S.A.L.T. - PARASHAT BEHAALOTEKHA
By Rav David Silverberg
We read in Parashat Behaalotekha of the sin of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava,
when Benei Yisrael wept over the lack of food in the desert. Although they were sustained
miraculously by a daily portion of manna that fell from the sky each morning,
they craved a richer “menu,” expressing a desire for meat and nostalgically
recalling the variety of foods they were fed as slaves in Egypt (11:4-6).
In describing this incident, the Torah appears to emphasize the fact that
the complaints were voiced in front of the people’s tents: “Moshe heard the
people weeping by families, each person by the entrance to his tent; the Lord
was very incensed, and it was [also] evil in Moshe’s eyes” (11:10). The Torah underscores the “familial”
aspect of the people’s complaints, noting that they wept “le-mishpechotav”
– “by family” – each family near its tent.
The Chatam Sofer offers an
insightful explanation for this emphasis.
We are urged to feel content with what we have, but without expecting
others to do the same. For
ourselves, we should be grateful and gratified even if we have little, but when
it comes to our fellowmen, we should wish and work for their prosperity, and not
demand that they feel content with the little they have. The Torah emphasizes that at
Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, the people wept “each person by the entrance to his tent.” This was not a collective protest,
where the people were genuinely concerned about both themselves and others. Had this been the case, there could
perhaps be room to mitigate their guilt, as they were sincerely troubled by
their friends’ and neighbors’ meager rations.
But the people grumbled “ish petach ohalo,” single-mindedly
focused on their own unsatisfied desire for more food. They complained only for themselves,
and not collectively, for the wellbeing of the nation generally. And for this reason, the Chatam
Sofer explains, “the Lord was very incensed, and it was [also] evil in
Moshe’s eyes.” As the people’s
wailing were borne out of a selfish lust for more food, without a broader
concern for the nation as a whole, their guilt was unmitigated and they were
thus liable to the harsh divine punishment that ensued.
Parashat Behaalotekha begins with the
mitzva of the lighting of the menorah in
the Beit Ha-mikdash, a ritual assigned to the kohanim. This brief section includes the
Torah’s confirmation that Aharon complied with these commands (8:3), and Rashi,
citing the Sifrei, famously comments,
“Le-hagid shevacho shel Aharon she-lo shina” – “This speaks in praise of Aharon,
that he did not deviate [from the laws concerning the kindling of the menorah].”
darshanim addressed the question of why Aharon was deserving of special “praise” for
his strict compliance with these laws.
After all, we would not have expected anything less from the nation’s
simple explanation, perhaps, is that the entire question is predicated on a
fundamentally flawed presumption – that praise is warranted only when one goes
beyond the strict call of duty.
Possibly, the Sifrei
precisely seeks to convey the point
that even “she-lo shina” – doing as one’s told – is praiseworthy.
We often tend to reserve compliments and words of praise for
extraordinary and exceptional actions and achievements. Accolades tend to be conferred upon
those who do more than what is ordinarily expected, who stand out in a certain
area or several areas. The
Sifrei might be reminding us that
simply following instructions, fulfilling our responsibilities day in, and day
out, like Aharon’s daily kindling of the
menorah, warrants “shevach” (praise). We should acknowledge, respect and
admire not only the beyond-the-call-of-duty work of the people around us, but
even the “she-lo shina,” their consistent fulfillment of their basic duties and responsibilities. Praise should not be reserved for the
special favors that are done for us, or for those who make great sacrifices and
extend themselves on our behalf. We
must follow the Sifrei’s example of admiring even the simple, everyday “she-lo shina,” when the people in our lives simply do what they are supposed to do on a
beginning of Parashat Behaalotekha, God issues a command concerning the kindling
menorah in the
Mishkan: “Speak to Aharon and tell him that when you light the lamps, the lamps
shall illuminate toward the front of the
menorah.” Rashi, Seforno and others
explain this command to mean that the wicks of the six lamps that extend from
the middle of the
menorah should be tilted toward the middle lamp.
