Parshat Be-Ha`alotekha

Torah Reading for Week of May 23 – May 29, 2010

“Ordination of the Levites”

by Dr. Marvin A. Sweeney
AJRCA Professor of Bible, Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University

It is particularly auspicious this year that we read Parshat Be-Ha`alotekha as our Torah and Haftarah portions for this Shabbat. On the Monday following the Shabbat, we will celebrate the ordination of AJR, CA’s new Rabbis, Cantors, and Chaplains for holy service among the people of Israel and in the world at large. Parshat Be-Ha`alotekha takes up the ordination of the Levites for holy service among the people of Israel in the wilderness and beyond. Like the Levites, Rabbis, Cantors, and Chaplains are teachers in Israel, and they bear responsibility for the sanctity of our people. Parshat Be-Ha`alotekha therefore provides us with the opportunity to pause to reflect upon both the opportunities and the challenges that service entails.

The Torah portion begins with a brief instruction in Numbers 8:1-4 concerning the mounting of lamps upon the Menorah of the Sanctuary. We readers are left with questions concerning the function and meaning of this instruction. But just as the creation of light signals the first step in bringing order to a world of chaos in Genesis 1:3-5, such a motif signals the light that the teachings of the Levites will bring into the world. It is likely no accident that the Haftarah portion concludes with the same motif in Zechariah 4:1-7. After all, the Haftarah portion interrupts the full vision of Zechariah 4:1-14 and shows us only what the Haftarah’s compilers want us to see, viz., a vision of the Temple Menorah in which prophet and priest Zechariah is asked by his angelic teacher, “What do you see?” Zechariah’s answer leads to the angel’s statement near the conclusion of the Haftarah reading, “`Not by might, nor by power, but only by My spirit,’ says ha-Shem Seva’ot,” to indicate that G-d is the source of light in the world.

Our two encounters with the Menorot bracket two major narratives concerning the ordination of priests. The Torah portion in Numbers 8:5-26 presents instruction concerning the ordination of the Levites in the wilderness for service in the Sanctuary. Other portrayals of priestly ordination appear in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8, but the narrative in Numbers 8 is unique because it calls for the ordination of all of the Levites, not only of Aaron and his sons to serve as the Kohanim as in the prior two passages. Although Numbers 8:19 indicates that the Levites function as a supporting cast for the Kohanim in the Sanctuary, their role in ensuring the sanctity of the Sanctuary and the people is no less important. They serve from age twenty-five to fifty, and they have a share in the Tenufah offering granted for their holy service. The Haftarah portion in Zecahriah 3:1-10 portrays the ordination ceremony of Joshua ben Jehozadak as High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple, newly rebuilt in the Persian period following the end of the Babylonian Exile. The narrative focuses on both Joshua’s purity, as he is stripped of his unclean garments and dressed in the holy garments of the High Priesthood, and his holy responsibilities as he is commissioned to oversee the priestly watch that ensures the sanctity of the Temple. Holy service entails both honor and obligation.

In between our two narratives concerning ordination, the Torah portion in Numbers 9:1-12:16 presents a series of episodes that portray aspects of the journey through the wilderness and point to the challenges of holy service. Numbers 9:1-14 takes up the observance of a second Pesach on the fourteenth day of the second month, for those who were unable to observe Pesach in the first month due to impurity. Numbers 9:15-23 portrays the movement of the divine Presence that would signal the movement of the wilderness Sanctuary in preparation for Israel’s journey to the land of Israel. Numbers 10:1-10 provides instruction concerning the silver trumpets that would summon Israel to the Sanctuary and signal the next stage of the journey. And Numbers 10:11-36 portrays the beginning of the journey through the wilderness from Mt. Sinai to the land of Israel.

The problematic narratives appear in Numbers 11:1-35 and 12:1-16, both of which present challenges to Moses’ role as leader of the people of Israel in the wilderness. Moses is a Levite, and it is his task to represent the people before G-d and G-d before the people.

In the first instance, the people complain to Moses that they lack the wonderful food and comforts of Egypt, a particularly ironic complaint for a people that had served as slaves for some four hundred years before Moses led them to freedom in the Exodus. Are memories of time of hardship so short that slave fare of Egyptian bondage had become meat, fish, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic in the minds of the former slaves? Even G-d provides Manna for the people to eat in the wilderness, the rebellion continues, and ultimately, the seventy elders, led by Eldad and Medad declared themselves as prophets to claim the leadership of Israel from Moses. We may recognize in the seventy elders the ruling council of Israel in later times that granted kingship to David (2 Samuel 5) and that were assassinated in revolts led by Abimelech (Judges 9) and Jehu (2 Kings 9-10). In later times, we recognize the Sanhedrin that decided the cases of Israel. In modern times, we might recognize synagogue officers, school boards, hospital administrators, and other authority figures in the community who set the terms by which our Rabbis, Cantors, and Chaplains will serve. Moses’ response to this challenge, “Would that all ha-Shem’s people were prophets that ha-Shem should put the divine spirit upon them!” reminds us to take account of such figures, for whatever the difficulties, it is through them that we serve.

In the second instance, Miriam, the sister of Moses, challenges his leadership because he has married a Cushite woman. The identity of this woman is subject to considerable debate. The term Cushite indicates an Ethiopian woman, which would suggest that she was someone other than Zipporah, Moses’ (first) Midianite wife. Some authorities point out that Moses had divorced Zipporah, because according to Exodus 18, her father Jethro came to see Moses after he had sent her away (Mekhilta Amalek). Others point out that Cushite is another term for a Midianite, insofar as Habakkuk 3:7 identifies “the tents of Cushan” with “the tent curtains of the land of Midian.” Still others maintain that Cushite means “beautiful” (Aramaic, shapireta’ in Targum Onkelos; cf. Midrash Tehillim 7:18). And some maintain that Moses remarried Zipporah on account of her virtuous deeds (MK 16b). G-d ultimately stands by and supports Moses during this challenge, but the narrative provides us with the opportunity to recognize that as leaders in Israel, our actions are subject to scrutiny and we must be prepared to be accountable to our people and worthy of the holy offices that we undertake.

And in the end, we may remember how the Haftarah portion presents a transition from the challenges faced by Moses back to the focus on ordination and Menorot. At the outset of the Haftarah in Zechariah 2:14(-17), the prophet calls out, “`Sing and rejoice, O Bat Zion, for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,’ says ha-Shem.” At this point, we must remember that we are charged with the sanctification of the Sanctuary, Israel, and world of creation in which we live.

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