Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Who Says Jews don’t have human sacrifices? – Behaalotecha

Posted by rabbiart on June 10, 2008

“Only” five mitzvot come from this parshah.  Four of them have to do with Pesach Sheni (a second Passover observance designed for those who could not participate in Pesach). The fifth mandates sounding trumpets (trumpets, not the shofar) at regularly schedule times (of sacrifices) and in times of community wide troubles.

While mitzvot in this parshah are few, interesting passages are many.  Following the principle of   אחרון אחרון חביב (the last is beloved), we work backwards from the end of the parshah in noting them.

  • The shortest prayer for healing, said by Moshe on behalf of his sister Miriam. אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ
  • HaShem’s statement that HaShem speaks directly to Moshe פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ (mouth to mouth I speak to him). (12:8 )
  • HaShem lifts some of the leadership burden from Moshe. (11:16-17)
  • It rains cats and dogs (well… actually, quail) when the Israelites complain about the monotonous taste of eating manna every day.  (Thereby demonstrating the sadly apparently infinite ability of human beings to find something to complain about, no matter how blessed we actually are.) (11:1ff)
  • A vivid warning against the dangers of evil speech (11:1)
  • The “inverted (letter) nunns” passage. (10:35-36). These two verses have been incorporated into the Torah service.
  • The dedication of the Levites (8:6-14)

So much Torah, so little time.  Although as Rabbi Avraham Greenburg mentions in his commentary on last week’s parshah, the long days of summer (sorry, only works in the Northern Hemisphere) give us plenty of time to study Torah.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the parshah is the selection and dedication of the Levites as described in Chapter 8, verses six through thirteen.  A double “laying on of hands” takes place. The assembled community of Israel lays their hands on the Levites (verse 10) and the Levites lay their hands on the animals that are their sin- and burnt- offerings.  In this story, the Levites are themselves a sacrifice to HaShem. In particular, they are a wave-offering.  They are presented as a sacrifice, but they are not killed not burnt.  (When a “regular” animal wave-offering was presented,  the fat of the animal was burnt upon the altar, but the meat of the animal was to be eaten by the priests.  Wave-offerings can also be grain.  In any event, the substance of the wave-offering became property of the priests to be consumed by them.)

What is the symbolism and meaning of the Levites as an offering?  This offering has been understood to be in atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf.  Perhaps it is also a symbol of repairing the world (tikkun olam), in that the Levites are taken by HaShem “in exchange” for both the killing of the Egyptian first-born and the sparing of the Israelite first-born at that time.  Egyptians had to die for Israelites to be freed.  Their deaths “make a tear in the fabric of the world”.  This damage is repaired, so to speak, by the service of the Levites.  Davar Acher (Another interpretation).  The Levites are a gift to HaShem by the community of Israel.  By taking them into the divine service, HaShem gives them back to Israel.  Without all their lifting, carrying, assembling, dissembling, mucking out and other chores, their work makes it possible for the community of Israel to express (through the sacrificial rites) their relationship with the divine.

Who are the Levites in our day?  Jewish teachers everywhere, whether their title is lecturer, professor, tutor, teacher, cantor, rabbi, shammes, beadle. You name it.  These are the people who enable Israel to listen to – and talk with – HaShem.

Shabbat Shalom

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