New Light on B’haalotcha

by Larry Kaufman

The story goes that, back in the day, the rabbi of a large Classical Reform congregation would call the professional staff together on the day after Rosh Hashanah, for a debriefing on the services. This was likely to include a scolding for the soloist for picking up his cue 23 seconds late. The service was expected to start on time, stay on time, and end on time; and 9:00 A.M. did not mean 9:02, since the last echoes of All the World Shall Come to Serve You had to dissipate by 10:45, not 10:47. After all, the second shift would be arriving, and their service had to start at 11:15, not 11:17.

Whether to accommodate the second shift, or to accommodate the congregation’s limited zitsfleish (attention span, to use a Gates of Prayer-type translation), Reform liturgy is still heavily tied to the clock, which is why most congregations read only an arbitrary selection of perhaps a dozen verses out of the weekly parasha.

My congregation is different. Our Minyan reads the entire sedrah each week, in English, and our Kahal reads all the verses called for in the triennial cycle, with two aliyot in Hebrew and a third in English. But the volunteers who present the Kahal’s divrei Torah and lead the discussion are not restricted to talking about what we actually read, and in fact are asked to provide an overview of the entire parasha. This dvar on B’haalotcha reviews the content of the whole sedrah, but chooses to focus on what was actually read.

The Women’s Torah Commentary helps by providing a handy breakdown of B’haalotcha into three parts. In Part One, we might almost be back in Leviticus. We learn about the lighting of the menorah in the Mishkan, we get a whole lot of new procedural detail applicable to the Levites, and we get more information about celebrating Passover, including permission for a second Passover for folks who were unable to observe the first.

Part Two deals extensively with travel arrangements. Moses’s father-in-law, Yitro, who told Moses how to run the business back in his namesake parasha, and then went home, has shown up again, having changed his name to Hobab. Moses asks him to continue with the Israelites on their journey, especially since he knows the territory, which Moses doesn’t, but Hobab says thanks but no thanks.

Midrash suggests that Moses is particularly deferential to his father-in-law as a way of saying, “I still respect you even though your daughter and I have split.” The Women’s Commentary calls attention to the ambiguity about Tzipporah’s status – which becomes important a few verses on, when Miriam and Aaron scold Moses for having married a Cushite woman. What we don’t know is whether they’re referring to Tzipi, or if the Cushite is a Wife #2.

In Part Three, the people who have been feeding on manna for a while have gotten fed up with it, and start demanding meat. After listening to their grousing for a while, God delivers a truckload of grouse. (Since I’m not an ornithologist, if I’ve mixed up quail with grouse, you can give me the bird.) To continue mixing the metaphor, or should we say the meat-aphor, the people pig out on the poultry, some to the point of dying. We know this today as too much of a good thing.

But Moses and God are both starting to realize that Moses has had too much of a good thing, and his leadership skills are slipping. It seems every time Good Old Dad shows up, we get an exercise in delegation. The organization of the Levites to handle religious affairs is already pretty clear, but Moses now develops a new corporate structure for civil affairs,

Then we arrive at the big outburst of sibling resentment, where Aaron and Miriam gang up on their little brother. God steps in and breaks up the fight, reminds Aaron and Miriam that the kid has His confidence, and punishes Miriam (but not Aaron) for her behavior. A discussion for another day can cover why the Torah and the rabbis go so easy on Aaron, here and elsewhere.

But for now, let’s look at the issues that struck me in this first segment of the parasha. We start with instructions about the placement of the menorah in the Mishkan, the sanctuary. Perhaps this was the precedent for the other pre-occupation at the Classical Reform temple I referenced earlier – not just timing, but also lighting. At critical moments in the service, like Behold me of little merit, the house lights were dimmed, and a spotlight would shine down on the rabbi, providing a spiritual “high” for the awed-ience.

Next, I call attention to verses 8:23 through 8:26, establishing a minimum age, 25, for assuming Levitical duties in the Tent of Meeting, along with a compulsory retirement age. Age guidelines for the work of the Levites have appeared before, as recently as the immediately previous parasha, but the midrashic principle that there is no chronology in the Torah lets us focus specifically on the current rendition. Although the tradition makes 13-year olds responsible for adhering to the mitzvoth, here they have to be almost double that age to take responsibility for the work of the temple, an early example of child labor laws, and an early suggestion that parents support their children through college and graduate school before they send them out to work in the real world..

As someone (and a Levi at that) who is still happily working, at an age far beyond the stipulated fifty, I’m uncomfortable with this compulsory retirement clause. I found no responsa on the CCAR web site dealing with compulsory retirement; nor resolutions from the Commission on Social Action. A cursory Google search of Jewish positions on compulsory retirement brought up only a Chabad piece saying the Rebbe was against it. Most members of our Kahal seemed to agree retirement age should be determined on an individual basis, although one of my contemporaries thought that we seniors should get out of the way of the upcoming generation, and another opined that fifty was probably beyond the actuarial life expectancy of the time..

