05 June 2015

Parshat Beha’alot’cha 5775

18 Sivan 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh

Parashat Beha’alot’cha: From Sinai to Paran to Israel to Babylon to Germany

by Daniel Pinner
Parashat Beha’alot’cha takes us from the final few mitzvot that God gave us at Mount Sinai, to the Children of Israel’s first journey after receiving the Torah to the Paran Desert.

Parashat Beha’alot’cha opens with God’s charge to Aaron and his descendants the Kohanim (Priests) concerning the Menorah (the Candelabrum), and continues with the purification of the Levites in preparation for their Service. Then comes the Pesach sacrifice in the desert (which had happened a month earlier) and the Pesach Sheni, the second opportunity to offer the Pesach sacrifice a month late for those who were unable to offer it in its proper time.

Then comes the mitzvah to blow the trumpets in the Holy Temple when offering the Festival and Rosh Chodesh sacrifices (Numbers 10:10) – and with this, we conclude the final mitzvah that God would ever give us at Mount Sinai.

There were still another 229 mitzvot to come – but we had concluded the era of Mount Sinai.

The Torah records their first journey from Mount Sinai with the words, “They travelled from the Mountain of Hashem a three-day journey...” (Numbers 10:33), which Rabbi Chama bar Rabbi Chanina (Shabbat 116a, Ta’anit 29a) interpreted to mean that “they turned away from behind Hashem”.

On the face of it, Rabbi Chama bar Rabbi Chanina’s interpretation that “they travelled from the Mountain of Hashem a three-day journey” means that “they turned away from behind Hashem” seems puzzling. After all, it was God Himself Who told them to leave!

But the purpose of leaving Mount Sinai was to come to Israel. As Moshe told his father-in-law, “We are travelling to the place of which Hashem said, I shall give it to you” (Numbers 10:29).

“They travelled from the Mountain of Hashem a three-day journey, with the Ark of Hashem’s Covenant travelling a three-day journey ahead of them to reconnoitre for them a resting-place” (verse 33), and “a resting-place can only refer to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, as it says ‘This is My resting-place forever, here I will dwell because I yearn for it’ (Psalms 132:14)” (Sifrei Zuta 12:16).

“‘…A three-day journey’ – they travelled a three-day journey in just one day, because God wanted to bring them into the Land of Israel immediately” (Rashi on Numbers 10:33, following Sifrei Bamidbar, Parashat Beha’alot’cha 82).

This explains why their leaving Sinai was a “turning away from behind Hashem”. Had they left Mount Sinai, “the Mountain of Hashem”, with pure intentions – with the intention of entering the Land of Israel to inherit it and to possess it – then the débâcle of the spies could never have happened. They would have encamped in the Paran Desert, waiting with bated breath, wildly excited at the prospect of coming home. Under such circumstances, the ten spies could never have succeeded in demoralising them.

But their acceptance of the ten spies’ report was so devastatingly heinous as to demonstrate that their intentions in leaving Mount Sinai were utterly, miserably misguided. They obviously did not leave the Mountain of Hashem with the pure intention of coming to Israel – hence all that remains is that they left Mount Sinai because they “turned away from behind Hashem”.

The Haftarah for Parashat Beha’alot’cha is Zechariah 2:14-4:7, which concludes with the prophet’s vision of the golden Menorah. On one level, this is the connexion with the Parashah: as noted above, Parashat Beha’alot’cha begins with God’s charge to Aaron and his descendants the Kohanim concerning the Menorah.

This is the explanation given in all the Chumashim I have found (the Hertz Chumash, the abridged Hirsch Chumash, the Margolin Edition by Rabbi Binyamin S. Moore, the ArtScroll Stone Edition, etc.).

But I suggest that this explanation is unsatisfactory. After all, the Haftarah usually follows either the theme with which the Parashah concludes, or the main theme which the Parashah contains. It is out of character for the Haftarah to reflect a brief theme with which the Parashah begins.

