Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Three positive mitzvahs and two prohibitions
When the priests light the Menorah (which was made from a single piece of beaten gold) the lights should face center and forward, reminiscent of how the keruvim faced each other
Representatives of the Israelites inaugurate the Levites by a “laying of hands” on the heads of representatives of the Levites
Levitical service begins at the age of 25; retirement from the work force is at age 50
Rules for Passover offering to be brought in the desert
A person ritually unclean or on a long journey during Passover still can bring the Passover offering a month later, on the fourteenth day of Iyar (Pesach Shainy). The Lubavitcher Rebbe sees in this the lesson of never to despair: even if he missed Pesach, he is given a second, special opportunity to celebrate the Second Pesach
• Cloud covering’s protective and travel roles during in the day
• Appearance of fire at night.
• When the clouds rose, the Israelites would set out on the march
• They would then camp wherever the cloud halted
Two long, narrow silver clarions were to be made and blown by the priests to…
• Assemble the entire community (long note on both)
• Assemble the tribal princes (long note on only one)
• Begin the march (series of short notes)
• Go to war against an attacking enemy in the Land of Israel (staccato notes)
• Celebrate the bringing of burnt and peace offerings on festivals
During the first journey from Sinai to the Paran Desert (and in all subsequent desert travels) …
• The tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zevulun marched first
• Descendants of Gershon and Merari (Levites) who dismantled and carried the Tabernacle marched next and were followed by…
• The tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Gad followed by…
• The Ark and the other sacred furniture carried by the Kehosites. [The Ark would be placed in the Tabernacle once the destination was reached and the Tabernacle would have been set up by descendants of Gershon and Merari, who arrived first]
• Next marched the tribes of Efraim, Manasshe and Binyamin
• The tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali brought up the rear
Chovev (Yisro), Moshe’s father-in-law declines Moshe’s invitation to join the Israelites on their journey
“The Ark of God’s covenant traveled three days ahead of them in order to find them a place to settle.” Rashi’s view is that there were two Arks and this one contained the broken tablets. Others maintain that there was only one Ark and that it was only during this first trek that an exception was made for the Ark to precede the nation.
The invocation prayer “Vayehe B’nsoa Ha’aron” is still recited today in the synagogue when the Holy Ark is opened, and the Torah removed
God becomes enraged when some people act like complainers (dissatisfied with the difficulties of the journey) and causes a fire to burn to death these fringe elements
A mob of Egyptian converts who left Egypt with the Israelites stirs up dissatisfaction by complaining about the lack of meat to eat
Moshe complains about the Israelites’ behavior, saying it is too hard for him to bear and asking God to kill him so that he does not have to see his misfortune
Instead, God instructs Moshe to assemble seventy Elders around the Tent and places some prophetic spirit on them, thus enabling them to share in the leadership responsibility
Yehoshua appears to be jealous of Eldad and Medad, two of the nominated Elders, who maintained their prophesy in the camp
God provides quails spread all over the camp, to satisfy the people’s desire for meat-- then brings on a deadly plague. The location then is named Kivros Hata’ava (graves of craving)
Miriam (and Aharon?) criticize Moshe
God reminds them of Moshe’s uniqueness
Miriam is afflicted with tzara’as and needs to be quarantined outside the camp for seven days
Moshe successfully prays for his sister’s recovery
The people refuse to travel until Miriam returns
Telling It like It Is
“The Torah is at pains to present both sides of Biblical heroes, not concealing their but human faults. Even Moses is not described as the perfect man, but we see him in his moments of impatience and weakness.”
-- Nechama Leibowitz
Torah records for us the history of our people and our unique relationship with God. Through this we can study human behavior and psychology and recognize ways that our internal conflicts influence our behavior.
Perhaps it is for us to take a mirror to ourselves and, armed with understanding of (or at least recognition of) our emotions, confront and re-channel our energies towards living the Torah’s ethical and moral values.
