‘Communally Individual’ Parashat Beha’alotecha 5780

The Talmud in Tractate Menachot [29a] discusses certain things with which Moshe had difficulty comprehending until G-d was forced to show him “with His finger”, as it were. The list includes the construction of the Candelabrum (Menorah) in the Tabernacle (Mishkan), the establishment of the new month, and the recognition of the non-Kosher species of “creepy animals” (sheratzim). In an earlier lesson[1], we discussed Moshe’s difficulty in constructing the Menorah. There we asked an operational question: When we build the third Beit Hamikdash (Temple), speedily in our days, we, too, will require a Menorah. Will we wait until G-d shows us a Menorah with His finger? Will we throw an ingot of gold into a cauldron and pray for a miracle? The answer is straightforward: We will look in the Rambam in the 3rd Chapter of “Hilchot Beit Ha’Bechira (Laws of the Holy Temple)”, where he describes with great detail the laws and structure of the future menorah. The Rambam reveals his source: “It is fully described in the Torah”. The instructions are straightforward. Read the manual. But if we are supposed to be able to understand how to construct the Menorah merely by looking at the instruction manual, why couldn’t Moshe?

The answer lies in understanding Moshe’s problem with the Menorah. Moshe understood its configuration. He could read the instructions. Moshe’s concern was not with the physical structure of the menorah but with its inner meaning. When the Talmud in Menachot states that Moshe “struggled with” something, it means that he struggled to understand its underlying purpose. For example, one of the other things that G-d had to show Moshe “with his finger” was the half-shekel coin with which the Jewish People were to be counted. Rabbi Samuel Eidels, known as the Maharsha, who lived in Poland in the late sixteenth century, explains that Moshe had difficulty understanding how a coin with negligible monetary value could have such great spiritual value. What was Moshe’s difficulty with the Menorah? His difficulty stemmed from an inherent contradiction in the physical structure of the menorah: On one hand, the Menorah was [Shemot 25:31] sculpted out of a single piece of gold. But on the other hand, the Menorah had seven individual lamps, each containing an assortment of buttons, flowers, and other bells and whistles If the Menorah was made out of one piece of gold, shouldn’t it have contained only one lamp?

We answered this question in our earlier lesson with help from a verse in Parashat Beha’alotecha [Bemidbar 8:2]: “When you light the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the Menorah.” Our Sages in the Midrash tell us that the burning wicks were to be turned towards the central stem of the menorah.  Those on the right were turned to the left; those of the left were turned to the right.  All the lights were focused on one spot, the centre. We suggested that the seven lamps together represented all of the Jewish People and the central light represented G-d. In order for G-d’s light to shine into our world, the light from all people had to shine towards G-d and towards each other. This is to say, only with a unified effort, with human beings turning towards one another in unity and solidarity, will G-d’s presence and light be able to reach us. This was the message of the Menorah.

Let’s continue a little bit further down this path. Our Sages in the Midrash [Tanhuma Beha’alotecha 5] discuss the proximity of the first episode in the portion of Beha’alotecha to the last episode in the preceding portion of Naso, which describes the donations of the twelve Princes of the Tribes at the consecration of the Mishkan: “Why is the section treating of the Menorah put in juxtaposition with the section dealing with the offerings of the princes? Because when Aaron saw the dedication offerings of the princes, he felt distressed because neither he nor his tribe[2] was with them in the dedication, whereupon G-d said to him, ‘By your life! Your part is of greater importance than theirs, for you will kindle and set in order the lamps’”. The Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century, has difficulty understanding Aaron’s gripe. First and foremost, the fact that Aaron lit the candles in the Menorah each day was not the only task that he and only he performed. He and his tribe were responsible for every single procedure that was performed in the Mishkan, from the daily offerings of sacrifices and of incense to the Mishkan’s assembly and disassembly to the operation of its concession stands. Why should the lighting of the Menorah stand out? Further, if Aaron felt so “distressed” at the consecration of the Mishkan, what was stopping him or anyone from his tribe from bring a donation?

The Ramban suggests that the episodes at the end of the portion of Naso and the beginning of the portion of Beha’alotecha are both alluding to the holiday of Chanukah. In this lesson, we will try to provide an alternate answer based on our lesson from last week. Recall that at the consecration of the Mishkan, each of the twelve Princes of the Tribes gave precisely the same gift, an assortment of sacrifices and utensils: “One silver bowl weighing one hundred and thirty shekels and one silver basin of seventy shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; one gold ladle of ten shekels, filled with incense; one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs.” We explained that while the contents of the donations of the Princes of the Tribes might have been identical, their underlying messages were not. To quote Rabbi Joshua Rapps, “Each tribe had a separate identity and unique talents and strengths… Together, they comprised the complete spectrum of color, which in total made up [the Jewish People]. Though externally all the [princes] brought the same [sacrifice], each was as important and unique as the flag of the tribe that offered it”.

A sensitive ear can detect strong similarities between the message of the donations of the Princes of the Tribes and the message of the Menorah. By donating identical gifts, the Princes displayed great unity, a unity that simultaneously reflected the distinctness of each of the tribes. I suggest that this combination of “similar and yet different” caused Aaron distress. The Mishnah in Tractate Avot [1:12] refers to Aaron as a person who “loved and pursued peace and loved his fellow man”. Aaron was a person for whom national unity was paramount. One can only imagine Aaron thinking to himself, “If you Princes of the Tribes are so concerned with unity, why didn’t you all get together and make one large donation[3]?” G-d rewarded Aaron specifically by allowing him to light the Menorah, which, while containing seven individual lamps, was made out of one piece of gold. Perhaps for this reason the Torah chooses to reiterate particularly here [Bemidbar 8:4] “Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from [one block of gold from] base to petal[4]”. The reason that Aaron was chosen to light the Menorah was precisely because the Menorah was hammered out of one unified block of gold. The Menorah exemplified the values by which Aaron lived.

There is an inherent tension between the personal and the communal in our service of G-d. On the one hand, prayer is a personal experience where a person meets privately with G-d with his own dilemmas, his own sources of joy and his own needs. And yet, prayer is simultaneously public: Many prayers require a quorum of ten. We recite the same prayers from the same prayer books. Food for thought as we slowly return to communal prayer after months of standing before G-d only as individuals.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] Parashat Teruma 5762. This lesson is a continuation of that earlier lesson.

[2] The Tribe of Levi was the only tribe that did not make a donation at the consecration of the Mishkan.

[3] For example, instead of each of the Princes of the Tribes giving [Bemidbar 7:19] “one silver bowl weighing one hundred and thirty shekels”, they could have together given twelve silver bowls weighing one hundred and thirty shekels or one large silver bowl weighing 1,560 (=130 x 12) shekels.

[4] As we mentioned above, instructions for the Menorah appear in full in the Book of Shemot. What extra information does the Torah provide by reiterating that the Menorah was formed from one piece of gold?

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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