Lively Parsha Be'halot'cha
The party was elegant. The food, the best money could buy. The hall was the most expensive in town. The cutlery, 14-karat gold. It was David Cohn's Bar Mitzvah day!
Suddenly the rabbi from Jerusalem stood up to speak. He came to America, was a guest in the Cohn's home, and had taught David his Bar Mitzvah lessons. The rabbi had taught David how to wear Tefillin and wanted to insure that he continued to do so. "This spoon will magically testify whether David dons his Tefillin every day!" - and with that he placed an expensive golden serving spoon into his jacket pocket.
Two days later a delegation from the synagogue knocked on the rabbi's door. "That spoon was very valuable and we need it back." To their dismay the rabbi replied, "The magic spoon says that David hasn't put on his Tefillin!" After a few repetitions of this scenario, the rabbi conceded. "Let David come to shul tomorrow morning and don his tefillin - and the spoon will magically appear from heaven!"
When word got out that the Jerusalem rabbi was about to perform a miracle in their little suburban synagogue, the place was packed to the gills. It looked and felt like Yom Kippur. When the star of the show, David Cohn, made his entrance, all eyes were upon him. He commenced to open his Tefillin pouch. At that precise moment, a hush went over the crowd, as the spoon flew out of the Tefillin.
Weeks earlier, the rabbi had planted the spoon in the tefillin to demonstrate that the boy had not used it since his Bar Mitzvah!
The Jews in the desert had a comparable experience with the manna. The righteous people would find their manna right outside the openings of their tents. The less righteous had to search for it in the desert. The righteous could eat it "right out of the box" with no preparation necessary. The less righteous had to grind and bake it.
What would happen if a righteous person would sin today? The next morning the whole town knew about it! "Where's your manna, Mendel? Why are you looking for it halfway to Saudi Arabia instead of right outside your tent?" When he finally found it and attempted to consume it, he almost broke a tooth! "Ouch! I'd better grind and bake it first!"
In addition, the place that each portion of manna fell helped to decide many issues such as questionable marriages, divorces, children, etc. Whoever received the extra portion of manna proved that he was supposed to be there. Now we can understand why the Jews complained about the manna so much! (Heard from Rabbi Shabsi Yudelevitch)
Parshat Be'halot'cha continues the theme of the Book of Numbers: the special Divine providence accorded the Jewish people.
The golden Menorah in the Tabernacle symbolized spiritual and intellectual growth (see Parshat Trumah). The Midrash explains the connection here: After seeing all the offerings brought by the princes (in Parshat Naso), Aaron felt bad that he had contributed nothing at all. God comforted him by pointing out that his descendents would light the Menorah forever. (Midrash)
Question: Why only the Menorah? What about all the other activities that the Kohanim performed, such as offerings and incense?
Second Question: How was this "forever"? Didn't lighting the Menorah cease with the destruction of the Holy Temple?
Answer: Nachmanides explains that the Midrash is referring to the miracle of Chanukah. The victory was won by the Maccabees - descendents of Aaron. As a result, Jews everywhere light candles for all generations!
INAUGURATION OF THE LEVITES
The Levites had to shave off all their hair to symbolize that they are one with the people, removing all separations. This is similar to the leper (see Parshat Tazria-Metzora) and the Nazirite (see Parshat Naso), who symbolized separation from the people by not cutting their hair, and then got a haircut upon their return to the fold.
At the inauguration ceremony, the people leaned their hands on the Levites, as is done with certain animal offerings, and the Kohanim waved the Levites in the air (later ridiculed by the wife of Korach). This ceremony was intended to impress upon the Levites that they only have the right to approach the Sanctuary as representatives of the people, and not on their own merits. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch)
THE PASSOVER OFFERING
This was the first and last time the Passover lamb was offered in the desert. Only when the Jews entered Israel with Joshua 40 years later was it brought again. This is based on the rule that if any male in the household is not circumcised, the entire family cannot eat the Passover offering.
