Our journeys through life may result in reaching various destinations, but they are incomplete if we don’t call out to God along the way. Here’s why…
Table for Five: Beha’alotecha
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You. And when it came to rest, he would say, Repose, O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of Israel.
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
Talk about traveling in style! However, Sforno suggests that what is described here was not a routine, but an ideal. As Israel approached the holy land, God intended to go ahead and conquer Canaan for them. Once accomplished, God would return and dwell among His people Israel.
Unfortunately, this never happened. The sin of the spies condemned Israel to forty years of wandering. Even in the times of Joshua, with the exception of the miraculous defeat of Jericho, the Israelites had to conquer the land themselves.
Oddly, our verses are bracketed by inverted nuns (a nun is a Hebrew letter). Rashi suggests the nuns indicate these verses are out of place, inserted as a respite between unpleasant material in the parshah. However, following Sforno’s lead, perhaps the nuns serve as brackets setting this text apart, not as misplaced, but as describing what might have been. If only we had not sinned in the desert, God would have conquered Canaan for us and dwelt among us forever. These verses are the prize we did not win because we chose the wrong door.
We are often haunted by thoughts of what might have been, whether we are victims of circumstance or of our own bad decisions. These thoughts can injure and paralyze us, drowning us in regret and preventing us from living our lives. The Torah’s use of brackets offers a powerful corrective. We cannot help but think of what might have been, but we cannot imprison ourselves in remorse and disappointment. Bracket off those thoughts and keep traveling.
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaic Studies Faculty
Chizkuni (1240 – 1310) explains that these words of Moses are “the traveler’s prayer.” It certainly isn’t the traveler’s prayer with which we are familiar. Perhaps Chizkuni means that this is the traveler’s prayer of the Israelites in the wilderness, experiencing the 40-year transition from being slaves to becoming God’s nation. The verses themselves, surrounded by the inverted “nun” letters, seem to be travelling through doors swinging open on either end.
With the lockdown beginning to ease, we are also going through doors, literally leaving our homes for the first time in months, transitioning into a new reality. Perhaps we need a similar traveler’s prayer, that God will be with us, defeating our enemies, both seen and unseen, and giving us both physical and emotional rest along our long road ahead.
Even as many of us are fearful, we are going back into the world. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) observed that on the journey through the wilderness, “We must always be ready to put our trust in God, following boldly.” I couldn’t help but think of the inspiring words from Star Trek — “To boldly go where no one has gone before” – which seem strangely relevant at this moment. Captain Picard himself emphasized at the end of his new series (no spoilers) that, “Fear is an incompetent teacher.” For our current journey through space and time, that sometimes seems more like science-fiction than reality, may we always have God on our side so that we may live long and prosper.
Lt. Yoni Troy, Israeli Defense Forces
As an IDF officer, I face daunting challenges daily. Commanding a unit of 70, I stay busy ‘round-the-clock, jumping from task to task: from helping soldiers balance their personal lives and their military responsibilities, to our everlasting preparations, protecting the Gaza border and ensuring that my unit is prepared for war. These constant responsibilities occasionally risk bringing me to my breaking point.
Reading this verse we may be misled, thinking that G-d’s job is to decimate any obstacles in our path. However, the Bible shows the people of Israel confronting countless challenges, and often failing miserably.
When we expect G-d to solve all our problems magically, the smallest difficulty shakes our faith. In reality, although G-d “scatters” many enemies along the way, G-d leaves us work to do too. The adversity we face is meant to stretch us to improve and become better people.
When leading the Israelites through the desert, G-d wanted to take a nation of slaves and make them into a free nation, then make them into a people that will lead humanity to make the world a better place. More personally, each one of us experiences this process, maturing and evolving through adversity.
No matter how overwhelming my daily routine might be, I always remind myself that if I did not have the strength to overcome, G-d would have “scattered” my problems for me. The challenges offer opportunities to improve myself, and move the world one step closer to Tikkun Olam.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, B’nai David-Judea Congregation
Why do so many of us tear up when we sing these words in the Torah service? On the surface, it seems Moshe is just narrating the ark’s movement. So what makes them special? Chizkuni explains that Moshe said ‘Arise!’ when the cloud of God seemed to disappear in their marching, and he said ‘Repose!’ so that the cloud of God did not just stop where they encamped, but specifically dwelled over B’nai Yisrael. In this way, Moshe’s words facilitated closeness between God and B’nai Yisrael.
When we feared God’s distance, Moshe taught us what to do: Call upon God and God will respond. And with these words, Moshe also held God accountable to His covenant to be with His people. Perhaps what makes us tear up is the recognition of a familiar human struggle: sometimes we feel God’s guidance is out of sight, or that He is distant… that we are suddenly alone in the desert. The power of Moshe’s words is that they give us language to voice our visceral reaction, to turn our fears, yearnings, and hopes into movement with God. No wonder tears flow when we taste the closeness of the Torah service.
Like a child looking to a parent, we want to be embraced and comforted. Moshe shows us that crying out to God is part of moving through the desert. It is part of settling and arriving in Israel. And it is how we facilitate Divine closeness. How can your call bring you closer?
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Interfaith Chaplain & Spiritual Care Guide, Kaiser Panorama City
A familiar element in daily tefilla, prayer, is rooted in these verses; when congregations open the Holy Ark. The wilderness between Egypt and Israel was a place of manifest disorder, of lawlessness, and uncertainty. The desert itself was forbidding and harsh as were our failings; ultimate tests of our endurance and tenacity to reach the promised land. Facing discord, here is undoubtedly a moment of repose which empowers the people, reinforcing Moshe as their intercessor with the Holy One. In contrast to our perfunctory encounters with these words in a siddur, we note Moshe’s beseeching of God to “return to rest.” Chizkuni, a 13th century French commentator observes, “Moshe’s urgent appeal was necessary…Moshe wanted the cloud to actively “dwell” above the Israelite camp.”
Why would Moshe need to petition God in this way? Could it be in the course of our wanderings, we were bereft of God’s presence—lonely or abandoned—and so Moshe intuited our need to call God to stay a while? Looking to one interpretation for the festival of Shemini Atzeret, ostensibly the eighth day of Sukkot, though its own holy day, our sages suggest that God yearns for that extra day of festivity upon realizing the “party” of the Days of Awe is imminently ending. So too, perhaps Moshe is returning the love, saying, “God, stay longer, give extra confidence and signs!” In these trying and frightening days, may all people have that fortitude to cry out, Uvenukho Yomar, Shuva Adonai! (When it rested, he would say, Repose, O Lord!)
With thanks to Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Nili Isenberg, Lt. Yoni Troy, Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, and Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
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