proverb of Torah (and these verses are also part of the Torah service), “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”
God can only work through us, and we as Jews are guided by Torah. When we hear verses about scattering enemies and fleeing foes we are reminded what it means to be a Jew. We do have foes in those who oppress, use violence for solutions to problems and in many ways threaten individuals or societies with death. To wish for their energy to be scattered and for enlightenment to reign supreme is to encapsulate the message of this week’s reading. Just as the Torah begins with the creation of light, Beha’alotecha opens with the command to place the menorah, from which light emanates, in the Tabernacle. The haftarah, the stirring words from the prophet Zechariah, understands the menorah as teaching: “not be might nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord”. We live Torah and serve God when we bring light and spirit to the world and act in a life affirming manner in this world.