During the 40 years, the Jews were constantly moving and never knew how long they would remain in any one place; thus they feared for the health of the newborn babies and would not circumcise them (except for the devoted tribe of Levi). When the Jews entered Israel, Joshua circumcised all the males, and the people brought the Passover offering again.
When God taught Moses the Torah, certain details were left out so that individuals, through their merits, could teach the people a "new law." Here is one example:
On that first Passover in the desert, some of the people had spiritual impurity from contact with dead bodies, and thus would miss the opportunity of bringing the Passover offering. (Some say they carried the bones of Joseph, and some say they were Levites who removed the bodies of Aaron's two sons.) They did not want to miss out on such an important Mitzvah, and asked Moses what to do.
God gave them another chance 30 days later. This is called the "Second Pesach," and applied to anyone who was impure - or was unintentionally away from the Temple - on the day of Passover. Today, with no Temple standing, we commemorate this day by eating a piece of Matzah.
Question: Why is (intentionally) not circumcising and not bringing the Passover offering the only positive commandments which carry the severe punishment of "Karet" (spiritual excisement)?
Answer: Because these two Mitzvot are the source of the most fundamental Jewish ideas: the covenant with Abraham, and the Exodus from Egypt.
CLOUDS OF GLORY
The special Clouds of Glory surrounded the Israelite camp on all sides, protecting the people from rain, wind, sun and snow. It also flattened out the terrain to make travel easier, while also killing harmful snakes and scorpions.
When the Clouds ascended, the people traveled; and when the Clouds rested, they stopped. The people never complained about the Clouds as they did with the water and manna. The water and food were necessities of life, without which they couldn't survive; yet the Clouds were purely for comfort. A little wind, rain, or sun would not have killed them. Thus the Clouds demonstrated God's love for His people. (Eliyahu Kitov)
Today, we sit in protective booths on the holiday of Sukkot to commemorate these special Clouds.
The people complained about the lack of "pickles, watermelons, free fish, garlic, leeks, and onions!" (Numbers 11:5)
Question: Does this sound like a nation of spiritual giants?!
Answer: The generation of the desert is referred to as the "Generation of Knowledge," who transmitted their experiences to all later generations. Thus they were held to a much higher standard than all other generations. Their "terrible sin" of complaining, "What will we eat?" was punished by a fire from heaven and other assorted consequences.
Obviously their sin was more intellectual than just physical desire. They intellectually understood that the spiritual manna could not be less tasty then their slave fare in Egypt!
However, the Sages inform us why the manna had certain limitations. The manna tasted like anything you wanted - except onions and garlic, which are not good for a pregnant or nursing woman (who would not be able to resist the urge and think of them). This is the source of the custom to eat eggs or liver with onions on Shabbat, in order to taste all foods besides the manna (represented by the two Challahs). The people's mistake was in not judging God favorably - He surely knew what He was doing! (Rabbi Avigdor Miller)
Another example of the high standard they were held to: The Sages accuse the Israelites of leaving the great "Yeshiva" of Mount Sinai, "as a child running away from school." (Let's get out of here fast before He gives us some more Mitzvot!) We understand this to be only on a subconscious level - and consciously they loved every minute at Sinai.
The people speak of "the fish we received in Egypt for free" (Numbers 11:5). The Sages ask, The Egyptian taskmasters didn't even provide straw for free, certainly not fish! (Although, according to the Midrash, when the women drew water from the river, they found little fish in it.) The Sages answer that the subconscious intention was to be "free from Mitzvot" - i.e. without the obligations of keeping kosher, reciting blessings, etc.
Similarly the Sages say that the Holy Temple was destroyed as a result of "free hatred" - i.e. for no reason. When you hate someone, you feel "free from Mitzvot" as far as he is concerned - i.e. you rationalize that "it's a Mitzvah" to talk about him! (Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe)
The people complained about the manna. "We don't want barbecue flavored potato chips, we want barbecue! Enough cheetos that taste like cheddar cheese, we want real cheese! Why does eating have to be such an intellectual experience?" The manna also revealed their spiritual level and decided Halachic questions.
