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Emma Abman, Kim Beckman, Michelle Illiatovich, Monica Magidin, WeiWei SuJune 7, 2014Parshat Behaalotecha

Emma
Shabbat Shalom!  While not all of us will be reading today’s d’var Torah, this is truly a collective effort. A d’var Torah by Bat Mitzvah committee, if you will.

Behaalotecha: the name of this week's Torah portion. A beautiful word meaning “when you step up.” Each of us has literally “stepped up” to the plate in our desire to have a Bat Mitzvah that is a meaningful result of study and hard work. This parsha has been described as one of the most difficult to understand by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a key figure in modern Orthodox thought. According to Soloveitchik, the difficulty lies in navigating the array of seemingly unrelated topics. The parsha covers everything from the lighting of the menorah to the conflict between the three siblings, Moses, Aaron and Miriam. These seemingly diverse topics drew us in, and they have a thread in common, as you shall soon see.

The first half of the parsha glows with optimism: the instructions for lighting the menorah; the unique and sacred responsibilities of the Levites concerning the Tabernacle; the call to move on from the wilderness of Sinai two years after the Israelites' departure from Egypt; God's authorization of a second Passover offering and the inclusion of non-Israelites who elect to make a purifying paschal sacrifice. Also, we read about the first movements of the ark under God's protection, the instructions for sounding trumpets and the first stage of the journey from Sinai. All is hopeful in the first half of parashat Behaalotecha.  Nothing to worry about, right? But If we are certain about anything as Jews, it’s that there’s always something to worry about. 

The second half of the parsha is not so merry. We see the discontent of the people and God's interventions. The Israelites challenge Moses with their kvetching – mostly about the lack of meat in their exile diet. Moses reacts with deep despair, asking God to let him die rather than bear the burden of leadership. As explored inThe Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, Moses implies that God “conceived Israel, was pregnant, gave birth to Israel and now should carry Israel.” This maternal language is a rare instance of the use of female imagery to characterize God in the Torah.

God has Moses gather 70 male elders to share his spiritual and political burden. When Moses’ authority is called into question by Joshua, the voice of the established order, in response to the actions of two of the elders who also claim the gift of prophecy, he answers with a truly humble and enlightened sentiment: “Would that all of God's people were prophets, and God put God's spirit upon them.”

American rabbi and community activist, Steve Gutow, in the book Torah Queeries, calls this one of the most democratic and revolutionary verses anywhere in the Torah. The great Torah scholar Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that here we are shown that “the spiritual powers granted by God are not the privilege of any particular office or status. The lowliest of the nation shares with the highest the opportunity of being granted divine inspiration.”

The parsha closes with Miriam and Aaron voicing two complaints: that Moses married a Cushite woman and that their prophetic abilities are not recognized alongside those of Moses. While both Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses, God's punishment falls on Miriam alone.

Kim
So what do we make of this array of  seemingly unrelated topics? We’d like to share with you the questions that stood out for us.  

First, for whom does the light shine?

We read in the parsha: “The seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick.” Here, Aaron is instructed on how to use one candlestick made of gold to light the seven lamps in the Mikdash. God does not use the word “light” but rather “vehaalotecha”, the word from which our parasha draws its name. Rashi explains the meaning as “when you cause to ascend.”  The act that Aaron was to perform includes kindling the flame until it rose by itself. Following the kindling of the flame, the flame illuminates the space in front of candlestick.

Midrash Rabbah says that when a person builds a house, he makes the windows narrow on the outside and wider on the inside, so that the light from the outside optimally illuminates the interior of the house. But when King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, he made the windows narrow within and wide without, so that its light should emanate to the outside and illuminate the world.  The light -- spiritual as well as physical -- generated by the Temple or by Aaron’s kindled flame, is meant to flow freely to the world outside, without preference or pre-condition, without excluding anyone.

 Having learned something about the importance of sharing of light without exclusion, another question arises: why must the light be carried by a menorah made of gold?  We read in the parsha that the Jews leave Egypt with gold given to them by their new Egyptian friends. They pack this gold not on their bodies but on their livestock. The people also take the food left over from the night before, which Rashi interprets to mean the matzo and morror, but this they carry on their own bodies. To us, this suggests that gold was not as precious as these reminders of God’s deliverance.  Thus they carried the leftovers on their own person.  Gold can be replaced but the relationship as symbolized by the matzo and maror cannot.

The Jews must schlep a solid gold menorah through the desert. It is to be made of a talent of gold, approximately 75 pounds, not a dainty thing you can easily throw into a knapsack. Why not make it easier on ourselves and wait to make the menorah when we get to the Holy Land? God commands: “You shall be a light unto the nations.” So it seems, as Jews, we have a gift of light that we are ‘chosen’ to carry, and the burden may be heavy.  For some of us, we chose Judaism and for others of us, we chose to return.  In that choice we recognize both the blessing and the burden that are its constant companion.  Choosing to lead a Jewish life is not easy.  As with the light of the menorah, the light within ourselves require attention, for the Jewish conception of briging light to the world is not through might.  Rather, it is the light of knowledge, of justice and, hopefully, one day, of peace.

