In the Torah, as in life,things arent alwaysas they first appear


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:14-4:7


Parashat Beha’alotcha is a veritable hodgepodge of material. It is a grab-bag of instructions and events, much of it recycled from Exodus, Leviticus or earlier parts of Numbers. What’s more, the new material featured here is destined for retelling in later parts of the Torah. As such, it was this parshah that inspired the rabbinic teaching “ayn mukdam v’ayn m’uchar baTorah — there is no before or after in the Torah.” The Torah, the rabbis taught, is best understood as being beyond normal temporal expectations.


But maybe the Torah is simply a reflection of life as it plays out in real time. We often receive little bits of information along the way, rather than the whole story or whole picture all at once.

The Dubner Maggid tells the story of a sportsman who is traveling through a town and sees a barn wall covered with 100 targets, every one of which has an arrow through the center. “Who is this sharpshooter?” he asks a townsman.

The townsman smiles and laughs as he says, “I could take you to him, but it’s the town fool, Nar.” “I don’t understand,” replies the sportsman.

“You see,” the townsman explains, “Nar shoots the arrow and then he paints the target.” In this way, Nar always shot a bull’s-eye.

As this story illustrates, things cannot always be accepted at face value because sometimes we don’t have all the information to make a clear judgment about a person or situation. Interestingly, parashat Beha’alotcha, which reminds us about the nonlinear nature of life, also gives us a way to see through the fragments to find a whole.

In one section, Numbers 9:10, we see one of only 10 places in the Torah in which a dot over a word alerts us that there is another level of meaning to the text. In this case, the word in question, “r’choka,” normally meaning “far,” does not just refer to a person who is too far away to offer the Passover offering, but also to a person who is emotionally and spiritually estranged. Things are not always what they seem.

The section also relates how some Israelite men had been unable to offer the Passover sacrifice because they were ritually unclean, due to having been in contact with a corpse. “Why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time?” the men ask.

Moses counsels patience, and God answers Moses that their plea is just. God accommodates their complaint and enables them to offer the sacrifice one month later. Through this passage, we see that God’s law is evolving. There is an elasticity and creativity to the law, showing that Jewish law is dynamic.

Sometimes we, like Moses, look to God for meaning, and sometimes we determine the meaning ourselves. In chapter 10, Moses is told to have two silver trumpets made. When long blasts are blown, the community will know to assemble — sometimes to celebrate, and sometimes to ready themselves for war. In other words, bloodshed and joy are only notes apart.

Discerning which notes to play, as well as where God’s light dwells, are ultimately in our hands. At the parshah’s beginning God instructs Moses to have Aaron mount the seven-branched lamp at the front of the lampstand. Once the golden candelabrum was made, the high priest was responsible for lighting it. But in our world, the light of God is not just one person’s responsibility; it is the responsibility of all of us.

There is a beautiful Chassidic story about a rabbi whose disciples were very concerned about the increasing level of evil in this world. The rabbi challenged his disciples to change this, so they went about to stamp evil out with sticks, whips and brooms. But it was only after the students decided to light candles, to bring their individual lights into the world, that the darkness was dispelled.

The story reminds us that particularly when we are faced with fragments of information or do not yet have a clear picture, we need to find a way to shine light on the situation — to bring some clarity, and focus, to take our time and try to see things as clearly as possible.

Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at [email protected].