Skip to content

Parashat BeHa’alotcha 5776 — 06/25/2016

Parashat BeHa’alotcha 5776 — 06/25/2016

Bamidbar 8:1-12:16

Last week we discussed the situation of the “man in the middle” – the person who was not content to live a life of simple labor, but was also not capable of soaring to the ethereal heights of spirituality. In this week’s parashah R. Steinsaltz considers this issue from another angle – who should be studying Torah? Is Torah for everyone, or only for the elite? I should add that these “Talks on the Parashah” were given at different times over the course of several years and were collected and edited for this anthology. I don’t wish to imply that R.Steinsaltz addressed this issue in two consecutive weeks, although it is certainly possible that these two talks were chosen to give that sense of flow when reading the book. In any event, I am certainly writing this in consecutive weeks, so I will try to link the two analyses.

We begin with Moshe Rabbeinu’s complaint that he cannot bear the burden of leading the people alone. Gd tells him to take 70 elders with him out to the Tent of Meeting, and Gd will transfer some of Moshe’s spirit [of prophecy] to them, giving them the wherewithal to help in the administration of the nation. There is only one problem – 70 is not divisible by 12, so there can’t be equal representation from each tribe! What to do? The Midrash tells us that Moshe solved this problem with a lottery – 6 men were selected from each tribe for a total of 72, and 72 tokens were created, 70 of which were inscribed with the word “Elder” and two of which were blank. Two men, Eldad and Medad, either drew the blank tokens or opted out of the lottery altogether, in their humility feeling themselves to be unworthy to be chosen. Moshe and the 70 others go out to the Tent of Meeting and they all prophesy. (Whether they continue to prophecy after this encounter is a matter of debate – the Hebrew phrase at the end of the verse can be translated as “… and they did not stop” [Onkelos] or as “… and they did not continue” [Artscroll]. This is a whole different discussion however.)

What happened to Eldad and Medad? They also start to prophesy in the camp, without Moshe Rabbeinu’s “approval” (although Gd must have approved, because prophecy is granted by Gd, not seized by humans). Yehoshua hears about this and urges Moshe to put an end to it right away. Moshe responds, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all of Gd’s people were prophets!”

R. Steinsaltz continues the story:

This is a point that can be applied to Torah study, to general piety, and to many other matters. Is it necessary, or even possible, to confine these matters to a limited number of people who are most qualified for them? Should one restrict the matter or spread it around? When one possesses Torah, piety, wisdom or knowledge – should one disseminate it? Is it better to keep it within oneself – “Let them be yours alone” – or should “others share with you” (Prov 5:17)?

This is an issue that the Jewish people has wrestled with from its founding, through the Talmudic period and continues to wrestle with today. R. Steinsaltz recounts the story in tractate Berachot that Rabban Gamliel of Yavne would only allow into the study hall those whose “insides were like their outsides,” that is, in whom there was no hypocrisy, no pretense, who were there to study “Torah for its own sake.” Needless to say, there weren’t many students. At one point Rabban Gamliel was briefly deposed and all who wanted to study were allowed in. On that day “400 benches were added” to accommodate the huge influx of new students.

In today’s Yeshiva world we are seeing a similar phenomenon. The best yeshivot compete for the best students, and the competition from the students’ side to get into the best yeshivot is as fierce as that to get into Ivy League schools in the secular world. Because after all, if you don’t go to the “best” yeshiva, how will you get the “best” wife from the “best” family? In the meantime, what happens to the average student? The Gershonite who gets solid B’s in Gemara and knows the Shulchan Aruch well enough to live a righteous life? I should point out that the reason I know this is an issue is that it has been brought up and discussed within the Yeshiva world itself; I am not trying to denigrate the teachers or the students in this world at all; I wish merely to point out that this issue is the same issue that Moshe and Yehoshua argued about millennia ago. Apparently, we have not come much closer to a resolution in the intervening years.

Well then, who should be studying Torah? It is certainly true that people have different talents, and some are better at Torah study than others, and it is also true that we need to cultivate these people as leaders, because Jews as a people and Judaism as a civilization are based on Torah and its values. On the other hand, it is the obligation of every Jewish male to make the study of Torah his primary avocation – one ideally should work just enough to feed and clothe his family and devote the rest of his time to Torah study. But if he’s really not cut out for Torah study at a high level, what’s the point?