As moderns, as Reform Jews, and as descendants of the Rabbis, we know not to take every pronouncement of the Torah as applicable today, but that does not exonerate us from grappling with the text. We try to understand it in its own context, but also to extract what relevance we can for our own day, whether to heed, adapt, or ignore. What were the authors and redactors of BaMidbar trying to say in articulating this rule, and how do we want to relate to it in 5769? Although no direct connection is made, is this the harbinger that it’s time for Moses to start thinking about stepping aside? Without regard to any specific age for starting and stopping work, be they the numbers suggested in B’haalotcha or a more elastic set, I ask my readers to chime in on what, if anything, you think should be the Reform Jewish response to matters of age-ism.

My next “hot button” is pushed by Chapter 9, verses 8 to 14, when those who were ritually unclean, and thus disenfranchised from making the Passover sacrifice, petition for the right to make it later. Moses consults with the Boss, who not only grants permission, but also extends it to those who missed Pesach because they were “on a long journey.” This reminds me of the little girl in Boston who ended her bedtime prayers, “Goodbye, God. We’re moving to Cleveland.”

So if you have the right excuse, either being impure or being in Cleveland, you can observe this Second Passover, a month later. But those are the only excuses that count, and you’re in big trouble if you miss the Seder for any other reason.
Now at one level, this is very liberal legislation. It’s not all that frequent in the Chumash for anyone to be given a second chance at anything. Moses strikes the rock once, and is barred from crossing the border. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu bring one unauthorized sacrifice and they get zapped. Adam and Eve eat one lousy apple, and get expelled from the garden. So why should anybody get a second chance at Pesach? When is it appropriate to extend a second chance?

One member of the Kahal suggests that the desire to draw near to the holy is in and of itself meritorious We note that this is not t’shuvah, repentance – the gates of Heaven are always open – but a response to special circumstances. In the case of one who is impure because of contact with a corpse, we can see reason for God’s leniency. But God takes an extra step by volunteering the late privilege to travelers. Should my congregation then schedule a make-up Yom Kippur for me, and ask God to hold the Book of Life open into October, because I decided to spend September in Samarkand? Perhaps Torah is reminding us that it’s okay to do more than is asked of us, as God did, but that even benevolence needs to limited before it becomes carte blanche.

The rabbi with the stopwatch expected compliance to-the second with the schedule of musical cues, while the God he served in reverence was willing to wait a month for a Passover sacrifice. He was an inheritor of the idea that the rituals of the temple were to be performed precisely and punctiliously, per the rulebook as it had been transmuted for its times, by a cadre that had been specifically trained for their tasks Moses is challenged in B’haalotcha, by the disenfranchised, by his siblings, by the community, necessitating a change in leadership style as they move into new territory. But the rulebook that he eventually passed on to Joshua, and which over the centuries came into the hands of our Classical forebears, is still the rulebook, even though we read it by the light of a very different menorah.. And this generation, like the Israelites in the wilderness, is still demanding meat – but foraging for it ourselves, in the pages of the Torah.

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, z"l, was a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coached b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and was a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Even while semi-retired, he consulted with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

4 Responses to “New Light on B’haalotcha

  1. avatar

    Which triennial cycle?

  2. avatar

    I so enjoy your commentary, which in and of itself is an argument that comes down on the side of age as a value!

  3. avatar

    As to which triennial cycle, all I can tell you is that it’s not the same one as used by Rodfei Tzedek, and therefore presumably not that of the Conservative movement. Someone in our Kahal who worships from time to time at Rodfei asked how come we’re not on the same cycle they are. Her question sent me googling, and of course the most erudite t’shuvah I found was on Mah Rabu.
    I am persuaded that reading a third of the sedrah each Shabbat as part of an effort to have read the entire Chumash over the span of three years is a better practice than picking verses at random, which seems to be the prevalent custom across the Reform movement.
    But for all the reasons you outline in your own blog post, Ben, any triennial cycle gives rise to a whole panoply of inconsistencies and illogical practices, like celebrating Simchat Torah in the years when we haven’t finished reading.
    If I were on the Vaad (leadership committee) of our Kahal — which I am not and do not plan to be — I’d be pushing for reading the whole parasha, and not requiring that all the Hebrew be read from the scroll. But the commitment I made to myself when I changed congregations was that I would daven, study, and perhaps teach, but would not “govern.” So we read what we read, and I go with the flow.

  4. avatar

    A couple of thoughts on the compulory retirement:
    1) The actual retirement (according to Talmudic sources) was from the heavy lifting – they still served in other capacities until age 60.
    2) Given our age of retirement of 65 today (many large organizations have compulsory retirement for the higher ups at age 65), isn’t retirement at 50 from heavy physical labor fairly progressive for 3600 years ago?

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