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Learn about this week’s Torah portion with our Rabbis
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen writes: “Perhaps one of the laws of Judaism that seems most distant and irrelevant in modern times is the idea of ritual contamination emanating from a corpse. Corpse defilement, as outlined in Leviticus 21 and elsewhere in Torah, is “cured” by the strange rituals set out in this week’s parsha, Chukat. We take the ashes from the parah adumah (red heifer), and create a strange liquid mixture to sprinkle on the people, vessels, and rooms that came into contact with the corpse. Within seven days, everyone is purified.”
Not exactly an easy ritual to explain — indeed, to some it might sound like a bit of a-religious ancient magic — and yet this ritual has staying power in Jewish consciousness. Those traditional Jews who pray for the dedication of the Third Temple while using modern science to clone a red heifer seek a type of purification they don’t believe possible without these trappings. As Reform Jews, we take a different tact. Spiritual purification comes from making amends bein adam l’haveiro, between people, and bein adam l’makom, between people and God. Perhaps it isn’t good material for DIG Episode 1, but this too needs staying power in the Jewish conscience.
Rabbi Aaron Meyer
Sh’lach L’cha – Numbers 13:1-15:41
And God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send your men, that they may survey the land of Canaan which I give unto the children of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a prince among them …’ And [when] they returned from spying on the land at the end of forty days … they told [Moses], ‘We came into the land to which you sent us and surely it flows with milk and honey … yet the people who dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified and very great. And moreover, we saw the children of Anak there.’ Yet Caleb quieted the people and said, ‘We should go up at once and possess it, for we are well able to overcome it.’ But the men that went with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” -Numbers 1:1-31
Sh’lach l’cha centers on a narrative many of us know as the story of the twelve spies: twelve men – “every once a prince…” – sent to scope out a land that would soon become the people’s new home. Ten return with fear in their eyes and doubt on their lips. Two – Joshua and Caleb – insist that all will be well. The ten wind up spreading an “evil report” about Canaan, striking fear and anxiety in the hearts of countless wandering souls still mourning their enslaved yet predictable lives in Egypt. Unrest, dissent and revolt breaks out in the camps – and once again Moses and Aaron are placed in the role of mediators, tempering a furious God who condemns this generation to die out in the desert, never to reach the land of Canaan.
Is the punishment too severe? Perhaps. Are the people so in the wrong to be fearful? Not completely. Yet, as commentators throughout time have noted, this is a key moment in which the people’s faith and trust in God seemingly evaporates. After years of wandering, after years of proving God’s self and God’s powers to the people; here they choose to listen to the gossips and the pot-stirrers, the fear-mongers and the bullies. Here, the people are unable to rise above the negative. They choose to give in to their worst instincts and as a result, they suffer.
The title of the parsha, Sh’lach l’cha – means literally to “send to yourself.” As Rabbi Steven Kushner writes in this week’s Ten Minutes of Torah for the URJ, “[The title] is instructive. No matter the task, no matter the challenge, the success of my mission depends entirely on how I see myself as being integral to its fulfillment … if my concern is focused [outward] … then I act without integrity. Lest we forget, the opening words of this parsha – sh’lach l’cha – are uttered in the singular. It speaks to you.”
We humans make choices every single day. When we choose not to rise above the din of fear, when we choose not to act with integrity, when we ignore what we know in our hearts is truly right – even when it is the harder choice – and when we refuse to listen, we suffer. Sh’lach l’cha serves as a reminder that each of us has a choice in how we move through this planet. And when we “send ourselves” out into that great blue world, our choices, behaviors, and how we choose to respond and react to all life throws at us are what truly dictate our future.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘when you mount the lamps, – b’ha’alotcha et ha’ne’rot el mul p’nei ha’m’norah – let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.’
The menorah is one of the most recognizable symbols of our Jewish community. From our own spaces of worship here at Temple to the walls and stained glass windows of sanctuaries throughout the world; from Jewish organizational letterheads to the seal of the State of Israel. We know the image of the menorah and claim it as our own. Many of us identify most intensely with the menorah as a functional yet triumphant piece of Temple property reclaimed by the Hasmoneans – descendants of Aaron – after the Maccabean victory, giving light to a dark Temple over a period of eight miraculous nights. This seven-branched symbol is a statement of solidarity, unity, and strength – and it traces its roots to the Tent of Meeting mentioned throughout Torah and here in parshat B’ha’alotcha.
The use of the word b’ha’alotcha in the opening sentence of the parsha is striking. B’ha’alotcha contains within it the same root as the word aliyah, meaning to ascend or rise up. God does not speak to Moses and simply say, “Tell Aaron to turn on the lights.” Rather, God refers here to the act of kindling flame as a rising up; an ignition and a spark. The use of this particular word elevates what would ordinarily be a functional task into something more; something holy.
My friend and teacher Rabbi Darren Kleinberg once explained parshat B’ha’alotcha as a reminder of the potential spark that can be ignited in the exchange between humans, particularly in the realm of Jewish leadership. When a match is struck against a coarse surface it causes a brief, brilliant spark to ascend into the air, followed by a glowing gold light. Similarly, when leaders, committees and entire boards come together to share and explore passions and stir within one another the desire to create a better future, that spark of an idea or a purpose turns to a glittering series of possibilities with the light of the future and its potential raising us to unlimited heights.
Tomorrow evening in Seattle we will celebrate the leadership of our congregation – honoring those who have served our community with dedication and devotion and welcoming our newest leaders into a cadre of committed congregants. May their light and warmth increase and continue to inspire, raising up each and every one of us to the heights we do not yet realize we can achieve. We invite you to celebrate our Board Installation and Volunteer Appreciation Shabbat at 6pm in Seattle tomorrow – let us welcome and kindle that sacred, inspiring light together!