I think there are several points. First of all, the study of Torah is itself refining. On the purely intellectual level, study of Torah requires us to make ever-finer distinctions – “Talmudic hairsplitting” if you will. This refines the intellect. Consistent refinement of the intellect eventually leads us to the point that is beyond the intellect, beyond all distinctions – to the point where “there is no other hand” (in the words of Tevye – I don’t know if he had in mind the famous Zen Koan about the sound of one hand clapping). Experience of this point of transcendence is profoundly liberating for the mind – when one has once experienced the boundless, nothing in the world of boundaries has quite the same permanence or importance any more.

Torah study also cultures the heart. We read the stories of our great ancestors, and even of great contemporary figures, and we are inspired to emulate their examples of lovingkindness. And of course we then start to see Gd’s infinite lovingkindness that He does for us at every moment. This connects us to the Divinity that resides in every particle of the universe.

Finally, study of Torah has the practical effect of teaching us how we are to behave in the world – what is our proper relationship with Gd, with nature and with other human beings. By learning Torah (and this learning is obligatory for women as well) we refine our activity so that it is in accord with Gd’s Will, and that means we are contributing to progress towards the ultimate Redemption, when Gd will be revealed to us in all His glory.

So study of Torah refines us – it should refine everyone who engages in it. This would argue that Torah study is not to be relegated to a small minority of adepts. Some may learn more or score better on some tests, or even may be better at coming up with new, creative insights into Torah or Talmud or Midrash. This doesn’t matter. In the current jargon, Torah study is “process-oriented” rather than “goal-oriented.” In the language of the Sages, “Gd does not count pages, He counts hours.”

I would like to make one more point. It is the natural tendency of life to expand, to become more inclusive. We are always seeking greater happiness; this happens naturally. If you’re listening to a boring conversation, and you overhear a more charming conversation nearby, it is next to impossible to keep your mind and attention from going to the other conversation. Now the greatest charm and happiness that is to be found is in union with Gd. The process of Torah study – and I don’t just refer to the academic, book-learning aspect, but to all aspects of living a Torah life – is designed to bring us into union with Gd. This is the reason Gd created us to begin with and it is the fulfillment of our destiny as human beings. And since it is natural – hard-wired as it were into our human nervous system, it is inconceivable that it should be restricted to any one class of people. We may all have our individual parts to play in the unfolding of the Divine Plan, but Torah study is at the basis of all the different roles that people have, just as Torah itself is the blueprint of creation. Indeed, in my opinion the Rabbis were absolutely correct in opening up the study hall to all comers.

Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Zechariah, Chaggai and Malachi are the last three prophets, according to Rabbinic tradition. They were also among the “Men of the Great Assembly” that was convened by Ezra upon the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel at the end of the Babylonian exile, and consequently their prophecies took place at the very beginning of the Second Temple period. The “Great Assembly” (Kenesset haGedolah) was the supreme legislative body of the Jewish people, and made many ordinances to govern life in the Land after the return. It had 120 members; the Kenesset of the modern State of Israel has 120 members as a remembrance of the Kenesset haGedolah. The chain of tradition in the first chapter of Pirke Avot identifies Shimon the Righteous as one of the last members of the Kenesset haGedolah; after him there was Antigonos of Socho, and then we get into the era of the “pairs” (zugot) of Sages who presided over the Sanhedrin.

Our haftarah closes with a vision of the menorah in the future Temple; this is the connection to the parashah, which opens with the instructions to Aharon on lighting the menorah. It also includes a famous prophecy wherein Zechariah sees Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol, standing before a tribunal in dirty garments, being accused of various sins by Satan, who is not the devil but the accusing angel, an arm of Gd’s attribute of strict justice. Gd however, rebukes the Satan and effectively tells him, “Look, this guy has been in exile, in a bad environment, living among pagans, cut him some slack!” As a wise man once said, “In a smoky room, even an enlightened man can’t see very far.”

This is the difference between human and Divine justice. Human justice can take into account only what the judges can see, and sometimes that is not very much, as it isn’t all that hard to hide evidence or even suborn witnesses. Divine justice has no such limitations – it sees all, and automatically computes all the influences behind an action, and all the consequences of any action, and it arranges itself for the maximum progress of the individual, the society and the cosmos as a whole. So Gd tells the angels to remove Yehoshua’s dirty garments and replace them with pure ones. Such is Gd’s Redemptive power. Yehoshua is then warned not to get off the right path any more – not to push his luck as it were, for this time one cannot extenuate bad behavior by appealing to the environment. Once our ability to choose is restored, it behooves us to use it properly!