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Parashat BeHa’alot’cha 5779 — 06/22/2019

Parashat BeHa’alot’cha 5779 — 06/22/2019

Bamidbar 8:1-12:16

Two verses in our parashah (Bamidbar 10:35-36) are set apart from the rest of the text by an inverted letter “nun” both before and after. The two verses are used in the liturgy – when the Ark is opened we say:

And when the Ark would journey, Moshe said, “Arise, O Lord, and let Your foes be scattered, and let those who hate You flee from before You.”

When we are about to close the Ark we say:

And when it rested, he would say, “Return O Gd among the myriad of thousands of Israel.”

Why is there this interruption, at this particular point in the text, and why is the interruption these particular verses? The basic idea of this interruption, according to the Rabbis, was to divide between tragedies. The latter tragedies were the various rebellions and complaints of the people, culminating in the debacle of the spies in next week’s reading (parashat Shelach). The tragedy before the interruption was the nation’s departure from Mt. Sinai. But we had to leave Mt. Sinai to get to the Land of Israel, where we can actualize many of the mitzvot we had just been given – all the agricultural mitzvot for example. R. Goldin explains:

The Talmud is quick to explain that the problem lay not in the retreat from Sinai (which was, of course, essential to the nation’s development) but in the character of that retreat. Commenting on the biblical phrase “…and they traveled from the Mountain of the Lord:’ Rabbi Chiya bar Chanina proclaims: “They turned away from following the Lord.” The Midrash, going a step further, asserts that the people left Sinai with relief, “like a young child fleeing school.”
Clearly, to the rabbinic mind, the Israelites sin, not because they leave Mount Sinai, but because they leave Mount Sinai behind.
Overwhelmed by the monumental responsibilities thrust upon them during their confrontation with Gd, the people are only too happy to flee the scene of that confrontation. By escaping Sinai, they hope to escape responsibility to Gd’s law, as well.
. . .
We can now understand why the Torah specifically creates a buffer to distinguish the tragic departure from Sinai from the ensuing events, devastating as they may be. Gd wants us to understand that the Israelites’ “flight” from the scene of Revelation is not just another tragedy. It is, instead, the root cause of all tragedies that follow. Had our ancestors truly understood the significance of Revelation, had they carried the imperative of Sinai with them upon their departure, they would not have descended into the immediately subsequent rebellions. The generation of the Exodus would have marched directly and triumphantly into the Land of Israel rather than perishing in the wilderness. [R. Goldin’s emphases]

I’d like to comment first that this discussion is of the genre “if only <the nation, or some group or some individual> had done <x> then the Redemption would already have come.” The trick is of course, that the way the situation is structured, and the way the people’s individual and collective consciousness are constituted, doing <x> is impossible. Inherent in the notion that we have free will is the notion that we can violate Gd’s Will. It seems almost like victim blaming, which doesn’t really get anybody anywhere. If only the people had taken Mt Sinai with them, i.e. been more assiduous in learning Torah and doing mitzvot – but they had just come out of 210 years of Egyptian slavery, how could they have been capable of leaping tall spiritual mountains in a single bound?

The meat of the matter, however, is the fact that the experience of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai was overwhelming – the Rabbis tell us, perhaps figuratively, that it was so overwhelming that the people actually died and had to be revived by angels. Why should this be the case? The experience of the transcendent is the experience of that which is beyond time and space, beyond any boundaries, beyond the particulars of existence. It is the experience of pure Being in itself. To experience it, we have to allow the individual fluctuations of the mind to settle down, until the mind is fully expanded, itself infinite and unbounded. This can be a rather frightening prospect, and it takes some getting used to.

Revelation is more than just experience of the transcendent however. Rashi tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu’s perception of Torah was like listening in on a conversation Gd was having with Himself. That is, Moshe heard the internal, virtual vibrations within the unified structure of Gd. This requires having the transcendent stabilized in the awareness permanently, so that one gets used to it and can start discerning the virtual fluctuations within it. If the momentary experience of the transcendent was overwhelming, how much more so the prospect of having that reality permanently established in the awareness! Yet this is what we must mean by bringing Mt. Sinai along with us. So it is no wonder that the people ran away!

In truth, the experience of the transcendent is extremely purifying. That is why the people were so afraid – but it was just a question of too much purification, too fast. The trick is to purify oneself a little bit each day, day after day, year after year. Regular contact with the transcendent along with a well-regulated lifestyle is the way to accomplish this. When we do this, the transcendent becomes more and more stabilized in our awareness, in a natural and organic way, and we carry Mt. Sinai around with us wherever we go.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Beha’alot’echa
Gd commands Moses to tell Aaron, the High Priest, when he lights the seven lamps (of the menorah) he should light them turning toward the face, the middle lamp.

Symbolism of Light: Easy to see that this symbolizes the Light of Gd, which is not separate from Gd, but Gd’s Nature. The lamps symbolize not only the Light of Gd but also all the other uncountable attributes of Gd; for example, Love, Joy, Compassion, Justice, Purity, Totality, Perfection.

Lighting the lamps in the Temple symbolizes lighting the lights inside our own temple—our own personality and physiology

Symbolism of seven lamps: Can be the seven more concrete qualities given to the Sephirot, qualities of Gd; can be the qualities of the seven traditional planets; can be seven days of Creation, many sevens. Can also be, in essence, revealing the Many within the One: though Gd is One, Gd has detail, infinite detail, and seven just gives a sense of the Infinity that is Gd.

Symbolism of lighting toward the face of the menorah: Rashi comments that this is the middle lamp, the central lamp, not on a branch of the menorah but part of the central column. The symbolism can be that we always need to turn diversity toward the Center that Unifies.

Symbolism of raising the lights: The literal translation of “Beha’alot’echa” is not just “light” or “kindle” but “cause to ascend.”  The idea is that one just warms the wick enough so it rises by itself. Symbolically, we move with devotion toward Love of Gd, Love of our neighbor, Love of our Self, and just a small move brings a large result—the Light of Gd, of One lights us up.

Symbolism of single piece: The Menorah was made of a single piece of gold symbolizing that All is One, though it appears as many.

Symbolism of gold: Gold symbolizes purity.

May we all experience today and always the Light of Gd, of One, fully lit within ourself, fully lit within our neighbors and all creation!

Baruch HaShem