Parshat Be’ha’alotcha: Irreplaceable

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31 May 2007

Parshat Be’ha’alotcha 5767

Eight times in his commentary on Chumash, Rashi asks “lama nisma’cha” (why did the Torah choose this particular sequence of verses). He meant that since the episodes of the Torah do not always appear in their historical sequence, nor is there always a logical human explanation for mitzva B to follow mitzva A, it is proper to investigate the sequence of the Torah text.

Even though this question “lama nismacha” could be posed almost everywhere in the Torah, Rashi does so in only eight places. The conclusion is that the lessons to be learned from the sequence of these eight places are of a special nature.

One of these places is the link between the final episode of our Parsha Be’ha’alotcha where Miriam questions Moshe’s decision to leave the family unit and live alone, and next week’s Parsha, Sh’lach, which opens with the sin of the miraglim (spies) who spoke disparagingly of Eretz Yisrael.

Rashi explains the sequence on the background of the shared sin of lashon hara in both episodes – Miriam speaks inappropriately against her brother as do the meraglim against Eretz Yisrael.

Rashi is certainly correct in pointing out what is common between Miriam and the meraglim, but what remains difficult to understand is the unusual harshness with which Hashem treated these sinners: Miriam was smitten with tzara’at (leprosy) and the meraglim died a horrendous death. This appears to be an overly harsh punishment for lashon hara!

I suggest:

Parshat Be’ha’alotcha is replete with many diverse mitzvot:

1. The menora hewn out of a solid block of gold

2. Consecration of the Le’vi’im

3. Pesach sheni on the 14th of Iyar

4. The clouds over the Israelite camp

5. The silver bugles (chatzotzrot)

6. The manna

7. Choosing 70 members for the Sanhedrin (Moshe was the 71st)

At first glance, it is difficult to find a reason for these diverse subjects to appear in the same Parasha. However, they indeed share a common denominator – each one is either a substitute for something or can be substituted by something else:

1. The golden menorah, which was fashioned from one solid block of gold, may be substituted by any other metal, which may be welded or pieced together in any fashion and need not be made from a solid block of that metal.

2. The Levi’im are substitutes for the first born (bechorot) who forfeited their privilege to perform the sacrificial duties.

3. Pesach sheni on the 14th of Iyar is a second opportunity for anyone who was halachically unable to bring a korban Pesach on the 14th of Nissan.

4. The clouds, which protected and guided the camp, changed from a cloud during the daylight hours to become a cloud of fire during the hours of darkness.

5. The original silver chatzotzrot were set aside until future times and replaced with a second set.

6.The manna would change in taste according to the preference of the eater.

7. 72 names were selected (6 from every tribe), from whom only 70 were to be chosen by a lottery. This meant that each person was not specifically assigned to be a judge but was chosen by an unpredictable lottery, making each one a potential substitute for another.

The parasha then concludes with the Miriam episode followed by next week’s parasha of the meraglim – both receiving heavenly and heavy punishments.

The Torah is teaching us that everything in the world has a substitute (the cemetery is filled with people the world cannot exist without). The menora, the firstborn etc., are substitutes for an original or can be substituted by another.

Everything, that is, except for two things which are above any possibility of substitution – the Torah and Eretz Yisrael.

Moshe is the personification of Torah in this world. To speak disparagingly of Moshe, as Miriam did, is to defile the Torah. Miriam knew that her brother was the wisest and holiest of men, but in her eyes Moshe was still a man prone to mistakes as everyone else. But she was mistaken. Moshe was outwardly a “man”, but inwardly he was now different than anyone else in the world. Miriam was not cautious in her criticism, and for this she was harshly punished.

To speak disparagingly of Eretz Yisrael in any way is a Chilul Hashem – and for this the miraglim were so harshly punished, because they made the same mistake as Miriam. They saw Eretz Yisrael as one views any other place on Earth – water, hills, vegetation. Eretz Yisrael was a beautiful land but no different than most places on Earth. They saw the exterior of the land; but they did not comprehend that just as Moshe was “different” from any person who ever lived, so too is Eretz Yisrael different than any place on this planet – and for this they were punished.

Just as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism can never replace the Torah and Judaism, so too no place on this planet or in the created universe can replace the kedusha of Eretz Yisrael.

The towns of Satmar (St. Mary is its real name), Belz, Lebavitch and Lakewood can never attain the kedusha of the most remote piece of desert in Eretz Yisrael.

All the yeshivot and synagogues in the USA put together do not contain the kedusha of a football field in Eretz Yisrael.

The coming year of 5768 is a shemitah year, which the Kadosh Baruch Hu has declared to be Shabbat for the land. And just as Shabbat was withheld from the nations – indeed a gentile who keeps Shabbat is liable to the death penalty – so too in no place on earth outside of Eretz Yisrael is the sabbatical year in effect. It is irrelevant whether the shemita is in effect today in Eretz Yisrael by Torah law or rabbinic injunction; it is not in effect in any other place in the world.

If I live a thousand years, I will never understand how a religious Jew can willingly choose to remain outside the Holy Land when the gates are open wide and our mother Rachel calls out to her children to return home (Yirmiyahu chapter 31).

But perhaps the answer lies in the following story.

A man was climbing a high mountain, when night fell and the pouring rain created zero visibility. He slipped and began falling to certain death. Suddenly he put out his hand and grabbed a branch jutting out of the mountain side, and found himself suspended between heaven and earth.

He began to pray. A thunderous voice emerged from nowhere. “Do you believe in me?” the voice asked. The poor fellow cried out, “With all my heart and soul, I believe in You.”

“Do you believe I can save you?” HaShem asked.

“I believe with every sinew in my body that You can save me.”

“In that case,” thundered the voice, “LET GO!”

The following morning, they found the man hanging on to the branch and dead of hypothermia, when between him and solid ground was a distance of one meter.

The lesson to be gleaned from this story is – some people can’t LET GO, even when HaShem comes to save their physical and spiritual lives.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.