The Parsha begins with the Priestly responsibility to light the Menorah. Rashi notes Aharon’s disappointment, dismay (jealousy?) that neither he nor the Kohanim would be part of the dedication of the Mishkan ceremony. God responds by promising him the more important (and permanent) job of attending to the Menorah.
In the view of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the firing up of the Menorah has a deeper meeting applicable to us all. Namely, each of us has within us the ability (and responsibility) to “light the fire” of the soul of our fellow Jews. It is only when all the individually lit lamps on the arms of the Menorah face center that we have achieved some level of national unity.
Kindling of the Menorah
Following are the opening verses of this week’s Parsha:
“God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to Aharon and say to him ‘When you fire up the lamps(of the Menorah, the wicks should be angled so that) the seven lamps cast their light towards the center (lamp) of the Menorah….This is the construction method of the Menorah.(It is ) a hammered work of gold (from a single piece of metal).It is a (single) hammered piece from its (large) base to its (delicate) flowers.”
The Menorah functions as a beacon, radiating the ethical and moral behavior it represents, throughout the world.
Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo quotes…
… the Italian scholar and physician, Rav Ovadia Seforno (1470-c1550) who sees an important national message in the words. Namely, extremists on both ends of society need to focus on the middle road (symbolized by the central light of the Menorah) for there to be a productive, healthy, enduring nation. The religious right wing must realize that without the affairs of the mundane world, Judaism will not succeed. And the left wingers need to understand that those who study and implement the Torah and its values are sanctifying their worldly business.
…Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), who believes that the message here is that the model nation must be one of diverse national characteristics. The sanctification of human life does not depend on only one particularly way of life. Rather the tribes of Israel together represent…
A warrior nation
An agricultural nation
A merchant nation
A nation of scholars
They are all turned inwardly, as represented by the Menorah lights turning to the central light.
…Rav Moshe Schreiber, the Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) who perceives in the Halachic requirement as to which directions the lights should face, a message for us not to deviate from the middle road when we travel on the life path of spiritual elevation. If the Jewish Law is fully observed, one should not be too much of a left winger or a right winger. Living by extremes is relatively easy because things are clearly identifiable as black or white. “Extremism reflects a simple diagnosis of the world’s problems and the conviction that everybody who disagrees is either an ignoramus or a dangerous villain.” Loving and living the middle road, though more challenging, leads us closer to the Truth.
Professor Sarah Rinder, posting in Mosaic (on-line magazine “advancing Jewish thought”), is struck by the Menorah’s…
…Physical integrity and wholeness. Rather than fashioning the branches separately and then attaching them to the base, Moshe is commanded to make the entire object from “a single hammered piece of pure gold,” beaten into the proper form. The Midrash states that, unlike all the Tabernacle’s other implements, the Menorah was so difficult to produce according to specification that it emerged wholly formed from a heavenly fire.
…Need for the people’s involvement in it and its timelessness. While the Tabernacle, and consequently the Temple, is the domain of the priestly caste, the responsibility for providing the oil rests on the people as a whole: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command the children of Israel to bring you clear oil of crushed olives for lighting, for kindling an eternal lamp” (Lev. 24:1-2). This, the next verse states, is “a law for all time throughout the ages.” The word tamid, meaning “eternal,” “constant,” or “regularly,” appears three times in this four-verse passage.
…Instructions being cited here, seemingly out of place, wedged between the twelve-day inauguration ceremony and God’s command to purify the Levites, disconnected from any discussion of the Tabernacle’s operation. This positioning seems to stress the Menorah’s importance, “making it the last step that must be taken before the Tabernacle—and the Jewish people—can leave the foot of Mount Sinai for their trek through the wilderness to the promised land. Perhaps the implication is that the menorah functions like a flashlight or beacon, lighting the way on the journey ahead until the Israelites arrive at the place where they will be charged with re-creating the sacred space of the Garden of Eden on a national level.”
