J.J Gross

Parshat Beha’alotkha: Incidental Observations plus Yitro Redux

Beha’alotkha is a huge mishmash of a parsha that covers much ritual and narrative terrain.  And yet, in medias res, we get a snippet of inconclusive dialogue between Moshe and his father in law Yitro which I will get to in due course.

The Menorah – it’s all about the flames

The parsha opens with instructions regarding the lighting of the menorah in the Mishkan/Tabernacle followed by instructions for the crafting of the menorah which, apparently, was then made by Moshe himself, rather than by Bezalel.

One might assume the making of the vessel would precede instructions for its use. Yet, the use of the menorah precedes the engineering. This actually makes sense as the candelabra itself is not the essence of the menorah. The flames are. Indeed if the flames could burn without the physical need for a candelabra there would likely be no menorah.

In virtually every single depiction of the Temple menorah in late antique and medieval art, the menorah is always lit and the flames are very carefully rendered so that the three on the left and the three on the right are bent toward the center. The menorah itself might be rendered as a stick figure or serve as the abstract or fanciful pattern of a carpet page frontispiece for a medieval Bible, but the flames are always there and always rendered meticulously. In fact the only rendering of a flameless menorah is in Cervera Bible (Spain 1300) because this depiction is of the menorah of Zechariah’s vision with the two flanking olive trees feeding its bowls.

The ubiquity of the lit menorah in Jewish art of the Late Antique/Early Christian era attests to its enormous eschatological importance in contrast to, for example, the מזבח/sacrifice altar which, even when rendered, did not feature any emphasis on any burning carcass.

Levites as Sacrifices

I mentioned this in my comments on Parshat Naso. But here the fact that the Leviim/Levites are figuratively sacrificed to G-d as a proxy for the sacrifice of the first born is driven home.


You shall bring the Levites before the Lord, and the children of Israel shall lay their hands upon the Levites.
יוְהִקְרַבְתָּ֥ אֶת־הַֽלְוִיִּ֖ם לִפְנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה וְסָֽמְכ֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־הַֽלְוִיִּֽם:
11Then Aaron shall lift up the Levites as a waving before the Lord on behalf of the children of Israel, that they may serve in the Lord’s service. יאוְהֵנִיף֩ אַֽהֲרֹ֨ן אֶת־הַֽלְוִיִּ֤ם תְּנוּפָה֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָי֕וּ לַֽעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־עֲבֹדַ֥ת יְהֹוָֽה:
12The Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and make one as a sin offering and one as a burnt offering to the Lord, to atone for the Levites. יבוְהַֽלְוִיִּם֙ יִסְמְכ֣וּ אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֔ם עַ֖ל רֹ֣אשׁ הַפָּרִ֑ים וַֽעֲשֵׂ֠ה אֶת־הָֽאֶחָ֨ד חַטָּ֜את וְאֶת־הָֽאֶחָ֤ד עֹלָה֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־הַֽלְוִיִּֽם:
13You shall present the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and lift them as a waving before the Lord. יגוְהַֽעֲמַדְתָּ֙ אֶת־הַֽלְוִיִּ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן וְלִפְנֵ֣י בָנָ֑יו וְהֵֽנַפְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛ם תְּנוּפָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה:
14Thus shall you set apart the Levites from the midst of the children of Israel, and the Levites shall become Mine. ידוְהִבְדַּלְתָּ֙ אֶת־הַֽלְוִיִּ֔ם מִתּ֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָ֥יוּ לִ֖י הַֽלְוִיִּֽם:

Bamidbar/Numbers 8:10-14

The term והקרבתם is the term used for animal sacrifices. The ritual laying on of the hands by the Children of Israel on the heads of the Levites is identical to the ceremony for declaring a sin offering as a proxy for the sinner. And just as an animal that has been set aside for temple ritual is sacrosanct and may not be used for any profane purpose, likewise G-d says; “ … set apart the Levites from the midst of the children of Israel, and the Levites shall become Mine.”

Pesah Sheni/ Second Passover

In our parsha the Israelite who, through no fault of his own, is unable to partake of the קרבן פסח/Paschal lamb is given a second opportunity (Bamidbar 9:8-13) one month later.

My question is why is there a second chance for Pesah but not, for example, for Sukkot?

