BEHAALOTECHA, Numbers 8:1-12:16
In Lake Jackson, Texas, there are two intersecting streets named "This Way" and "That Way." What might people ponder while standing at that corner? Are they pinpointing their location while considering nearby sites? Reflecting on whence they've come, whither they're going and what they're taking with?
Parshah Behaalotecha has helped shape our Jewish observances and liturgy. Initially, it describes the lighting of the Menorah and thus is read annually on Chanukah's eighth day. Behaalotecha ends with Moses' short entreaty on behalf of his stricken sister, Miriam: "Dear God, please heal her," a prayer still invoked for those who are ill.
At its core, however, Behaalotecha finds the Israelites poised at the intersection of "This Way" and "That." Behind them lay the liberation from Egypt, receiving the Torah and its attendant mitzvot, the Sin of the Golden Calf, constructing the Mishkan, the first Yom Kippur, a detailed census by tribe of every man qualified for military service, the composition and tasks of the Levitical families and the forming of the Israelite camp. Opening before them — the pilgrimage to Eretz Yisrael.
Many a commentator has mined this image for wisdom about our journey through life. The Slonimer rebbe taught that just as each Israelite was assigned a specific tribal position as the camp embarked, so each of us is called to a specific life mission. Absent direct divine instruction, how might that mission be discerned?
First, by identifying our most intractable character flaw — be it greed, resentment or another — and seeking diligently to transform it. Secondly, by considering how our proclivities, talents and circumstances summon us to respond personally to today's challenges. To do otherwise, teaches the Slonimer, is like deserting one's post or walking purposefully — but in the wrong direction.
Rashi states that a journey's outcome is also influenced by those around us. The tribe of Ruben was encamped just below the Kehati. That Levitical family's most infamous rebel, Korach, fanned the Rubenites' discontent daily, asking why the tribe of Judah was leading the march to Eretz Yisrael when Ruben was Israel's firstborn? Several Rubenites perished when Korach later dragged them into his ill-fated revolt against Moses and Aaron.
'Mend What Is Torn'
Finally, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov exemplified the lesson that where you're headed and what you take with you is more crucial than where you've been. Upon marrying his daughter to a scion of Chasidism's preeminent Ruzhin dynasty, Reb Mendel, having started life as an orphaned tailor's apprentice, humbly claimed that his only inheritance consisted of two principles learned from the tailor: When presented with something new don't ruin it; and mend that which is torn. These directional signals on the road of life, to treasure each new day and to repair relationships, were perceived as a legacy equal to the Ruzhiner's.
Behaalotecha introduces the prayers recited when the Ark was lifted before Israel's departures: "Arise, Lord…" and upon its resting anew, "Return, Lord…" These words are familiar from our Torah service and were viewed traditionally as a separate book of Torah.
Why? Perhaps because invoking God's guidance along life's road from "This Way" to "That" is the most potent of revelations.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. Email him at: [email protected]