Rabbi Lisa Edwards’ Weekly 10 Minutes of Torah (Week 3)
Our own Rabbi Lisa Edwards was chosen to give “10 Minutes of Torah” for nine weeks at the Reform Judaism’s website. Subscribe to “10 Minutes of Torah”
Oy! There’s a lot of whining in this week’s Torah portion, B’haalot’cha. It has such a promising beginning-the training and blessing of the Levites for their special role among the people Israel, including the lighting of the golden seven-branched menorah; the poetic and comforting description of the cloud by day and fire by night that will signal when to make camp, and when to break camp and journey on; and the silver trumpets sounding to gather the people and God together in bad times and in good-“an institution for all time throughout the ages” (Numbers 10:8).
What happened? Why all the complaining? (Not that complaining is new to the Israelites.)
Some of the complaining proves legitimate. God appreciates it when some of the men, unable to celebrate the Passover sacrifice at its proper time, ask for another opportunity to do so. If the reason for delay is legitimate, says God, then offer it a month later on the same day of the month (9:6-13)-and the idea of Pesach Sheini is born, a second Pesach, this one, importantly, not imposed by God, but desired and requested by the people.
In this parashah the Israelites, at God’s instruction, take their leave of Mount Sinai: “They marched from the mountain of God a distance of three days” (10:33). The commentator Rashbam (twelfth century, the grandson of the more-famous commentator Rashi) theorizes that the cause of the Israelites’ complaining was the unexpected difficulty of the three-day journey.1 Given all the organizing beforehand, and the presence of the cloud and Moses to guide them, they were expecting an easier time of it.
It’s such a wary time for God, for Moses, and for the Israelites. They want their bonds to deepen; they want all that comes next to go well. Yet they barely seem to understand one another. Some commentators suggest the Israelites ran from the mountain, eager to get away lest God give them still more laws to follow, “like a child running from school,” says Ramban (Nachmanides, thirteenth century) leading him to wonder if the words, “they marched from the mountain of God,” suggest a spiritual distancing in addition to a physical one (10:33).
It’s one thing to remain close to people when you sit around a campfire together, but quite another when you are all spread out, following the same pillar of cloud perhaps, but traveling at your own pace, no human leader in sight, never knowing how long you’ll be walking, how soon you might rest, or where you are going.