The Menorah is…
A permanent and enduring symbol of a multitude of things relevant to the health and welfare of the Jewish people
A sign of the presence of light during their long years in the wilderness. It points to a better future in the promised land with the accompanying potential of a return to closeness with God
An element of the Tabernacle/Temple service in which not just the priests but the entire people have a role to play
A representation of the need for human participation with the divine in progress toward redemption
The “Waving” of the Levites During the Inauguration Ceremony
A moving of the hands horizontally and vertically
Leading the Levites forward to the altar and then moving them backward
Leading them around the Altar (Shadal)
Leading them toward or around the Holy of Holies (Rabbi Hertz)
Aharon symbolically “offers up” his sons in perpetuity to physically perform the service. He “elevates” them by moving them forward to take up their role in servicing God (Shmuel Gonzales, Hardcore Menorah)
Pointing to the Levites and then waving of hands mimicking the waving that was done when bringing an animal offering
“Vayehe B’nsoa Ha'aron”
“Whenever the Ark set out Moshe would say, ‘Arise O God, may your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You’. When it came to rest he would say ‘Return O God the myriads of thousands of Israel.’”
This special two-verse unit, which is enclosed by two inverted letter nuuns, is believed by some Sages to constitute a separate Book of the Torah (meaning that the Book of Bamidbar is really three books). The inverted nuuns suggest to others that the verses originally appeared elsewhere and were relocated here for a very specific reason. Perhaps this victory martial song was deemed appropriately placed here when the Israelites marching instructions are detailed.
The inverted nuuns resemble brackets:
• Abravanel speculates that the letter nuun was selected because it is the first letter in the Hebrew word for travel (nuun-samech-ayen).
• Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340) points out that the numerical value of the nuun is 50 and that this section really belonged some 50 verses earlier, where the Torah describes the desert travels.
• The MaHaRSHA (1555-1631) notes that the letter nuun is the only letter omitted in the alphabetic acrostic of the Psalm Ashrei because the nuun is the first letter of a Hebrew word meaning downfall or defeat (nuun-payy-lamed). The inversion here symbolizes the conversion from an act of failure to an act of triumph and travel.
• On the verse “…and they travelled from God’s mountain…” the Midrash comments that the nation was “Like a child leaving school-running away…” The people failed to internalize the spirit of the laws presented at Mt. Sinai. Lacking the proper attitude, they were bound to fail… Me’am Lo’ez (Ladino commentary by Rabbi Yaakov Culi of Constantinople; 1689-1732) focuses on the declaration of “na’aseh v’nishmah” (“we will do, and we will listen”) made by the Israelites a year earlier at Mt. Sinai. Their hasty departure now was a throwing off the entire responsibility of Torah and mitzvos. Na’aseh and Nishmah, which both start with the letter “nuun”, had effectively been flipped upside down.
• Some maintain that the meaning of the Hebrew letter nuun has to do with “continuation”, “offspring”, and “heir”. Perhaps the unspoken, succinct message of the inverted nuun is that failure to follow Torah and mitzvos will lead to a “topsy-turvy” kind of existence in which family growth will be stunted.
• The nation of Israel is compared to fish ("Let them multiply greatly like fish"), whose habitat is water, which is the Torah. The Kli Yakar views the letter nuun as a hint towards the nation’s sins. Nuun is a fish in Aramaic and that is how they sinned, both after: "When the Ark would journey.”, by saying: "We remembered the fish,"-- and beforehand by running away like a child runs from school. The inversion underscores how they tried to abandon the source of their life, Torah.
Nechama Leibowitz helps us understand the meaning of these words:
Here it appears that it was Moshe who determined the journeys and resting places of the nation when, in fact, as we are told elsewhere, it was God’s decision (“At the commandment of God they rested and at the commandment of God they travelled”). The Midrash resolves this seeming contradiction by characterizing the closeness between Moshe and God as being comparable to the friendship of a human King who decides that he will not do anything without the consent of his closest friend. Rav S.R. Hirsch notes that the immediacy of Moshe’s words to “rise up” after the act has been fulfilled accords with Rabban Gamliel’s dictum in Perkei Avos to “Make His will thy will”.