The Rashbam claims that this verse instructs tilting the wicks of all
seven lamps toward the shulchan,
which was positioned opposite the menorah, along the northern side of the
Sifrei Zuta, commenting on this verse, explains the command much differently, but the
precise intent of its comment is unclear and subject to some controversy. The brief passage reads, “she-hayu chozerin chalila ke-min atara” – literally, “they would go around like a crown.” The
in his Zayit Ra’anan commentary to the Sifrei Zuta, writes
that the Sifrei Zuta appears to
maintain that the six branches of the menorah were not positioned
along the two sides of the menorah, as is commonly understood. Rather, they were positioned around
the menorah, such that the middle lamp was surrounded by the six other
lamps, resembling a crown surrounding a ruler’s head. According to this interpretation, the
six branches extended from the middle branch and then turned in such a way that
they encircled the middle branch.
The Magen Avraham then suggests reconciling the Sifrei Zuta’s
comment with the conventional view by claiming that it refers to the shape of
each individual branch, rather than the menorah as a whole. Meaning, each branch extended from
the middle branch in an arched fashion and rose to the side of the menorah
alongside the middle lamp.
According to the Magen Avraham’s second interpretation, this
passage in the Sifrei Zuta
provides a source for the common depiction of the
menorah, according to which the six branches
extended from the middle in an arch.
This is the view taken by Ibn Ezra, in his commentary to Sefer Shemot (27:21 and
Peirush Ha-katzar, 25:37).
Compelling proof to this view may perhaps be drawn from the
Arch of Titus, which
depicts the Romans’ victory march after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and which
shows the legions carrying the menorah.
In this depiction, the branches are arched, like in the commonly assumed
depictions of the menorah.
The Rambam, however, in his commentary to the Mishna (Menachot), presents
a depiction of the menorah with the branches extending straight from the
middle of the menora, in a diagonal, as opposed to an arch. His son, Rabbi Avraham ben Ha-Rambam,
in his Torah commentary, confirms that this was the Rambam’s view.
There is a third interpretation of the Sifrei Zuta’s comment,
which was suggested by Rav Meir Ish Shalom (1831-1908),
in his annotation to the Berayta
Di-mlekhet Ha-mishkan (Vienna, 5668).
He claims that the Sifrei
Zuta refers not to the shape of the
menorah, but rather to the method of its lighting.
Namely, God commanded that Aharon would light the first lamp, and his two
sons would then light the second and third lamps, after which the rotation
returned to Aharon, and so on. The
three kohanim stood around the
menorah “like a crown” and passed the torch one to the other as they lit each lamp,
and this, according to Rav Meir Ish Shalom, is the meaning of the
Sifrei’s comment, “chozerin chalila.”
He cites a passage in Masekhet Berakhot (51) where the Gemara speaks of a
gathering of people with the term “atara” (“me’atreihu be-talmidim”). Rav Menachem Kasher, in his Torah
Sheleima (milu’im to
Parashat Teruma, 14), adds that in Sefer Shemuel I (23:26), David’s men are
described as surrounding him to protect him with the term “oterim.” It is thus possible that the
Sifrei Zuta, too, refers to the kohanim crowding around the menorah
as they took turns lighting the lamps.
Torah in Parashat Behaalotekha (9:1-14) tells of
pesach sheni, the law requiring offering the
korban pesach on 14 Iyar, a month after its
regular time, in the event that one was unable to offer the sacrifice at its
proper time. This law was presented
in response to a question submitted by a group of individuals who were unable to
observe the korban pesach obligation on the first Pesach celebrated by Benei Yisrael
after the Exodus. The people
approached Moshe and Aharon and appealed for the opportunity to offer the
sacrifice despite being in a state of tum’a which rendered them
halakhically excluded from the korban pesach. God spoke to Moshe and instructed
that those who were ritually impure on Pesach should bring the offering one
month later, in Iyar.
