June 17, 2006 – 21 Sivan 5766
Annual: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 816; Hertz p. 605)
Triennial: Numbers 9:15 – 10:34 (Etz Hayim, p. 821; Hertz p. 609)
Haftarah: Zekhariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 837; Hertz p. 620)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This portion contains a variety of laws and recounts a number of historical events as the Israelites begin their journey through the wilderness. God tells Moses to speak to Aaron, light the menorah – the seven-light lampstand made of gold – and keep it constantly alight in the tabernacle. The tribe of Levi must be purified and prepared for the special offerings. All Levites between 25 and 50 years old can participate in the ritual of service in the Tent of Meeting.
God commands the people about the Passover sacrifice. If an Israelite should be unable to participate in the Passover at the appropriate time because of ritual impurity or being too far distant from the authorized place of worship, a second Passover one month later was instituted as a kind of make-up day for the ceremony. But any Israelite who simply chooses not to participate would be cut off from the people.
The tabernacle is set up. A cloud covers it by day; a pillar of fire covers it at night. When the Israelites were to break camp, the cloud would lift up. Two silver trumpets were made to be sounded when the Israelites were to move forward. The precise order of the march was laid out, and in the second year, on the twentieth of the second month, the Israelites march forth. Moses invites his father-in-law, Hobab (earlier identified in the Torah as Yitro), to set out with them as a guide, but he refuses.
The people complain bitterly before the Lord about the food. They miss the food of Egypt. Moses cries out that he cannot carry the burden of this people. God promises the people that they will have meat to eat, enough for a whole month, until it becomes loathsome to them. God causes some of Moses’ spirit to rest on 70 elders; two young men, Eldad and Medad, also prophesy in the camp. God causes quail to be blown into the camp, giving the people meat to eat.
At the end of the portion, Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moses because of his marriage to a Cushite woman. God speaks of Moses’ modesty and how only he can speak to God face to face. Miriam is stricken with leprosy, and Moses prays for her with the words, “O God, pray heal her.” Miriam is shut out of the camp for seven days, and only when she reenters the camp do the people continue their travels.
Issue #1 - Happy With Your Lot
“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving, and the Israelites, moreover, wept and said, if only we had meat to eat” (Numbers 11:4)
- Immediately after beginning the journey, the Israelites began complaining. The first complaints were not surprising – they did not like the food. In the desert all they had to eat was manna, miraculous but gastronomically bleak. Back in Egypt they had meat and vegetables - cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. As we read the Torah these coming weeks, complaints about food will escalate into complaints about everything. Only when that unhappy generation died off would the Israelites be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
- Are there some people who like to complain? We all know the kind of people who enjoy seeing the glass half empty rather than half full. Often such people are a gloomy presence in the life of others.
- There is the story of a man who was always complaining to the rabbi about his life. He never had enough money, his marriage was unhappy, his kids were no good, his health was failing. His life was full of bitterness. He kept asking the rabbi, “Why am I suffering so?” Finally, the rabbi said, “I want you to visit Yakov; perhaps he can give you an answer.” The man went to Yakov’s house, and found it to be a hovel. There was no heat and little food, and Yakov looked quite ill. In fact, the man was shocked at Yakov’s condition, and asked him, “How do you deal with suffering?” Yakov had a big smile on his face. “Why are you asking me? I have never suffered.” What does this story teach us? How much of how we feel about our lot in life is due to our life experiences and how much is because of the way we view those experiences?
- “Ben Zoma said, ‘Who is rich? Someone who is satisfied with their lot.’” How can we learn the joy of finding satisfaction with our lot? In this day of commercialization and consumerism, is it possible to be satisfied with what we have? Does that not run against the concept of an ever-growing economy? Is there a difference between being wanting nice things and feeling that all you have is horrible?
Issue #2 – Light
“Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the menorah” (Numbers 8:2)
- Aaron must keep the lamps lit. Light is the symbol of God’s presence. Light was also the first item God created. But what is light?
- Scientists have determined that light behaves in ways that make it quite unusual. Light does behave as if it was a wave, but unlike sound waves light can travel in a vacuum. White light is a combination of all the colors together. A bright light, like a spotlight, can be very warm.
- When we think of “the wave” at a sports stadium, we recognize that very many people must participate if the wave is to pass around the stadium. Although light can be understood as a wave, Einstein determined that it also is particle-like, passing energy along as if it were a kind of solid. In this understanding, light-bits (photons) are involved to move the energy along.
- So much for the scientific understandings of light. Is there a way to take those understandings and use them as a metaphor for understanding God? Something as simple as a sunbeam becomes a beautiful spectrum of color when it passes through a prism. When we note that we cannot understand something, we say we’re in the dark.
- In what ways is our understanding of God well represented by light?