Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Beha'alotecha

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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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