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Parashat B’ha’alotekha
June 7, 2014 – 9 Sivan 5774

Annual (Numbers 8:1-12:16): Etz Hayim p. 816; Hertz p. 605
Triennial (Numbers 8:1-9:14): Etz Hayim p. 816; Hertz p. 605
Haftarah (Zechariah 2:14-4:7): Etz Hayim p. 837; Hertz p. 620

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

God briefly explains the details for the menorah in the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), then turns attention to the Levites’ purification ceremony. These men, who are allowed to serve from ages 25-50, are responsible for assisting the priests and helping ensure the Israelites will not succumb to plagues.

The Israelites are reminded of their responsibility to offer the Passover sacrifice, and learn that those who are rendered impure because of their contact with a corpse will be allowed to observe Passover one month later.

The people finally resume their journey in the wilderness, following a protective fire-cloud that directs both their movement and the places and times to make camp. When a new march begins, the Israelites are called to attention by two silver trumpets, then walk in tribal groupings. They are joined by Moses' father-in-law, Hobab, as Moses recites a standard phrase each time they begin and end each leg of their journey.

The Israelites complain twice -- generally at first, then specifically demanding meat. Moses asks God to kill him, but God sends the people quail instead, then strikes them with a devastating plague.

Aaron and Miriam complain to God about Moses's marriage to a Cushite woman. God afflicts Miriam with leprosy, but Moses humbly requests that she be healed; God eventually grants the request.

Theme #1: Light it Up, Aaron

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Numbers 8:1-3)

One of the last orders of business before the Israelites resume their journey is to inaugurate the requirement to light the Menorah. Although he had been privileged to attain such great honors, Aaron never changed. He did not become conceited or arrogant, but remained as humble and meek as he had been before. -- The Rabbi of Przysucha

One could not discern in the holy service of Aaron any outward fluctuation or modification. This was a matter of the innermost heart. All the great things have as their central idea something that is hidden and concealed in the heart - with no outward manifestation whatsoever. -- Menachem Mendl of Kotzk

The Holy One said to [Aaron], “They have given their lives and their blood in exile and no trace remains of anything that was, and no one offers praise for a miracle that happened outside of the Land of Israel. But you are greater than all of them, for you will prepare and kindle the lights. You will kindle the light of Israel. You and your tribe will face the head of the rebellion and you will declare who is for God. [Perhaps this is an allusion to the Korach rebellion.] And through your power the Kingdom of Israel will be readied and rebuilt. And just this will serve as an eternal symbol; it will last forever.” -- She’arit Menachem

Questions for Discussion:

The Rabbi of Przysucha sees Aaron as a modest and unassuming character. Is this consistent with other stories we know about him? Does his role in helping to build the Golden Calf and his critique of Moses's Cushite wife disprove that reputation of humility? Or rather than focus on Aaron’s supposed mistakes, should we instead concentrate more on the times when Aaron stays in the background as Moses's dutiful spokesman and as High Priest?

Menachem Mendl of Kotzk claims that Aaron's consistent ability to do good deeds comes from inner strength, not qualities that one can easily see on the outside. What are the greatest “hidden” qualities that people possess? When and how do they become visible? When we try to understand other people, how important is it to get to know their hidden qualities?

She'arit Menachem refers to God’s reassurance to Aaron that he is more important than the representatives of each tribe who had just given gifts for the Tabernacle's inauguration (recounted in Numbers 7, the end of the our previous Torah portion, Naso), saying that whereas those gifts will have an “expiration date,” the fire of the menorah is eternal. Why is God’s reassurance to Aaron so important? In modern times, are there contributions which can be thought of as “eternal?”

Theme #2: First Things First

For they are formally assigned to Me from among the Israelites: I have taken them for Myself in place of all the first issue of the womb, of all the firstborn of the Israelites. (Numbers 8:16)

The Levites’ special role in the Israelite community goes beyond assisting the priests in their duties.

The firstborn, because he was the first-fruits of marriage, belonged to God. The firstborn of a flock were sacrificed, but those of mankind were redeemed, for the God of Israel abhorred the sacrifice of children. Instead, the Levites were consecrated to God as substitutes for the firstborn of the people. -- Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Volume 1

Ultimately, too, the whole ministry of the priesthood was a ministry of vicarious mediation, especially when it is remembered that they ate the flesh of the sin-offering. Again, the idea that the Levites were made over to Jahweh in place of the firstborn, thus saving the latter from being sacrificed, must be kept in mind in this connection. -- Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume II

Wherever “unto Me” [or “Mine”] is said, it refers to something that shall never cease either in this world or in the World to Come. … Of the Levites it is written, “And the Levites shall be Mine” (Numbers 8:14). -- Leviticus Rabbah 2:2

Questions for Discussion:

De Vaux tells us that the Levites are God’s substitutes for each Israelite’s first-born, all of whom are supposed to belong to God (a rule that first appears in Exodus 13). Why are the Levites given this responsibility? Are there qualities about people heavily involved in matters of ritual that can qualify them to take on other responsibilities in Jewish life? Or, perhaps, is this simply a convenient role for Levites to fill, as they are separated from the general Israelite population in other ways?

Von Rad reminds us that the Torah is against child sacrifice, even though the text suggests that first-born children may have been “candidates” for sacrifice were it not for God’s abhorrence of the practice. If so, why does the Torah even bother telling us that first-born human children belong to God? Was the Torah creating a legal fiction? How do other legal fictions in Judaism (i.e., creating an eruv, a fixed boundary, to enable people to carry on Shabbat, or selling leavened products before Passover so that we don’t have to rid our houses of every physical trace of hametz) add or detract from the richness of our tradition?

Leviticus Rabbah says that the bond between God and the Levites are eternal. How can that bond be felt without the presence of the Temple today? Does this Midrash provide a basis for the practice of honoring a Levite with the second aliyah when the Torah is read? Perhaps that practice should be considred obsolete in an egalitarian community? If so, what are other ways for a Levite (and a Kohen) to feel a connection to the Divine?

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