I would suggest that Sukkot is a holiday that is inseparable from its season. It is a harvest festival from a time when farmers customarily camped out in the field under the protection of makeshift huts. By contrast, Pesah commemorates the Exodus from Egypt which took place at a particular moment in time, but that moment was not seasonally connected to the event. It was coincidental. In fact we celebrate the Exodus from Egpyt during every holiday and on every Shabbat. Hence it would be perfectly ok, if not ideal, to make good on the קרבן פסח at a subsequent date,

On a separate note, our parsha tells us that the גר (convert) in our midst as well the “אזרח הארץ” (civilian/citizen) must partake of the Paschal Lamb ritual as well. My question is is why is the ger even mentioned? It should be a given that, as a bonafide Jew, he is required to fulfill this mitzvah. And if you should think that he might be exempt because his ancestor was not redeemed from Egyptian bondage, then would it not suffice to mention the “ezah haaretz”, whoever that might even be?

I have no answer

A second “behaalot.”

 The very use of the term בהעלתך to describe the menorah lighting is strange, as the flames are purposely bent down as if in homage, and are not raised up. Yet the term בְּהַֽעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ clearly describes an elevation. The same usage appears a second time (Bamidbar 9:22) in reference to the rising of the Pillar of Cloud when it was time for the Israelites to decamp and proceed on their journey through the desert.

אֽוֹ־יֹמַ֜יִם אוֹ־חֹ֣דֶשׁ אֽוֹ־יָמִ֗ים בְּהַֽאֲרִ֨יךְ הֶֽעָנָ֤ן עַל־הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ לִשְׁכֹּ֣ן עָלָ֔יו יַֽחֲנ֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְלֹ֣א יִסָּ֑עוּ וּבְהֵעָֽלֹת֖וֹ יִסָּֽעוּ:
I would suggest that this term for elevation has more to do with spiritual rising and the elevation of holiness than with the physical aspect of lifting up. Indeed the Menorah and the Cloud were totally connected. When the Menorah was down (i.e. in transit) the cloud rose up, and when the menorah flames were kindled the cloud was in repose. When G-d rested the kohanim rose to work. When the kohanim were idle, G-d rose above the camp.

Trumpets and Meat

Our parsha describes the crafting of two silver trumpets (10:5-6) which would be sounded by the kohanim/priests in order to announce the movement and direction of the camp. It is noteworthy that it was the priests who blew these horns and not the Levites whose normal responsibilities included providing the music for the Mishkan/Temple service,

There are other trumpets mentioned here as well – the war trumpets

While the trumpet blast the kohanim would make were referred to   as תְּרוּעָ֑ה/Teruah, the term used for the actual blowing of the horn is ותקעתם.

By contrast, when the war horns are blown (10:9) the term – and it is a very unusual grammatical usage – is וַֽהֲרֵֽעֹתֶ֖ם. A nearly identical word is used by Moshe (11:11) when he complains to G-d about the abuse he suffers from his human flock, only here it means to have been treated badly, from the Hebrew word .רֵעֹ֨

I would like to suggest that the term וַֽהֲרֵֽעֹתֶ֖ם to describe the blowing of the war trumpets is in fact a double entendre; it means to blow them (the trumpets) and it also means to do harm to the enemy Israel is fighting against., i.e. “And you shall harm them with trumpets and be remembered before the Lord and you shall be rescued from your foes.”

כִֽי־תָבֹ֨אוּ מִלְחָמָ֜ה בְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם עַל־הַצַּר֙ הַצֹּרֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֔ם וַֽהֲרֵֽעֹתֶ֖ם בַּֽחֲצֹֽצְרֹ֑ת וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְנֽוֹשַׁעְתֶּ֖ם מֵאֹֽיְבֵ

Regarding the sin of the Israelites who complained about a lack of meat (11:4-5) it should be pointed out that there was no shortage of meat in the Israelite camp. They departed from Egypr with all sorts of cattle. They had no problem rustling up a lamb for each family for the Paschal Sacrifice. Nor was there any shortage of animals for the Mishkan sacrifices.