At this point, Moses complained to God: "Where will I get meat for this entire nation in a wilderness?" (Numbers 11:13) Of course, it is understood that God would not make a miracle just because the people are in the mood for a steak dinner! Yet Moses feels he needs assistance: "Did I give birth to this nation that I must carry them like a mother her baby?" (Numbers 11:12)
The implied answer is that "Yes, Moses! That is the mission of a Jewish leader - to carry the nation with the loving care of a mother!"
THE FIRST SANHEDRIN AND THE QUAILS
The Parsha now presents two stories intertwined. God tells Moses to pick 70 elders who will receive prophecy (some say only on a one-time basis) and will assist him in administrating the people. At the same time God informs Moses that a swarm of quail birds will fly around the camp at shoulder height - and the people will be able to pick "all they can eat!"
Question: What's the connection between these two juxtaposed stories?
Answer: Since this will be the first Sanhedrin, all other generations could ask, "We don't have the benefit of Moses' miracles, how can we lead the people?" The quails were not an open miracle, but rather in the realm of nature. God just brought the swarm to this particular place. So too, throughout the generations, God will help us survive above nature - within nature. (Rabbi Hirsch)
ELDAD AND MEDAD
Seventy elders for 12 tribes is an uneven number. Ten tribes will get six representatives and two tribes will only get five each. To resolve the problem of who "loses," they resorted to a lottery. Every tribe provided six eligible men, and they drew 70 lots plus two blanks.
Eldad and Medad were candidates who, in their humility, decided not to pick and voluntarily remained behind. As a reward for this, when the 70 elders prophesied, so did they, in the camp.
The 70 men of the first Sanhedrin were included in the holiness of Moses without diminishing his holiness at all (compared to a candle lighting others without losing its own flame one iota).
Eldad and Medad proclaimed that "Moses will die in the wilderness, and Joshua will bring the people into the land!" Moses' son Gershon ran to inform him how these two were uttering negative prophecies in the camp. Joshua immediately asked Moses to quiet Eldad and Medad - after all, they did not receive their spirit from Moses and were false prophets! To which Moses replied, "Are you jealous for me? I'd be happy if all the people were prophets with direct contact with God!" (Numbers 11:29)
THE SIN OF MIRIAM
After Sinai, Moses abstained from marital relations in order to constantly be in a state of purity, to be able to receive prophecy. Although it was Moses' idea, God agreed, as implied by the words, "The people shall return to their tents, however you remain with me" (Deut. 5:27; Talmud Shabbat). This arrangement was unknown to anyone except Moses' wife Tzipporah, who was under the impression that all great prophets acted likewise.
When Eldad and Medad prophesied, Tzipporah remarked to her sister-in-law Miriam: "I feel bad for their wives, who will be alone as I am." Miriam was shocked at what seemed to be Moses' unfair treatment of his spouse, and Miriam said to her brother Aaron: "Who does Moses think he is? After all, we are also prophets and don't abstain from our spouses! Even the patriarchs and matriarchs who were certainly prophets did not abstain!"
Just at that moment, God appeared to all three siblings, instructing them to appear before Him to receive prophecy. Since Aaron and Miriam had been intimate with their spouses, they now had to run quickly to the Mikveh (ritual bath). This was to impress upon them the validity of Moses' decision, based on his speaking to the Almighty on a daily basis.
When Miriam and Aaron were alone, God let them have it: "How dare you compare your level of prophecy to that of Moses! Since he brought down the Torah, he is the greatest prophet that will ever live, and therefore must be always prepared to receive prophecy."
When God's presence left, Miriam was leprous as snow and had to spend a week alone outside of the camp. The people waited for her patiently, as she once waited for her baby brother Moses at the banks of the Nile River.
Moses says a short prayer for Miriam and she gets well. There is a special Mitzvah to remember the sin and punishment of Miriam (see Deut. 24:9).
The Midrash comments that Miriam (1) had good intentions, (2) only told her very humble brother, and (3) the victim didn't mind. Yet she still received a severe punishment. Then certainly we, who speak gossip without good intentions, "Oy, are we in trouble!"