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The Spiritual Journey
By Michael Chessen
The book of Numbers in general, and this week's portion of
Beha'alotecha in particular, seem to closely resemble modern-day life. Our
current reading begins a string of incidents in which short-sighted
considerations manage to sway public opinion and lead the people to act
contrary to their own long-term interests. In addition, life's events seem to
unfold in a somewhat random and disjointed fashion.
It is said that art reflects life, and this past century has produced the
genre of painting known as "cubism": distortion of physical perception which
mirrors our increasingly fragmented sense of day to day existence. Art, or
aesthetic beauty, also played a very central role in our ancestors' sojourn
through the Sinai desert. However, rather than merely reflecting life, art
illuminated it, in the case of the menorah quite literally so.
The menorah was constructed from a single solid mass of gold,
symbolizing God's oneness. The branches could be compared to the Jewish
people, who through their differences ideally centrally unite to form a
single powerful light.
Rabbi Shalom Gold speaks of the Jewish people having been united
throughout the Torah's narrative in the purpose of a grand historical march
which comes to an abrupt halt, or a somewhat extreme rerouting, in this week's
reading of Beha'alotecha. Following our physical salvation, redemption, and the
revelation at Mt. Sinai, we should have been entering the land of our ancestors
in a journey of just three days. However, as the commentator Rashi points out,
the Jewish people "fled" from Mt. Sinai in a manner befitting children fleeing
from school (lest they receive any additional obligations), and we this week
read of the people complaining, apparently without having invested any prior
thought whatsoever as to just what they had to complain about.
Although the people are only formally condemned to having to endure
another forty years in the desert after next week's incident of the spies, in
this week's reading Rabbi Joseph Solevetchic discerns Moses realizing that his
role as God's chosen leader necessarily needs to change. Whereas Moses might
have only previously seen himself as a yeshiva "rebbe" or teacher, he will now
have to fully "parent" the transformation of the mixed multitude of former
slaves and Egyptian converts into a mature nation fully prepared to enter the
Land of Israel.
This realization by Moses would have arisen as a result of the
questions which he poses to God following the people's uncalled for
agitation, ostensibly for want of meat. This incident is preceded by the
two best known verses of Beha'alotecha, namely, the verses pertaining to
the holy Ark which today mark our removing and returning Torah scrolls to
and from a synagogue's ark as part of our ritual prayer services. May these
words serve us as a constant reminder to internalize the teachings of the Torah
and ensure that our journey in life be more genuinely spiritual.
The Seeing Heart
by Michael Chessen
It is perhaps most appropriate that Israel's Ministry of Tourism has
taken its icon, the image of two men bearing a "larger than life" cluster of
grapes on a pole, from the Torah portion of Shelach. This is because this
week's Torah reading is perhaps one of the most illustrative readings in the
five books of Moses. Not only does the portion contain some very vivid
descriptions of the Land of Israel (both objective and later tragically
exaggerated), but we also witness the manifestation of previously warned
against spiritual degeneration liable to befall us, and view just how one might
come to stray from following the Torah's commandments.
The Rashi commentary points out that the incident of the spies, or
simply "scouts", follows the incident of Miriam speaking ill of Moses in
order to demonstrate the consequences of failing to internalize the moral
lessons of Miriam's behavior and subsequent process of atonement. This
omission on the part of the spies fulfills an earlier prophesy in Leviticus
which states that the failure to diligently learn and study God's Torah
ultimately leads to a denial of God's supreme holiness. After initially
praising the Land of Israel the spies begin to slander it by the statement
which is taken simply as saying that the inhabitants of Kena'an are "stronger
than us" (Numbers 13:3). The Hebrew pronoun in this verse, however, is
ambiguous, and could also be translated as "him". Indeed, the spies' subsequent
"evil report" demonstrates that they appear to suggest that even God Himself
would be of no match for their future enemies.
The term "spies" is not explicitly mentioned in our reading, but we
elicit it from the Torah's usage of the Hebrew "latoor", "to seek" in
describing the mission of the twelve chosen scouts. The Torah subsequently uses
this same verb at the end of our reading in prescribing the commandment to
attach tassels, or "tzitzith" to the corners of one's garments. These are to
serve us as a visual reminder of our obligation to serve God in holiness.
However, in continuing that these reminders will help prevent our being led
astray, or perhaps more precisely "mis-seek", the Torah warns us first against
our hearts and then against our eyes. It would seem that in striving to follow
the path of holiness, what we happen to see counts less than what our hearts
are actually seeking.
Rabbi Yissocher Frand links the concept of the "seeing heart" back to the
sin of the spies by referring to the blessing that one should "see the goodness
of Jerusalem"(Psalms 128). On the surface, this appears to be a blessing that
one should merit seeing Jerusalem enshrined in messianic splendor. However,
Rabbi Frand points out that "seeing" the goodness of Jerusalem could also refer
to the ability to discern the goodness of the "not yet perfect" Jerusalem of
the present, and by extension, the modern State of Israel. The proper sense of
perspective will hopefully help us all to hasten the coming of the more perfect
era by enabling us to serve God and keep His Torah more genuinely in happiness.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!
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