How, then, does this Haftarah continue the theme with which Parashat Beha’alot’cha ends?

The Haftarah begins with the words, “Sing joyfully and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold I am coming, and I will dwell in your midst – says Hashem” (Zechariah 2:14). The prophet Zechariah had been in exile in Babylon and came back to Israel when Koresh (Cyrus), king of Persia, decreed that all the Jews in his empire who wished to return home may do so.

But of the millions of Jews in exile, only 42,360 returned with Zechariah in the initial stage (Ezra 2:64).

More than half a millennium later, “Reish Lakish [Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish] was swimming in the River Jordan, and Rabbah bar Bar Chanah came and offered him his hand [to help him out of the water]. [Resh Lakish] said to him: By God! I hate you [the Babylonian Jews as a whole, who did not come back in the days of Ezra, and thereby prevented the Shechinah (the Divine presence) from returning and once again infusing the rebuilt Holy Temple – Rashi]. For it is written: ‘If she be a wall, we will build upon her a turret of silver; if she be a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar’ (Song of Songs 8:9) Had you made yourselves like a wall and all come up in the days of Ezra, you would have been compared to silver, which no rottenness can ever overcome. Now that you have come up like doors [a double door in a gate, where one door can be open while the other one remains closed; thus you Babylonian Jews only partially came back to Israel – Rashi] you are like cedar-wood, which rottenness overcomes” (Yoma 9b).

So grievous was the sin of the generation of the Jews of Babylon in not returning to Israel when they had the opportunity, that Reish Lakish still held Rabbah bar Bar Chanah personally responsible centuries later.

And a millennium and a half after Reish Lakish confronted Rabbah bar Bar Chanah in the waters of the River Jordan, one of the Torah giants of the generation puzzled why the great congregation of Worms in Germany had suffered so terribly during the Crusades and after. The congregation of Worms had, after all, produced some of the greatest Torah-scholars in all Ashkenaz.

The Seder ha-Dorot (The Book of Generations, a history book written by Rabbi Yechiel ben Shlomo Heilprin in 1725) quotes Rabbi Yiftach Yozepa Shemesh (1604-1678), who cited his teacher Rabbi Yehoshua Falk ha-Kohen (Poland, 1555-1614, the author of the Me’irat Einayim, a commentary on the Choshen Mishpat section of the Shulchan Aruch):

“The reason that there were so many decrees of persecution against the holy community of Worms – more than other congregations and cities – is that when the First Temple was destroyed, some of the Jews came and settled in Worms. And when the seventy years of exile in Babylon were completed, the exiles returned to Jerusalem and to the Land of Israel, but those who were in Worms did not return to the Land of Israel. The Jews who settled in Jerusalem wrote to the people of the holy community of Worms, telling them, too, to come and settle in the Land of Israel so that they would be able to make the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was so distant from them. But they were not concerned with this, and they wrote their response: ‘Settle you in the Great Jerusalem, and we will dwell here in little Jerusalem’ – because at that time they were considered very important by the King and the Gentiles, and they were tremendously wealthy. And this is the reason that more decrees of persecution were enacted against them than against other congregations and cities” (Seder ha-Dorot, Year 5380; in the earliest editions, Year 5398).

Such is the severity of not returning to the Land of Israel when we have the opportunity.

875 years ago, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi wrote his seminal work of Jewish philosophy, the Kuzari. In this book Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi stepped into the shoes of the unknown Jewish philosopher who had presented the case for Judaism to King Bulan, king of the Khazars, more than 400 years previously – and who had constructed such a convincing argument, defeating the Christian, Muslim, and atheist philosophers, that King Bulan and many of his royal court converted to Judaism.

He presents his fictionalised account of the interaction between the Jewish philosopher and King Bulan, in the course of which the Rabbi depicts the sanctity and centrality of the Land of Israel in Judaism (Kuzari 2:22).