Many commentators have noted the clear parallel between this account and
the story of Tzelofchad’s daughters, of which we read later in Sefer Bamidbar
(27:1-11). In anticipation of
Benei Yisrael’s imminent entry into Eretz Yisrael and distribution of
the land, Tzelofchad’s daughters came to Moshe and Elazar and asked that the
portion allotted to their deceased father be allotted to them, rather than be
transferred to their uncles. Moshe
brought the question to God, who then presented the halakha that if a man
passes away without sons, then his estate is inherited by his daughters. It seems that in both instances –
pesach sheni and the benot Tzelofchad – a group of people appealed to
Moshe and the kohen gadol and asked for (or perhaps demanded) inclusion
in something from which they stood to be excluded, and their request was
granted. Besides the contextual
resemblance, both groups also employ noticeably similar terminology in
presenting their case – “lama nigara” (“why should we be deprived” –
9:7), “lama yigara” (“why should [our father’s name] be lost” – 27:4). Indeed, it is commonly understood
that both groups – the people who were tamei, and Tzelofchad’s daughters
– were passionately committed to the mitzva in question – korban
pesach, preserving Tzelofchad’s portion – and were rewarded for their
idealism and fervor by having their genuine request granted.
However, there is one important difference between the two stories, one
which may perhaps frame the incident of the temei’im in a much different
perspective. When Moshe brought the
question of Tzelofchad’s daughters to God, God began his response with a firm
“endorsement” of their claim: “Kein benot
Tzelofchad doverot” (“Tzelofchad’s daughters speak correctly” – 27:7). He explicitly affirms the validity of
their argument that they should be given their father’s estate. When it comes to pesach sheni,
by contrast, we find no such recognition that the petitioners’ claim was valid. In fact, if we read their request
carefully, we see that it was not granted, at least not fully. They said to Moshe, “Why should we be
deprived of offering the sacrifice of the Lord at its time among the
Israelites.” They requested the
right to offer the korban pesach “be-mo’ado be-tokh Benei Yisrael” – on the 14th of Nissan,
together with the entire nation, despite their state of ritual impurity. (Rav Saadia Gaon, in his commentary,
explains this verse to mean that they requested the opportunity to offer the
sacrifice the same way it is offered “at its time,” but not to actually offer it
on the 14th of Nissan; the plain reading of the verse, however,
indicates otherwise.) In
response to this request, God did not proclaim, “Kein ha-temei’im doverim,” that the
temei’im advanced a correct
argument. Nor does He fully grant
their request. Instead, God
introduces the concept of pesach
sheni, obligating those who were
ritually impure on the 14th of Nissan to offer the sacrifice a month
later. He does not allow them to
bring the offering “in its time, among the Israelites,” as they had requested. Their sacrifice is brought at a
different time, and not together with the rest of the nation.
message, perhaps, that emerges from this contrast is that when people sincerely
come forward with a petition of “lama nigara,” seeking inclusion in an area
where they have previously excluded, the answer depends on the circumstances. Sometimes, as in the case of
Tzelofchad’s daughters, the request will meet with halakhic approval, but in
other occasions, such as the instance of the
temei’im, the petition will be denied.
There is no single, blanket answer to the question of “lama nigara”; each case must be carefully
examined and assessed in light of established halakhic principles and norms,
among other relevant factors, to determine whether or not the request could or
should be granted.
Chatam Sofer to 9:8
in Parashat Behaalotekha of the group of
temei’im – individuals who were in a state
of ritual impurity when the time came to offer the
korban pesach a year after the Exodus. The group approached Moshe and Aharon
to request permission to offer the paschal sacrifice despite their state of
tum’a: “We are impure…
Why should we be deprived of offering the sacrifice of the Lord at its time
among the Israelites?” (9:7). In
response, God instructed Moshe with regard to
pesach sheni, the requirement to offer the
korban pesach a month after the regular offering is
brought, if one was in a state of tum’a at that time.
Sifrei, and the Gemara in Masekhet Sukka (25a-b), famously cite several theories
in identifying these people. The
Tanna’im cited identify these
temei’im as either the bearers of Yosef’s coffin, the cousins of Nadav and Avihu –
the older sons of Aharon who were killed by a heavenly fire inside the Mishkan – who brought the bodies outside,
or people who buried a
meit mitzva – a corpse that had no one else to tend to it.
obvious question arises as to why Chazal
found it necessary to address this question at all, and to identify the
temei’im as people who became tamei as a result of their involvement
in an important mitzva.