Our parsha also asks, and we resound: But how do we share the privilege, responsibility and burden of this light among the members of our community?  Here, in Behaalotecha, the Jews are on the move again; this time following the Exodus from Mitzraym and the year of revelation at Mount Sinai. Moses retains the mantle of leadership as the parashah begins, but before long, there is much kvetching and dissent as the wandering in the desert continues. In over his head, Moses becomes desperate and God finally offers assistance in leading this unruly bunch. 

God accedes to Moses’ request for help and instructs him to gather 70 of Israel’s elders in order for God to distribute both a measure of the spirit formerly held by Moses, as well as the sharing of his leadership burden. Rambam, the medieval commentator, notes that the number 70 has special significance in Judaism. It represents the number of Jews who originally went down to Egypt and the total number of nations in the world. Seventy is also a number that represents completion. 

The chosen elders, however, did not include Miriam. As Rabbi Ruth Sohn notes in her essay from The Women’s Torah Commentary, we learn in Exodus that Miriam was a prophet and a principal leader of the Israelites along with Moses and Aaron.  This passage suggests that Miriam had a loyal following but that a woman with the gift of prophecy would have been silenced in her day.  Miriam’s silencing and banishing troubles us but her courage and the support of her community inspires us.  

God’s authorization of 70 sages is said to establish diversity as a Jewish virtue. We know that those 70 sages did not include all available opinions; thus this parashah is a reminder of the timelessness of the struggle to be heard and partake in the light of community. Indeed, that struggle is at the heart of the paths that each of us followed in embarking on this Bat Mitzvah journey. We hold dear a belief that Judaism includes our voices and others more marginalized than our own. We are also inspired by those whose courage in speaking their truths brought them derision and rejection in their day. They paved the way for us and we are indebted to them. Pluralism of ideas is at the centre of Jewish law. We all must stay vigilant and courageous in speaking up for what we believe is just and right, and in supporting those who are marginalized.

Michelle
As individuals and as a people, we have a responsibility and a blessing to walk in this life, spiritually and intellectually mindful of the light we carry. We have the capacity to let it shine but we also, through neglect, can let it wither in darkness.

We have each travelled through our unique journey in Judaism and through the bonds created in this Bat Mitzvah group, we have come to new places of understanding. In our own words, this is how we have lived this parsha - together and alone:  

 We came from different directions
Walking through our own private deserts,
Seeking what was lost to us.

Emma 
Judaism was my fun and unique  
but mostly mysterious background as a child.
In my youth I dismissed religion, thinking it was at odds 
with the fight for justice and change.
Yet I held tightly to my sense of the sacred.
I looked for a spiritual home in Buddhism,
and it opened me up to my Jewish roots.
I want to explore the breadth and depth of Judaism.
I want to live within its mystery.

WeiWei 
I came to Judaism through marriage,
An incredible woman who introduced me to the joys of challah.
My mother-in-law’s approach to everything, even illness and the end of her life, was so fundamentally Jewish.
Humor, questions, study, a warm embrace for her family and strangers alike, and always a lot of food.
While the marriage ended, I kept my Judaism in the settlement.
This bat mitzvah was the repair that I needed,
To draw me back from the solitude, failure and cynicism of divorce.    
A way to take a breath of fresh air,
A way to hear the music above white noise,  
A way to see the light in the cracks. 

Kim 
I steeled myself with a steadfast belief in my own strength,
In my ability to move through challenges, loss and  personal crises.
My encounters with organized religion made me want to scream or weep.
Over time, I came to know a deep spiritual bankruptcy.
I desired, yet feared, a place of refuge, a community,
A space to confront and wrestle with my connection
To a  power greater than myself.

Michelle
As a child I questioned and heard replies of “because” and “woman are dirty”.
Later, alienated from my roots, though not wanting to be,
I searched other spiritual paths.
Yet always there was the light.  My Jewish centre.
More than 30 years later I stand here.
Amazed at where my journey has led.

Monica 
Growing up in Mexico, I could see but one way to be a Jewish woman,
One that I totally rejected.
Familiar science and popular politics seemed better roads to travel.
Leaving Mexico, I shed some of these old beliefs.
I found a Judaism I could live with and be part of,
As a Jew and as a woman.

Michelle
Some of us walked for years,
Others for decades,
Searching for our souls’ home.

We longed for community where we belonged.
Community where we’d be comfortable.
Community that would embrace us and that we could embrace.

Our paths wended through different deserts,
Wound through different backgrounds,
Converged into different present lives.

Yet our paths led us all here.
To this bima, to this torah, to this sacred space,
Joining as sisters as we walk our new path together.

 And so, as five very different women, we stand before the congregation today to celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah. What we have in common is our desire to light the light of Judaism both within ourselves and for our families and friends so that it grows always higher, so that it ascends, b’haalotecha. And we also feel our voices can now be heard in the community: our voices of learning and commitment, our voices of understanding and observance, our voices of involvement and of being daughters of the mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom.

Processional

This little light of mine…

I’m going to let it shine…

Tue, 17 October 2017 27 Tishrei 5778