THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Beha’alotekha – פרשת בהעלתך
June 10, 2017 – ט”ז סיון תשע”ז
This essay is sponsored by Cynthia Ozick in loving memory of her husband, Bernard Hallote, who served as president of Congregation Anshe Sholom from 1991 to 1996.
After having encamped near the foot of Mount Sinai for nearly a year, the Israelites, after receiving the Divine signal, were ready to continue their journey into the wilderness. Scripture records their movement: “And they journeyed on from the mountain of the Lord a three days’ march, with the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant journeying before them a three days’ march to scout for a resting place for them (Numbers 10:33).”
The Torah offers no hint that the Israelites behaved inappropriately upon departing from Sinai. They dutifully waited for the cloud to ascend from the Tabernacle before resuming their march. They relied upon the Ark to guide them to their next stopping point. Though eager to arrive quickly in the Promised Land, the Israelites placed their destiny in God’s hands and adhered to His preferred route and timetable. Nonetheless, the homilists found fault in the Israelites’ departure from Sinai, basing their criticism on a subtle reading of Numbers 10:33.
The mountain on which the Theophany occurred is identified variously as Sinai or Horeb. In the earlier burning bush episode, it is referred to as the “mountain of God” (הר האלקים) (Exodus 3:1). This is also the case regarding Moses’ reunion with Aaron (4:27), Jethro’s arrival at the Israelite camp (18:5), and upon Moses’ ascent to receive the first set of Tablets (24:13). Since, however, the word אלקים is a nonspecific divine term, some scholars have argued that the site was held to be sacred even in the pre-Israelite period. (See my earlier essay “The Mountain of God,” 1/2/16.) In contrast, Numbers 10:33 speaks of the “mountain of the Lord” (הר יקוק), employing the Tetragrammaton, the most sacred, and the specific, name of the Hebrew God.
In the later books of the Bible, the mountain of the Lord is the Temple Mount. The prophet makes this clear in a verse well-known from the liturgy of the Torah service: “Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3).” According to some interpretations, Abraham identified the mountain on which he bound Isaac as “the mountain of the Lord” (Genesis 22:14, Robert Alter translation). The Binding of Isaac took place in the land of Moriah (22:2). The Chronicler identified the site of Solomon’s temple as Mount Moriah (II Chronicle 3:1). Scripture is thus consistent in placing the Mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem, not in the Sinai Desert.
The Aggadists regarded the seemingly imprecise language of Numbers 10:33 as offering license to reinterpret the verse creatively (Rabbenu Bachya). Suggesting a play on words, Rabbi Hama b’Rabbi Hanina substituted ויסעו מהר יי “they journeyed from the mountain of the Lord,” with סרו מאחרי יי “they strayed from the Lord” (Shabbat 116a). Rashi understood Rabbi Hama to be referring to the sin of the complainers recorded in Numbers 11:1-4. In this view, the riffraff voiced its gluttonous craving for meat within three daysof the departure from Sinai. Tosfot, citing Midrash Yelamdenu, instead understood the misdeed of the Israelites to be that they fled Mount Sinai the way a child flees the schoolhouse. They had learned a lot of Torah at Sinai, and they wanted to get a break from that.
Tosfot’s explanation brings to mind the pandemonium we have all witnessed in the schoolyard when the bell rings at the end of classes on the last day of the term. Young students, especially those who are not scholastically inclined, are eager to escape the world of books and teachers and to enjoy the freedom of an unstructured summer. Rabbinic Judaism deplores that attitude. Citing Scripture’s guidance, “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate therein day and night” (Joshua 1:8), the sages admonished their flock to engage in Torah study continually if not also continuously. But the sages realized that not everyone desires a lifetime of learning. In the daily blessing over the study of Torah, we beseech God to “sweeten the words of Torah in our mouths” (Berakhot 11a). In Rabbi Hama’s embellished version of the story, the Israelites ran away from what was — to them — a flavorless and overbearing intellectual course taught personally by Moshe Rabbenu.
Ramban cited a similar Midrash that claimed that the Israelites fled Sinai gleefully, believing that they were escaping any further commandments God might promulgate for them. This explanation focuses on the revealed Torah of Sinai not as a book to be studied intensively but rather as a list of commandments to be observed meticulously.
It cannot be denied that the yoke of the commandments is indeed a heavy burden. When religion becomes onerous to the point of becoming impractical, a faith group risks losing some adherents. The sages applied this very lesson in their formulation of the law of conversion. The sages in effect warn the rabbinic gatekeepers not to overburden the would-be proselyte with knowledge of too many commandments nor to be overly exacting in the conversion process (Yebamoth 47b), lest the prospective Jew be overwhelmed by it all and be deterred from further pursuing his spiritual journey (Rashi).
What the Israelites of Rabbi Hama’s homily failed to understand was that the mitzvoth were promulgated to benefit, not to overburden, them. God’s laws are not arbitrary or harsh whims, even if some are not capable of being understood by us mortals (like the red heifer or shaatnez). God’s commandments are His blueprint for a well-ordered human civilization. As we intone as the Torah scroll is returned to the Ark: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace (Proverbs 3:17).” Running away from Divine legislation would have led to imperfections in Israelite society; it would not have generated improvement.
The weekly study of Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) concludes with another theory about how the heavy yoke of the commandments benefits Israel and is thus not something from which to flee. “Rabbi Hananya ben Akashya said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to confer merit on Israel. That is why He gave them a copious Torah and many commandments, as it is said, “It pleased the Lord for the sake of Israel’s righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious” ’ (Mishnah Makkot 3:16).”
The Jewish world is, as always, in crisis. One element is that we are unfortunately observing that a high percentage of Jewish youth raised in an environment of Torah study and mitzvah observance are fleeing traditional Jewish life when they are old and independent enough to do so. They are running away from, and certainly not toward, yeshivot, synagogues, and pious homes. These three institutions are the functional equivalent of the Mount Sinai of the Theophany. Like schoolchildren eagerly greeting the dismissal bell, these young Jews are enthusiastic about a future without restrictions on their mobility or their pursuits.
Sadly, the above arguments why the Israelites were wrong to relish their escape from Sinai are generally rejected by contemporary Jews who are in the process of forsaking their commitment to religious observance. Not all believe that the hundreds of Biblical commandments and the thousands of halakhic minutiae exist for the purpose of providing Israel with an abundant store of merit. Even in Talmudic times, there must have been doubters (see Avot 2:14). The way this notion is taught in primary schools occasionally leads to derision. I once heard a teacher advise students that “Every ‘Amen’ you say is another brick for your house in Shomayaim (heaven).” Such rationales for continued piety fall flat among those who seek this-worldly meaning for their deeds and their commitments.
Even worse is the fact that many who currently flee “Sinai” no longer regard the Torah’s prescriptions as a recipe for a healthy or beautiful human civilization – nor, possibly, did they ever do so. Systemic problems plaguing insular communities — like poverty, vice, unprosecuted and unreported sexual and spousal abuse, criminality, and hypocrisy — lead the wayward to believe that Judaic practices and principles are actually a hindrance to the flowering of a virtuous culture. The only way to stem the tide of defections and disaffection is for these highly parochial communities to rid themselves of their more egregious social ills. Were that accomplished, the beauty of the Sinaitic tradition would again shine forth for all of us to see.