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Parashat Beha’alotekha
June 6, 2015 – 19 Sivan 5775 

Annual (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16): Etz Hayim p. 816; Hertz p. 606
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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

God briefly explains the details for the menorah in the Mishkan, 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 after having 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: What About Hobab?

Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law, "We are setting out for the place of which the Lord has said, 'I will give it to you.' Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Lord has promised to be generous to Israel." "I will not go," he replied to him, "but will return to my native land." He said, "Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us." (Numbers 10:29-32)

We are treated to a snippet of conversation between Moses and his father-in-law, yet we don't clearly know the outcome.

Horeb does not seem to lie within Midianite territory, since Moses must drive his Midianite father-in-law’s flocks into the wilderness to arrive at the sacred spot. Further proof of this follows from Numbers 10:29-33, in which Jethro (also known as Hobab and Reuel) announces that he will return to his native land and not accompany Israel in her march from the Sinai into Canaan, the promised land. Mount Sinai may be near, but it is not within Jethro’s territory. -- Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion

Since Moses makes his request with regard to the future, it seems reasonable that he is thinking of the future on the basis of his experience of Hovav in the past. According to the simple sense of the text, Hovav has already proved himself as a guide who is acquainted with the region. It is possible to insert here the homiletic explanation that he knew of the miracles wrought by God on behalf of the Israelites, which he had seen with his own eyes during his stay with them. His knowledge both of the region and of God’s ways enable him to serve as “eyes” for the people, that is, to provide leadership. Going by the context, “eyes” constitutes a description of a quality possessed by Hovav as a leader, a guide who is blessed with the ability to be eyes for the Israelites -- eyes which look steadily at the countryside and give orders to the brain as to how to march and how and where to advance. -- Avraham Gottlieb, “And You Can Be Our Guide,” from A Divinely Given Torah in our Day and Age, Volume I

He is Jethro, as it says, “from the sons of Hobab, Moses’s father-in-law” (Judges 4:11). Why, then, does it say, “They came to Reuel their father” (Exodus 2:18)? It teaches that young children call their father’s father “father.” He had many names: Jethro, because he caused one more passage of the Torah; Hobab [which means “lover”], because he loved the Torah. -- Rashi on 10:29

Questions for Discussion:

Levenson presumes that Hobab doesn't want to continue venturing with Moses because he would be leaving familiar territory. Whether the reasons are more political or personal, Hobab does not want to leave his comfort zone. What does it take for us to escape our comfort zones? What prevents us from doing so? Is there a benefit to leaving our comfort zones even if the goals for doing so are unclear?

According to Gottlieb, Hobab has the "eyes" to provide insight to the Israelites in ways that might escape an Israelite from birth. In this way, Moses sees Hobab as a potential "consultant" for the Israelite journey. How valuable are outside perspectives when embarking on new journeys? On what basis should we listen to them, and to what extent might they distract us from what we know is right in our hearts?

Rashi teaches us meanings to Hobab's several names. If the meaning of Hobab's name is instructive to us, how does this illuminate the passage in today's portion? Is it possible for Hobab to teach Moses lessons of love while simultaneously declining to accompany him? Can we conclude that Hobab's desire to allow Moses to walk on without him is an act of love, since he enables Moses to make his way on his own?

Theme #2: On The Road Again

They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days' journey to seek out a resting place for them; and the Lord's cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp. (Numbers 10:33-34)

The Israelites begin their journey from Sinai, leading some to wonder about their state of mind as their feet begin moving.

This teaches us that they immediately put three days between themselves and Sinai, like children running away from school when class is over. -- Midrash Yelamdeinu

Until this moment, they had not so much as budged from the foot of the mountain. -- Rashbam

One of the [Ark’s] functions was to accompany the Hebrews into battle to ensure their victory. On one occasion, when neither Moses nor the Ark accompanied the Hebrews, defeat ensued (Numbers 14:44). The term “Ark of the Covenant” implies that the tablets inside it were in some way connected with the document of the contractual relationship established in the Wilderness. The Ark was housed in a tent, sometimes called the “Tabernacle” and sometimes the “Tent of Meeting.” While biblical accounts relate what happened to the Ark after the immigration into Palestine, there are no comparable accounts of the Tabernacle. -- Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures

Questions for Discussion:

Midrash Yelamdeinu seems to evaluate the Israelites negatively, saying that they couldn't wait to flee from the place where they had received the commandments. Is this a fair evaluation? If indeed the Israelites are eager to continue on their journey, is this an indictment of their attitude regarding Mount Sinai, or is it a praiseworthy statement of their eagerness to approach the Promised Land? Or are they simply restless after a long stretch of camping in one place?

Rashbam's commentary might be understood as a contrast to that of Midrash Yelamdeinu, perhaps implying that the Israelites had grown comfortable at Sinai, and needs to be nudged to move forward. Might the three days' journey be a strategic ploy to make sure that the Israelites don't get tempted to return to Sinai, lest they risk becoming stagnant? Or is it possible that the Israelites hadn't moved from Mount Sinai because of their fear of God, or fear of the unknown?

Sandmel tells us that the Ark not only is a place of storage, but also a key sign of God's protection in the face of obstacles that face the Israelites. How does this compare or contrast with our approach to the Ark in a synagogue sanctuary today? Does the open Ark evoke a sense of security like it did for our ancestors? If not, what other emotions are present when we are in front of the Ark?

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