Parshat Beha’alotcha

Torah Reading for Week of June 3-9, 2012

“Ways of Reading”

By Rabbi Lori Schneide Shapiro, ‘10


As described in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, a menorah is not just a menorah.  The word “beha’alotcha” meaning “mount” but also “kindle,” is itself a “two sided Kandinsky;” as, indeed, is most of what we see in the book of Numbers. Similar to the work of Lewis Carroll, and like his character, Alice, the Book of Numbers (B’midbar), is where the Biblical writers “fall through the rabbit hole” and enter the world of fantasy literature.  Consider “In the Wilderness,” as “Through the Looking Glass,” and suddenly, the fourth book of the Pentateuch is less about law and more about everything appearing as what it is not. Hungry?  Meat falls from the sky up to our knees.  Want mystery?  An entire book of prophecy seems to be missing between two upside down and backwards nuns.  Miss Passover?  No problem!  Bring it next month!  Have a son? “He’s mine!” says the Priest, “…but — he can be redeemed for the small price of five silver coins…” Moses cries.  Fires will light our way by night; clouds will descend and protect us during the day.  And Miriam will make a racist comment and transform into an Avatar Albino.  And so, the ritual of mounting fire on a wall so that the flames “face one another” and other acts such as these – the mysterious within the mundane – are the Escher-drawn foundation of this week’s Torah portion.

The rabbis oftentimes make moralist tales of these vivid desert mirages.  In Numbers 11:11, as Moses implores G-d, essentially asking “Why don’t you like me?” Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator responds, “that parents often have children who are in sharp conflict with them.”  Really, Sforno?  Is the most interesting lesson in Moses’ raw insecurity a lesson in the irony of our kin?  Didn’t we already learn that with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?!?  Considering the vivid visual, aural and even olfactory descriptions in the Book of Numbers, I ask, are we to take these descriptions literally or literarily?  Certainly, there must be a more satisfying teaching here, il mio uomo!

For me, there is.  Currently, I have fallen down a rabbit hole of my own.  For the more surreal part of the past year, I have been a patient of IVF (in-vitro fertilization).  Try after try, like a great Biblical matriarch, I have failed to conceive a child.  Many have offered me advice:  “Have you kept Tahorat Mishpacha (the laws of family purity)?”  Or, with a knowing eye, a colleague suggests, “Daven every day…don’t miss a Shabbat…Tithe your challah!”

Myself, a self-proclaimed rationalist who is unsure that there is a knowable and personal G-d, but, nonetheless, endures in my steadfast seeking, feels turned upside down by these remarks.  These offerings have the same effect that reading the Book of Numbers literally have on me – if I am asked to understand this book as something literal that I must comprehend, then I can not accept this book; there is no meaning in it without absurdity.  Similarly, if the abeyance of childbearing is in direct correlation to the observance of Torah commandments in a literalist fashion, then I am, in the time that I most need my tradition, without a tradition.

The importance of reading the Torah through metaphor is a reminder to us that it is one of the most important collaborative creative texts ever fashioned.  Catholics have great cathedrals built by guilds of men over centuries.  Hindus and Muslims have pilgrimage festivals to eternalize their piety.  Jews have the thoughts and writings of our ancestors over time.  So, perhaps, now, at a time when we willingly live in exile from the state of Israel, is the time where we must reclaim our Torah not as a literalist Book of Law, but, standing on the shoulders of S.R. Hirsch, Franz Rosensweig, Nehama Leibowitz, Avivah Zornberg and others, we must continue to live in relationship to the book of radical interpretive creativity.

The painter, R.B. Kitaj, in his “First Diasporist Manifesto” wrote of the essentiality and creative process afforded by living in exile.  He writes:

“Ill and good winds blow through Diaspora and breathe on the Diasporist’s artistic upbringing.  I always know I may have to move on, to get out before it’s too late, and so I daydream about other places while I’m painting.  One dream leads to another and changes the aspect and direction of the picture if exilic longing moves the brush from beyond.  Quite a few paintings get made like that:  would-be Refugee Diasporist pictures.”

Perhaps, then, this is the time of the “Chosen Diasporist’s” reading of the Torah — a time to allow our imaginations, informed by our education and skill, to reveal the unseen in the text.  Just as we stand before a painting to uncoil our unconscious being, so, too, must we gaze upon the Hebrew of the Torah, and allow our inner mind to unfold.

And so, I unlock my mind before the Hebrew text.  Somewhere between my eye and the page is eternity; the menorah transforms from a symbol of the temple, beyond the interpretations of the Rabbis as a symbol of thanksgiving, a harbinger of the rededication of the Temple, the triumph of the Hashmonean dynasty against the Greek-Syrians and the imminence of Chanukah.  It glows upwards, a lamp of gilded gold, a vision revealed by G-d, glowing in a light from the first day of creation, the Or Ha-Ganuz, illuminating what is hidden, and reminding me of the feminine hidden inside of our tradition.  And it is when I read of this hidden feminine within, this visual reminder of the presence of something greater than ourselves, I cry.  I cry because I see in its eternal light a truth greater than my suffering.  I cry because I recognize that our tradition is more than any of us can really comprehend with our reasonable minds.  I cry because, like Moses to G-d, I know that I will someday mother a child who will be in sharp conflict with me, and I cry because I know that I will become the woman I am supposed to become because of her or him.  But most of all, I cry because I know that all will be all right.  Because I am, finally, comforted by my tradition.  Not in a literal sense.  But in a literary one.

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