New York on this early morning hides her face under a blanket of clouds, so I can’t quite bid her good-bye, which is just fine. I know, I know – closure is so important, and yes, it is, but then again, we, the people who on the same day, finish and begin the Torah once again, do we actually believe in closure?? Does that (illusion) give us a feeling of comfort and control, to think (!) we know whether we’re done somewhere, and if and when we’ll be back, or not? I left Israel umpteen years ago for a less-than-a-year trip around the world, which I have not yet completed, and – at the same time that I am eager to do so, go back and settle “once and for all”, I already plan when to be back on this side of the ocean… Sometimes I wonder why we’ve been called “Am Hasefer”, “the People of the Book”, when really, we are the People of the Journey…
How fitting to be traveling (East through West) on the week of this Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, when the Children of Israel are just 3 days away from the Land of Israel, but then, as Paul Simon says: “the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away”…
Three days; that’s all it would have taken. The journey should have ended in no more than eighteen months. And now, instead, will last for 40 years. This Torah portion should have been named something like “the disaster”. Instead, it is called “Be’ha’alotcha”, erroneously often translated “when you light the lamp” when it really means “when you bring up”, from the root a.l.h.ע.ל.ה same as going up to the Torah and – going to the Land of Israel.
Some teach that the book of Numbers is really three books: first, chapters 1-10:34, and last, chapters 11-36. In between them, there are two verses (chapter 10:35-36) which the sages deemed as the second book.
It is easy to understand the theme of the “first book”, which centers on the last preparations and the final stages of the journey, including organizing the traveling camp and completing the mishkan. Similarly, it is easy to understand the theme of the “third book”, which includes all the stories of the “delay”: the complainers, the spies, Korach and his mutiny and more.
What are the two verses in between and why are those considered the whole “second book”? They will most likely look familiar from this week’s Torah service:
לה וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה: קוּמָה יְהוָה, וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ, וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.
35 And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, O LORD, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.’
לו וּבְנֻחֹה, יֹאמַר: שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
36 And when it rested, he said: ‘Return, O LORD, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel.
That was supposed to be the whole journey: the ark will travel and rest. The Children of Israel, led by Moshe, will travel safely and uneventfully. No enemies, no trouble. It’s but a small distance. They’ll arrive shortly. The end.
Interestingly, in every Torah scroll, these two verses are separated by two upside down letters, two upside down nun’s. This was possibly done to accentuate the tragedy, as if to say, look! we were so, so close!
What happened? Was it Moshe who was tired and heartbroken from the situation brewing in front of his eyes which led to his inability to enter the Land, who lacked in his leadership skills? Were the People, in spite of being at Sinai, in G-d’s presence, and receiving the Law, not ready? Now I think that the Torah says, ‘it’s hard to know what exactly “happened”; it’s just did. Now let’s deal with what’s in front of us’….
Be that as it may, the Torah portion of what could be a tragic turning point, is called “Beha’alotcha”, literally, “as you bring up”, opening with lighting the holy menorah, what became the emblem of the State of Israel many years in the future, symbolic of who we are: not disconnected, fragmented pieces, but a one whole People. Indeed, we got used to quick stories, 90-120 minutes with “they lived happily ever after” caption smeared at the end. But, the journey is rarely that simple, and rather, often, much more complicated than we initially expect. Even when the path is clear, we fall short, fall down, have regrets (ragrets 😊), change our mind, get scared. And, get up. In fact, the Torah might be telling us that there is really no other way. What if the Children of Israel did everything “right” as they “should”? What if they just walked straight into the Land without any hesitation, full of faith and fervor?? I think that would be much worse – for us – than them making mistakes! The Torah in its wisdom, reminded us that even then, even in the strangest “detours”, our direction is still, always upward, to the light.