The enemies of God are defined by the Midrash as being synonymous with the enemies of Israel. The Torah’s call for holiness would arouse both hatred from, and aggression by, world tyrants who perceive this ethic as a threat to their own agendas (Rav Hirsch).
The Hebrew phrase ‘Return O God the myriads of thousands of Israel’ can mean…
“Return O God …to the myriads of thousands of Israel” or…
“Bring back… O God the myriads of thousands of Israel” or…
“Give rest to… O God the myriads of thousands of Israel” [Ibn Ezra] or…
“O God… Let Your Presence rest amid the myriads of thousands of Israel” [Seforno]
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag points out that the first ten chapters of the Book of Bamidbar deal with the Israelites’ preparation to enter the Land of Canaan, which should have taken less than two weeks. These two verses of chapter ten act as a divider between these chapters and the remaining sixteen chapters which detail the actual journey and the reasons the trek turned out to last some forty years.
Rabbi Leibtag thinks that these two verses are more than a buffer. Rather, they describe the ideal, what “could have been”; the way the Israelites should have journeyed to the Land of Canaan—in a peaceful partnership with God. To emphasize the contrast to what took place, “the Torah intentionally delimits these two psukim with upside down nuuns”.
It’s possible that the saying “Vayehe B’nsoa Ha'aron” when the congregation takes out the Torah from the Ark is a way of reminding us always of the reality and the ideal. The reality is that the original Ark had poles that remained attached because the Torah was portable and throughout history the Jewish people and our Torah often were forced to leave our homes and community at a moment’s notice. The ideal is something to be aware of and to strive for—a deep closeness to God Who scatters His (i.e., the Jewish people’s) enemies and returns to be among His people.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe adds that within every Jew there exists a spark of Moshe, a spirit of resilience and dedication, which enables him/her to “take out” the Torah values and apply them to one’s everyday life. Once awakened, the spark fosters growth of our observance and positive behavior (“Arise, O God”) and blunts our temptation to sin (“may your enemies be scattered”).
The Deeper Meaning of a Complaint
The Israelites arrive in the Paran desert from the Sinai desert on their way to the land of Canaan. Three unrelated incidents follow that raise seemingly legitimate complaints but, upon further analysis, turn out to have deeper psychological roots.
• “We Demand Meat” say the Israelites… reminiscing how in Egypt “…we ate fish chinam (for free)” and how tired they are of the same old Manna (food gift from God).
Ramban’s explanation is that the Jews were given small fish caught in the nets that had no value; a kind of “freebie” for the Pharaoh’s slaves.
Ibn Ezra says fish were plentiful and incredibly cheap.
Either way, the Israelites’ selective memory made them forget the price they paid for this “wonderful” fish and vegetable treat: slavery, suffering, persecution.
The Sages explained the word chinam not as “free of charge” but “free from God’s commandments”. The Hebrews longed to return to a Society (like Egypt) that allowed them to avoid the yoke of civilization and self-discipline demanded by the Torah. The food issue was but a pretext.
Rabbi David Fohrman sees a parallel to the Garden of Eden Saga. First Man and now the Israelites rebel against total dependence on God. In both there is the desire to assert control. Here the Israelites found the need to create dissatisfaction and reject God’s gift. They complained that they prefer the undersea/close-to-the-ground-growing foods that they ate in Egypt (i.e., fish, leeks, and onions) to God’s heavenly Manna. And when they received the Manna, which was prepared bread ready to be eaten, they still found it necessary to exert control by processing it (i.e., grind in a mill, crush in a mortar, cook in a pot or make into cakes). The keruvim, which blocked Man’s return to the Garden after sinning, reappear here on the Holy Ark and, but for the rebellion, should have served as a protective force for the nation. Both Man and the Israelite nation were in an embryonic state, and like the human fetus, were dependent on God for nurturing and development. In both instances, premature withdrawal of this divine care resulted in death.