The Khazar king responded: “In this case, you are not fulfilling your obligation according to your Torah, because you have not made that place your goal, you neither live there nor die there… I see that your kneeling and bowing towards [the Land of Israel when you pray] is merely hypocritical pretence of piety, or habit without genuine devotion…” (Kuzari 2:23).

In the entire Kuzari, this is the only argument to which the Rabbi has no answer: “You have shamed me, O King of Khazaria! And this sin is what prevented us from reaching our God-ordained destiny during the Second Temple, as it says ‘Sing joyfully and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold I am coming, and I will dwell in your midst – says Hashem’. Because the Divine Presence was ready to be infused [into the Second Temple] as it had been previously [in the First Temple], if only all [the Jews] would have agreed to return with willing spirit. But only a minority of them returned, and the majority – including the leaders – remained in Babylon, preferring exile and subjugation to leaving their houses and business” (Kuzari 2:24).

It is no idle coincidence that when Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi confessed that he had no justification for Jews remaining in exile, and simultaneously castigating the Jews in the time of Koresh for preventing the final redemption by refusing to return to the Land of Israel when they had the opportunity, he cited the opening verse of Haftarat Beha’alot’cha: “Sing joyfully and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold I am coming, and I will dwell in your midst – says Hashem”.

This is the real connexion between the Haftarah and the Parashah. The Parashah describes how the Children of Israel were only too eager to leave Mount Sinai – not in commendable haste to reach the Land of Israel, the reason that God instructed them to travel, but for the worst of reasons.

And the Parashah concludes with them camping in the Paran Desert, from where Moshe would despatch the spies on their disastrous mission – the mission which would condemn the generation to spend the rest of their lives in the desert, instead of possessing the Land which God had decreed for them, their measure-for-measure punishment for spurning the Land.

Then the Haftarah depicts the prophet Zechariah’s passionate exhortation to the Children of Israel to exult in their return to their Land in the time of the Second Temple – an exhortation which tragically went largely unheeded for far too long.

Neither is it coincidence that this same passage from Zechariah was selected as the Haftarah for Chanukah – the celebration of the time when the Maccabees led the Children of Israel in their war of liberation for their Land, rectifying (at least partially) the sin of their ancestors who did not care for the Land sufficiently to leave their comfortable Babylonian exile.

“Sing joyfully and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold I am coming, and I will dwell in your midst – says Hashem”. Of which era does the prophet speak here?

– There are different interpretations. Mahar”i Kara (Rabbi Yosef Kara, northern France, c.1050-c.1120, a student of Rashi) understands this to refer to the Second Temple period. According to him, the prophecy that “many nations will conjoin themselves to Hashem on that day and they will become My nation” (Zechariah 2:15) was fulfilled when “many of the nations of the land converted to Judaism, because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them” (Esther 8:17).

The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235), by contrast, insists that this prophecy refers to the future redemption: “This prophecy should be interpreted to refer to His Holy Abode which will be in the future yet to come, in the days of mashiach, because he says that ‘many nations will conjoin themselves to Hashem’. Similarly ‘Be silent, all flesh before Hashem, because He is aroused from His Holy Abode’ (v. 17) – we did not see this happen during the Second Temple; but the rest of this section speaks of the Second Temple period”.

The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167), however, has maybe the most compelling interpretation: “This is conditional – if Israel will be joined by all the nations [then ‘I will dwell in your midst’]; but behold – they did not do this”.

That is to say – this prophecy could have happened in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. We had it in our power to bring the ultimate redemption then. But because we missed the opportunity, it was deferred to the future time to come.

Maybe we can extrapolate from this that we had the opportunity to bring the final redemption already back in those halcyon days before the sin of the spies, the days with which Parashat Beha’alot’cha concludes and Parashat Shelach Lecha begins. We had the opportunity to enter our Land then and to possess it.

We have already missed two opportunities to return home and to possess our Land, the first in Parashat Beha’alot’cha and the second in the Haftarah.

The third opportunity is now, today, in this generation of redemption, when for the first time in two millennia the gates of the Land of Israel are open for every Jew to return home.

~Shabbat Shalom~

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