Parshat Behaalotcha 2017
It took until the third parshah in the book of Bamidbar to comprehend why so much ink is devoted to counting and organizing earlier in this book. This insight came indirectly from Rabbi David Stav who asked a simple question: What is the purpose of the two silver trumpets that are mentioned in this week’s parsha? They are to call the people together, they are to signal when to begin to move and who moves, they are a signal of war and they are blown on the festivals.
And suddenly everything makes sense. After the flurry of laws in Vayikra, the sleeping elephant that is the Children of Israel is beginning to shake off its lethargy and move toward Canaan land.
But before you start moving, you have to make sure everyone knows where to go. Remember, no cellphones, no wifi, no computers, no electronic sound system with amplification – something had to be used to give the signal. That’s the trumpets. OK.
But if the people don’t know where they belong, they will end up going around in circles or even worse, getting in each other’s way and the result will be chaos. Therefore, we had a census, we had a division into camps, we had a counting of the members of the tribes and now – they have the semaphore system to know when to pull out.
But as soon as this insight is internalized another one becomes evident. This is a pivotal parsha. It is a watershed. It is a turning point. And it has two interwoven yet separate aspects.
The big event that occurs here is that Moshe has a breakdown. He is human, after all, and he sees the writing on the wall in large letters that he can ignore no longer. What does he see? That HE is going around in circles and getting nowhere. Ten plagues, crossing the Red Sea, water in the desert, God speaking from Mt. Sinai, manna for food – and these ingrates still pine for the easy life of Egypt. Fish. Watermelons. Onions. Garlic. And all for free (and only 150 hours of work a week).
He blows his top. He starts with the whining of the hungry. How am I supposed to deal with this? And then he shoots all of his complaints at God. Why did you give me this thankless job, God? Did I give birth to this nation? Is it mine? If this is the way things are going to be just get it over with and kill me. I cannot bear this – alone.
Alone. Now he is homing in on the problem. Moshe feels he’s all by himself in this fight. And it is a fight, not a mission. God, the ultimate psychologist, catches his drift and starts to solve the problems from the end. You’re alone? No more. Choose 70 elders, he tells Moshe, and I will imbue them with my spirit and they will bear it with you. And when this has sunk in he adds, and by the way, I’ll give those complainers so much meat it’ll come out of their ears.
And like that, Moshe’s mid-service crisis is over. He’s back and he’s back for the long haul. How do we know? Because two of the people who were infected with the spirit of the lord were prophesying in the camp. Joshua, ever the goody-goody helper, says, My lord Moshe, shouldn’t we lock them up? And Moshe says, Are you jealous? If only all of Israel could prophesy with the spirit of God. (Which only proves that you should be careful what you wish for. Today, EVERYONE in this country is sure he is mouthing God’s words and look where it gets us!)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin takes a slightly different view of what happened here. Although it’s only two years since the exodus from Egypt, a younger generation has come of age and while they knew Egypt, they are teenagers, who always seek something different. Moshe is the old generation. A new approach is needed. Riskin likens it to the difference between a Rav and a Rebbe. The Rav is official and impersonal. The rebbe is more personal. Perhaps the 70 elders won’t do anything in the rest of the Torah, but they represent a more personal approach. You don’t have to go to the top of the pyramid any more.
This connects to the second half of the second insight. Look at the parsha and we see a message that is repeated in different forms. Second chances.
It starts earlier in the parsha, where we read about Pesach Sheni. People who were impure or on the road or unable to celebrate Pesach on time, have an opportunity to celebrate it one month later with the sacrifice and the matza and the maror. Second chance.
We read that Yitro (Reuel) is leaving the camp. But didn’t he leave back in Parshat Yitro? Maybe he had a change of heart then and is only leaving now. Perhaps he took his second chance, and still decided to leave.
Moshe was ready to throw away his position and the people and his future – but God gave him a second chance, which he took.
And finally, Miriam and Aharon speak out against Moshe. Gossip. Jealousy. Badmouthing. Miriam is struck with leprosy. Aharon begs Moshe to save her – and he does. A second chance.
The only ones who don’t get a second chance are the ones who complained about the food. Then again, perhaps this was their third chance – they had complained illogically before and had gotten away with it. Or perhaps it seemed like a waste of good chances to let them make trouble again.
So the parsha teaches us two important lessons. One is organization – you gotta be organized to get things done. And the other is second chances. Even the best of us may stumble but a helping hand gives us another start which we should make every effort to utilize for the good.