In a mishnah in Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag states "Hafoh ba hafoh ba, de'kula ba - Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it."
The words of the Torah may remain the same, but we are different each time we return to them. We can always reinterpret the ancient words anew.
Parashat Beha'alotkha calls our attention to many themes and ideas from the period of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. When I reviewed the parashah with COVID-19 eyes and a moment in time when we are focusing on how people navigate the world based on the colour of our skin, I saw that the parashah is actually a blueprint on how to cope and possibly even thrive during challenging situations.
Beha'alotkha offers many lessons, but this morning I want to focus on three.
The first is the importance of light. Earlier this week, we celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of Orly Bloom, daughter of Steven Bloom and Tammy Hauerstock. In my charge to Orly, I shared with her that in this week’s parashah we come across an important mitzvah that Aaron the High Priest must do.
Aaron is told he must lift the flames, not just light the candles.
Lighting candles is something we are commanded to do each week. It is an easy mitzvah, actually. We ensure we have at least two candles, and we recite the brakha lehadlik ner shel Shabbat which is loosely translated as “blessed are you God who commanded us to light the Shabbat lights.”
And then what do we do? We either collapse on the couch for a while or we go back to setting the table or finish getting dressed or sit outside for a few minutes and enjoy the post candle lighting stillness, appreciating the first delicious moments of Shabbat.
That is not what Aaron is commanded to do. He is told to lift up the lights. The cups of the first menorah were shaped so as to project the light forward, not just straight up. The menorah had a role. It was to spread Divine light to the world.
That is what we need to do. We need to lift up and spread the light into the world.
Oprah Winfrey famously said: “You have to find what sparks a light in you so that you in your own way can illuminate the world.”
We need to find what motivates us, what gets us up in the morning and ensures we go to sleep in a better world than we woke up to. And it will be different for all of us.
Not only do thirteen year olds need to find what sparks a light in them, we all need to. We all can do it. It is a fabulous coping mechanism.
We also learn the importance of incorporating music and the creative arts into our lives from this week’s parashah.
In Chapter 10, God says to Moshe:
Have two silver trumpets made; make them of hammered work.
The trumpets shall be blown by Aaron’s sons, the priests; they shall be for you an institution for all time throughout the ages.
Even today we are encouraged to tune into the left side of our brain, to call on the arts and culture and creativity to express ourselves and feel alive.
I think of Dori, a teenager in our community and a budding artist. I think of Larry Wallach and company who performed a wonderful Shavuot production a few weeks ago. I think of Patti Rotman and her baking! What do they all have in common? Creativity during crisis.
The hazozorot, the trumpets outlined in Beha'alotkha are called on again in the Books of Ezra and Divrei Hayamim, both found at the back of the book, at the end of the Tankah, where we read that they were used for the dedication of the Temple.
Music and the arts can brighten and enhance any experience. Even when things look down, we are not supposed to lose that outlet. We should tap into it in times of joy and also darker times of fear.
Just because we are stuck in our homes does not mean we should stare at screens or the walls all day long. Figure out your favourite creative outlet and explore and play with it. Whether you use creativity to reach God or to pass time, go for it.
It might even make you feel better.
A third lesson we learn in this week’s parashah regarding how to navigate traumatic times is the importance of transparency and clear open communication.
We need to talk to each other, not about each other. Also, we should never assume. We do not know what others are going through.
Chapter 12 begins like this:
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!”
They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?”
The LORD heard it.
Then we read in the voice of the narrator-
Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.
Suddenly the LORD called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam,
“Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.” So the three of them went out.
While there are numerous examples of Israelites complaining in the Book of Numbers, here Aaron and Miriam complained about a person. Moses was so humble that he just took it. God needed to interfere on Moshe’s behalf. The Ramban writes that “God himself would never respond to a quarrel of this kind even if he knew about it.” Moses was patient, which prompted God to take his side.
The Rashbam comments on the word "suddenly", seen in verse 4. He explains that God did not usually speak to Aaron, Moses and Miriam at that particular time, but God wanted to rebuke them on Moshe’s account and show Moshe some respect. God was angry and we see God acting with royal urgency.
Could you imagine how our central narrative would have ended if these few verses were eliminated? Because spoiler alert: Aaron and Miriam will not make it to the end of the Book of Numbers again this year.
What if the siblings would have asked Moshe directly: hey, what’s going in with you and your wives, instead of the drama that unfolds here?
In our current situation, there is so much misinformation and half-information spreading. Don’t assume. Ask.
At the shul level, there already is a lot of chatter about when the shul is going to open and what are we doing for the High Holy Days. Call us and ask us. There are plans underway.
With regard to our friends and acquaintances and neighbours, we don’t always know other people’s situations. We don’t know who has autoimmune issues or who lives with essential workers, who identifies as a person of colour, or who is taking care of elderly parents or people they care about.
We can learn from Aaron and Miriam’s mistake. They should have talked directly to their brother. Instead God intervened and caused short-term and long-term havoc.
If we pay attention to the world around us, we know this is not a simple time. Thank God we have the Torah to guide us. Beha'alotkha showed up exactly when we needed it.
As 2020 continues on, we can take the Beha'alotkha lessons to recalibrate a little, and try to do better each day.
Let’s spread our light.
Let’s engage in creative behaviour.
Let’s speak to each other with derekh eretz, with kindness, so that olam hesed yibabeh, so that we will build a world of love and attempt to enjoy what summers can offer us.