• Yehoshua Ben Nun Exhorts Moshe to Stop Eldad and Medad from Continuing Their Prophetic Pronouncements. In response to his request for lightening his leadership burden, God instructs Moshe to assemble seventy of the Elders and grants them prophecy. Most of them stand together except for Eldad and Medad, who separate themselves and remain in the camp. Upon learning of their behavior Yehoshua urges Moshe to stop the two of them. He seems to be trying to protect Moshe, fearing that Moshe’s honor and authority would now be reduced. But Moshe’s noble response suggests that it was jealousy that drove Yehoshua, not altruism “…Are you jealous for my sake?” asks Moshe.
• Miriam (and Aharon?) speaks out against her (their) brother Moshe. Their complaint is that…
• Moshe engaged in inappropriate behavior by taking a Cushite woman for a wife (Zipporah) then…
• Withdrawing from intimacy with her once he was elevated to a high prophetic state (Rashi) and then…
• Divorcing her
Others maintain that the Cushite woman was not Zipporah but an Ethiopian woman he took for a second wife. Miriam seems to have been the instigator. On the surface, her goal seems to be defending the honor of her sister-in-law Zipporah. [Note: Unlike the earlier national complaints recorded in the Torah, this one was more devastating in that it was a personal attack on Moshe’s character.]
“Vayishma Hashem… Vayayred Hashem” i.e., God “heard” -- understood what was really going on -- and He “descended”. The term “Vayayred Hashem” is used to mean an investigation into, a delving into, the deeper underlying motives and their implications. Their words of complaint gave them away. Accusing Moshe of acting in a superior manner, presumably because of his special relationship with God, they add: “Has God only spoken through Moshe? Has He not spoken through us as well?” Miriam resented Moshe’s refusal to honor her or even his own children. This was about sibling rivalry and jealousy.
Rabbeinu Bachya insightfully explains that small-minded people who fail to achieve greatness resort to belittling others to bolster their own self-esteem. For “blackening” Moshe’s name, Miriam (presumably the main culprit) was afflicted with the whiteness of tzara'as.
Nechama Leibowitz notes that the Torah purposely does not explicitly state what it was that Miriam said, to make the point that any talk disparaging another person is prohibited. Words of gossip can be as dangerous as acts of murder in that they can destroy the reputation and /or fortunes of the object of the gossip. Once said aloud, they cannot be taken back.
The Man Moshe
The people rebel first with general disaffection then boredom with eating Manna day after day. When they demand to eat meat, Moshe despairs, crying out to God:
“I cannot carry all this people it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ interpretation of these events focuses on the difficulty faced by leaders who want to change the nation for the better. People don’t like change; they resist it. Moshe may have felt like a failure. He had been selected to take the Israelites out of Egypt but could not take the Egypt out of the Israelites!
As mentioned earlier, God’s solution was to provide Moshe with assistance in the form of seventy of the people’s Elders who would be given a measure of prophecy (without detracting from Moshe’s) and would be able to help manage. It took the presence of another (or in this case others) to intervene and lift him from his anxious/depressive state. Once this happens, notes Rabbi Sacks, Moshe seems to have become a changed man:
In the immediately following incident, his disciple Yehoshua urges him to restrain two men named Eldad and Medad who are were ecstatically prophesizing in the camp. Moshe rhetorically asks Yehoshua if his concern is based on jealousy on Moshe’s behalf and then soberly and calmly asserts “Would that all of God’s people were prophets, that God put His spirit upon them!”
In the closing story of Miriam’s gossip, Moshe responds to his maligners’ begging him to pray to God with these four stirring, poignant and poetic words: “Kayl R’fah Na LaH” (“I beg of you God to heal her now”).
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson offers some insights into the nature of prophecy:
In describing the Holy Spirit that is partly shifted from Moshe onto the seventy elders, the Torah employs the word “hisnabu”. Rav Hirsch interprets this form of the root-word to mean a lower degree prophetic state, one that emanated from the superior prophetic state of Moshe, rather than coming directly from God. This spiritual ecstasy was to admonish and to teach but did not include predicting the future.