What the Israelites were complaining about was the lack of FREE meat (11:4-5)

But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, “Who will feed us meat? הָֽאסַפְסֻף֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּקִרְבּ֔וֹ הִתְאַוּ֖וּ תַּֽאֲוָ֑ה וַיָּשֻׁ֣בוּ וַיִּבְכּ֗וּ גַּ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ מִ֥י יַֽאֲכִלֵ֖נוּ בָּשָֽׂר:

Apparently they had gotten accustomed to getting everything without working for it, and this made them greedy. This is why they were punished. Sadly it is a problem even in our time when certain sectors of society believe they are entitled to receive everything gratis, at someone else’s expense. This includes military protection, street cleaning, roads, utilities, medical care and, of course, food. Clearly the Torah takes a very dim view of such shameless avarice

Postscript to Parshat Beha’alotkha  –Yitro Redux?

Beha’alotkha is a huge mishmash of a parsha that covers much ritual and narrative terrain.  And yet, in media res, we get a snippet of inconclusive dialogue between Moshe and his father in law Yitro, normally referred to in the Torah as Yitro the Priest of Midian,  but here referred to by one of his alternate appelations, Hovav ben Reuel the Midianite father in law of Moshe (Numbers 10)

כט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹבָב בֶּן-רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְהוָה, אֹתוֹ אֶתֵּן לָכֶם; לְכָה אִתָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ, כִּי-יְהוָה דִּבֶּר-טוֹב עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.  ל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, לֹא אֵלֵךְ:  כִּי אִם-אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי, אֵלֵךְ.  לא וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-נָא תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָנו  כִּי עַל-כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ, חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ, לְעֵינָיִם.

29 And Moses said to Hovav the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will do good to you, for the LORD has promised good to Israel.” 30But he said to him, “I will not go. I will depart to my own land and to my birthplace.” 31And he said, “Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. 32And if you do go with us, whatever good the LORD will do to us, the same will we do to you.”

Clearly this conversation did not just happen. We can surmise that Yitro, having felt utterly marginalized since he arrived two years earlier decides he has had enough, and comes to bid Moshe goodbye. After all, back in his native land Yitro was a force to be reckoned with, the high priest of a mighty society, and surely respected by one and all.

Moshe’s attempted blandishments to convince his father in law to stay are astonishingly patronizing and unbecoming.  He thinks he can woo Yitro to remain by offering him a cut of the goodies that will eventually be given to the Israelites.  And he attempts to flatter Yitro for his greater skills in maneuvering through desert; as if telling him, you non-Jews are good at this sort of thing, and we can use an extra pair of eyes.

From the text itself it is unclear whether Yitro succumbs to Moshe’s entreaties. But one suspects that he does not. After all why would he? If anything Moshe’s words are an insult.

Interestingly the very next piece of the parsha tells the story of the Israelites rising up against Moshe, complaining about the lack of hamburgers, steak and lamb chops in the desert. Acutely frustrated, and incapable of managing the howling mob, Moshe turns to G-d. (Numbers 11)

12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me.

And G-d replies:

טז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶסְפָה-לִּי שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ, כִּי-הֵם זִקְנֵי הָעָם וְשֹׁטְרָיו; וְלָקַחְתָּ אֹתָם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ שָׁם עִמָּךְ. יז וְיָרַדְתִּי, וְדִבַּרְתִּי עִמְּךָ שָׁם, וְאָצַלְתִּי מִן-הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלֶיךָ, וְשַׂמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם; וְנָשְׂאוּ אִתְּךָ בְּמַשָּׂא הָעָם, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא אַתָּה לְבַדֶּךָ.

16 “… Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.”

Now we have heard virtually the identical advice once before. Indeed, this was the very advice Yitro had given Moshe in his eponymously named Parsha, when Moses was crashing under the burden of adjudicating all the lawsuits and legal cases of the entire Israelite nation. At that time G-d approved of Yitro’s advice, and this new system of delegating legal authority became the norm.

Can it be that here in Parshat Beha’alotkha G-d is reprising Yitro’s advice as a form of oblique rebuke to Moshe for the high-handed and condescending manner in which he had just spoken to his father in law – the very man who had bailed him out of a similarly tight spot but two years earlier?

Perhaps this is the reason why the brief dialogue between Moshe and Yitro is so inconclusive. Because until G-d rebukes Moshe by reminding him of just who Yitro is, the situation remains unresolved. And only now, a chastened Moshe can set things right with his righteous father in law.


About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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