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06/19/2019 01:25:15 PM


This week's portion is Beha'alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16). It is full of many ideas and topics for meditation, which seem almost disconnected in their multifaceted variety: a description of the lighting of the menorah and the eternal light; a ceremony that launches the levites onto their careers as spiritual teachers; an account of how outcasts were given a second opportunity to join the community in the observance of passover; an account of the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud and the orchestration of moving a camp of over a million persons with a system of bugle calls and beacons; and the order of the movement of the people by tribe, each tribe with its flag and its general.

At the heart of the parsha is a section that is only 85 letters long, and it includes some of the most well known verses, that still form the center of Jewish prayer services before the reading of the Torah:

וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֗ה וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Arise, O LORD! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You!

וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

And when it halted, he would say: Return, O LORD, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!

These verses are blocked off in the scroll with reverse letters nun, which appear like brackets. According to the Talmud (Sabbath 116a) in the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, this teaches us that this section is "a book unto itself." 

What is meant by calling this a book unto itself? The verses contain Moses' chant to the ark, which held the ten commandments, and was the link between the people and the Divine. The verses contain a mysterious blessing, an invocation. Each time the people were prepared to travel forth into the desert, Moses called forth this prayer, so the ark would lead their way before them. 

These verses are a "book unto themselves" because they contain within them a wisdom that is complete within itself. As People of Israel, we are led by the Torah. The Torah is our guide, and the source of our inspiration. The wisdom of this 85-letter book is that the People of Israel's strength is that the ark, and the words of the Torah go forward before them to blaze their path. When the People of Israel are in tune with the Divine will, nothing can stop them.

But the verses are immediately preceded by another section which describes the relationship between the People of Israel and Hovav son of Reuel the Midianite, a non-Jewish person who is enamored of the Jewish people, and who gave his daughter to Moses as a wife. Moses invites Hovav to join with them, and go with them on their travels, "Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the LORD has promised to be generous to Israel.”

Hovav is described in the Midrash as referring to Yitro, an expert in all philosophies and languages of the time, a great mind and an intellectual force. Moses says to him, Come with us, for you are wise to all the ways of the desert, and you can be our guide (literally, "you can be our eyes," or you will see for us.)

There are thus two guides: in one section - the Torah(and the ark of the covenant) is our guide; in another - the non-Jew, who comes with all the wisdom and knowledge of the world - is our guide. 

Perhaps it is the wisdom of Hovav that allows the people to be led by the Torah. The People of Israel have been given an inherited wisdom; but they can only fully fathom its depths by calling upon all the knowledge of the great minds of the people around them.

As modern persons struggling with spirituality and the link to find a relevant Judaism in our lives, it is often true that we can only fully understand the Torah by drawing upon some other body of wisdom or learning that we have trained in, or understood in our lives. A psychologist may find deep ideas of psychology in the Torah; an actor, insight into the creativity of the performing arts; a physicist - a sense of wonder at natural mysteries; an accountant - a pleasure in precision. 

"You shall be our eyes" - Moses says to Hovav, because your knowledge allows us to see; but our role is to follow the ark. As the People of Israel we continue to seek that inspiration in our lives that makes each journey sacred, so that we may say, Arise o Lord! with a voice full of song, and stride forward without limits.  

Fri, July 30 2021 21 Av 5781