Although the seventy Elders were instructed to go to the Tent, Eldad and Medad performed their prophetic activities in the camp, a point repeated three times in the text. This behavior prompted Yehoshua to ask Moshe to “shut them in” for their apparent offense. According to the Talmud, the two felt they were unworthy of being a part of the chosen seventy. Their humility prompted God to give them an even higher level of prophecy.
Ramban opines that the two committed an act of insubordination by not joining the other elders. Moshe’s response to Yehoshua’s request is “would that all God’s people were prophets, that God would put his Spirit upon them.” His wish is that all the people receive prophecy emanating directly from God (like Eldad and Medad) instead of receiving the one-step-removed variety emanating from Moshe.
Joseph Albo thinks that the prophecy that emanates from a prophet (and not directly from God) can be experienced by a person not worthy of it or by one not prepared for it. After Miriam makes her derogatory comments about Moshe, she and both her brothers are summoned to the Tent where God descends in a pillar of cloud. Though both Miriam and Aharon were worthy, they needed Moshe’s presence to be prepared for the meeting with God.
Except for Moshe (who experienced God “Pe El Pe”, face-to-face) prophets experience their prophecy in a dream state. Abravanel asks how one who is sleeping can distinguish between dreams that reflect his imagination, wishes and worries (often unconscious) and those that are prophetic in nature. His opinion is that the intensity of the sensation experienced in a prophetic dream is more distinct and clearer than the sensation of an ordinary dream. (Note: the painful sensation that Yaakov experienced after waking from a dream in which he wrestles with a “Man” suggests the prophetic nature of that dream.) “V’haish Moshe Anav M’od”
The Torah describes Moshe as “Anav M’od” (“very humble”) and uniquely granted the ability to interact with God “Pe El Pe” (“mouth to mouth”; i.e., “face to face”).
The idea that a leader is humble was a radical one. Heads of the ancient nations were egotistical and self-centered people who had temples built in their honor. They thought of themselves as majestic; demanded honor and humility from their subjects; and inscribed triumphant odes about themselves for posterity.
Not so Moshe who is “extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the Earth”. His humility derived from his unique relationship with God that enabled him to understand Who and What He is (as best can be understand by Man). This insight gave him the most meaningful perspective of his insignificant position vis-à-vis God and the universe(s) He created.
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin thinks that anav means one’s ability to understand the implication of behavior and developments in the Grand Scheme of things.
Rabbi Hertz adds that God’s statement that “he is trusted in My entire house” means that Moshe communicated statutes and laws meant for all time. This contrasts with other prophets who warned about their current generation and comforted them with blessings that were to occur sometime in the distant future.
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm rejects the idea that anav means “humble” or “self-deprecating”. Instead, he cites the definition of the Netziv who thought the word, in English, means something like “meekness”. It is not self-deprecation but self-restraint. It is the appreciation of one’s self and one’s attainment without arrogance and without insistence of being honored. It is the recognition of one’s talents as gifts from God. “Anivut means not to assume that because you have more competence or greater endowments than others that you thereby become more precious an individual and human being.” It is “silence in the face of abuse, graciousness when receiving honor, dignity in response to humiliation, restraint in the presence of provocation, forbearance and a quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism.”
“The People Did Not Travel Until Miriam was Brought Back.”
The nation, fully recognizing the importance of Miriam in their individual and communal lives, waited patiently and respectfully for Miriam to heal. Miriam was the one who gathered the women after the crossing of the Reed Sea and lead them in singing and dancing in praise of God. Tradition has it that when she was alive, the Israelites had a ready supply of fresh water available during their desert trek.
Writes the Lubavitcher Rebbe:
“Without Miriam, the nation was stalled. Our people cannot move forward… without active participation of our Jewish women in the work of spreading Torah and mitzvos in the daily life. In every branch of Jewish life, especially in the field of offering an uncompromising Jewish education, Jewish women and girls must fulfill the task which Divine Providence has bestowed upon them.”