Torah Reading for Week of June 5-11, 2011
“In which Moses invites his father-in-law to accompany the Children of Israel on their journey”
By Chaplain Claire Gorfinkel, ‘11
Beha’alotcha is a rich parsha, repeating many stories and themes in our Torah and containing psukim that are a familiar part of our regular liturgy.
For example, the people are complaining as they did after crossing the Sea of Reeds: about the water, the food, and the journey. As before, G-d responds, providing both manna sufficient for all their needs and Quail, which here becomes sickeningly excessive. When Moses is overwhelmed yet again with the responsibilities of leadership and the peoples’ whining, G-d instructs him to designate seventy elders who will receive the gift of prophecy, and we are reminded both of the seventy who accompanied him and Aaron on Mt. Sinai, as well as of the advice he received from Jethro, his father-in-law, to share the burden of leadership by appointing judges. We read detailed instructions of how the Israelites are to march, each tribe under its banner behind its designated leader. This replicates the census and the arrangement of clans with which the book of Numbers began.
This parsha includes Miriam and Aaron’s challenge regarding Moses, “he married a Cushite woman,” and Miriam’s “skin disease” replicates yet another Exodus passage. In Moses’ first encounter with G-d at the burning bush, he is anxious about “proving” that G-d actually spoke/appeared to him and among the supernatural signs he is given, his hand is briefly encrusted with “snow white scales.” Note that this is clearly not a punishment. Miriam’s “affliction” offends our sense of justice, because surely Aaron was equally complicit in speaking against Moses and the Cushite. Only Miriam was kept outside the camp for a week, and everyone waited for her return before resuming their journey.
Coming as it does this year in the week of Shavuot, when we have just read the Book of Ruth, I am especially interested in Beha’alotcha’s message about Miriam, Jethro (aka Hobab) and Zipporah, the Cushite. The central message of Ruth: “Your G-d will be my G-d and your people will be my people” reminds us of our obligation to embrace the ger, the stranger, and the convert. From the line of Ruth we will get King David, one of Judaism’s greatest leaders and artists. In Beha’alotcha, Moses invites his father-in-law to accompany the children of Israel to the Promised Land. Although G-d will lead the way, Jethro/Hobab (some commentators speculate that Jethro changed his name when he converted (!) to Judaism) will know the best places to set up camp. Moses appreciates the value of allying with someone who has a different perspective, different skills, one who has offered wisdom in the past. Whether he is a ger or a Jew-by-choice, he may be an important member of the community.
I believe that Miriam’s (and Aaron’s) real failing was lack of hospitality toward Moses’ wife, a failure of sisterly solidarity. Beha’alotcha reminds us to appreciate our relationships with one another, whether they are strangers or different members of our tribe by birth or conversion. We have an obligation to be welcoming. We benefit from hearing others’ points of view. I believe this is the meaning of being a “transdenominational” seminary, poised to engage with our Christian and Islamic partners. As we proceed to the Promised Land, we can march under our own banners, maintaining our particular leadership and our distinct identities. We are also vastly enriched by engaging with others who wish to accompany us on our journey.