Beha’alotcha

Numbers 8:1-12:15

Zachariah 2:14-4.7

What would human or Jewish life be like if there were no second chances? If we were limited to one bite of the apple of things good and holy in life? Likely sad and depressing.

This week’s Torah portion lifts that veil of depression in several ways. Early in the parasha we learn of a group of Israelites who missed seder by being either ritually impure or removed from Jerusalem at the time of the paschal sacrifice in the middle of Nisan. Fortunately for them, we learn in this parasha of the existence of a Pesach Sheni, a second chance Pesach exactly one month later during the month of Iyar.

Moses also experiences the power of a second chance to reconsider his leadership style. Early in the parasha there is an allusion to Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law. The attentive reader will wind back several books of Torah at this point and remember that Yitro had instructed Moses on the virtues of shared, “distributive” leadership. Moses had wearied himself by judging all cases of the Israelites.

“Judging cases” might now seem to Moses like kids’ stuff compared to quelling rebellion in the ranks of the Israelites. The mounting crescendo of Israelite objections to the imagined or real challenges of living in the wilderness has them hankering for the “good old days” in Egypt (real or imagined, it matters not). Perhaps Moses had taken the whole burden of leading the Israelites on himself, over-estimating his own charismatic powers.

The result is that Moses asks to die rather than to continue to be “sucked dry” of energy and capacity by the Israelites. He likens himself in the Torah portion to a nursemaid with no milk left to give to the Israelites. God responds to Moses by commissioning 70 elders to be imbued with the ruakh ha-kodesh (holy spirit) and become prophetic partners with Moses in leading the Israelites.

In reading this portion, I am always struck by the amazing inventive and interpretive power of Jewish tradition regarding biblical verses. Sometimes this means stripping the biblical verse of its biblical context or even inverting its meaning entirely. The verse “to feed and nurture like a nursemaid” – so negative in its connotation in the Torah – is completely turned on its head in the Mahzor Vitry, a 14th-century eastern European collection of Jewish folklore. Here the verse is recited by the parent and melamed/teacher alike as they initiate a young child into their Jewish learning on the eve of rosh chodesh, the new month.

As an educator rabbi, I can only pray that the fine teachers who guide our Cleveland Jewish children in Jewish leaning experience the “tender” side of this verse as they teach and experience none of the terrifying exhaustion and subsequent burnout of Moses in this portion.

Rabbi Jeffrey Schein is director of the adolescent initiative and special projects at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. He is founding rabbi of the Reconstructionist congregation Kol Halev.

This column originally appeared in 2013.

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