As Ibn Ezra notes, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that among such a
multitude there were many people who passed on and whose family members thus
contracted tum’a. What might have prompted Chazal
to identify this group specifically as people who contracted tum’a
through their engagement in a special mitzva?
The likely answer, as noted by Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg
his Yalkut Yehuda, is that the Sages sought to answer the
question of how the temei’im petitioned to offer the
korban pesach in their state of ritual impurity.
As we discussed yesterday, the
temei’im did not request a
pesach sheni, an opportunity to offer the sacrifice after they
regained their ritual purity.
Rather, they wanted to bring the offering “at its time, among the Israelites,”
despite the clear halakhic barrier that prevented such a possibility. What, then, were they thinking? On what basis did they ask Moshe to
allow them to offer the korban pesach?
Why did they think that the standard rules of
tum’a and tahara would be waived for them?
The answer is that these were not ordinary
They had acquired this status as a result of holy work, and they
therefore felt that perhaps the standard restrictions could be lifted. It did not seem right to them that
their involvement in a lofty mitzva operation should result in
their exclusion from the nationwide korban pesach festivities. It was specifically because they were
involved in the holy task of tending to the remains of Yosef, Nadav and Avihu,
or a meit mitzva that they felt the rules should be bent on their behalf
so they could offer the korban pesach together with everybody else on the
14th of Nissan.
If so, then this episode reminds us that involvement in lofty endeavors
does not absolve us of our basic halakhic obligations. Exceptional work in one area of
religious life does not justify subpar performance in other areas. The laws of korban pesach
remained in force even for those who transported Yosef’s remains. The special mitzvot we perform
do not allow us to relax the basic standards that apply in other areas. Even if we “specialize” in certain
areas of avodat Hashem, this does not justify neglecting the others.
The final section of Parashat Behaalotekha tells the famous story of
Miriam and Aharon’s disparaging comments about their brother, Moshe, regarding
his marriage. It is unclear from the
text precisely what they said, but Rashi (12:1), citing Chazal, explains that they criticized Moshe for
his decision to separate from his wife.
Miriam had recently learned of Moshe’s separation from Tzipora, and she
shared the news with Aharon. The two
of them, both of whom were themselves prophets, expressed to each other their
strong objection to this drastic measure, as the Torah relates, “They said, ‘Did
the Lord speak only with Moshe? Did
He not speak with us, as well?” (12:2).
Despite their stature as prophets, Aharon and Miriam never for a moment
considered the need to abstain from marital relations, and they thus criticized
Moshe for having done so. They did
not realize that God had instructed Moshe to separate from Tzipora because of
the frequency of his prophecy which demanded a constant state of preparedness.
The punishment incurred by Miriam for these disparaging remarks against
her brother serves as the paradigm of the sin of
lashon ha-ra, negative speech about
other people (see Devarim 24:9 and commentaries).
Indeed, there are several aspects of
lashon ha-ra that may be learned from
the particular story of Miriam and Aharon, but in light of Rashi’s comments, we
might point specifically to the need to recognize the differences between
people. Miriam and Aharon’s mistake
lay in their assumption that the same set of standards and guidelines applied
across the board to all prophets. As
the Sifrei Zuta comments, “[Aharon and
Miriam said:] Moshe is an arrogant person!
Did the Almighty speak only with Him?
He has already spoken with many prophets, and with us, and we did not
separate from our spouses as he separated [from his wife].” They failed to recognize that the
stature of prophet can be achieved on many different levels, and thus the
regulations that apply to one prophet will not necessarily apply to the other. Aharon and Miriam’s remarks reflected
a mindset that views prophecy as a kind of monolithic status whose rules apply
equally to all. This was incorrect,
as God had explicitly instructed Moshe that his unique stature demanded the
drastic measure of abstaining from marital relations – a measure that was not
required of other prophets.
Often, the root cause of lashon ha-ra is precisely this mistake –
failing to recognize the fact that different people do things differently. We are often “put off” by the
behavior, choices and lifestyle of peers because they differ significantly from
ours. Just as different guidelines
applied to different prophets, similarly, different people lead their lives in
different ways and react differently to the same situation. And just as Miriam and Aharon should
have reserved judgment before criticizing Moshe, we, too, must reserve judgment
before ridiculing or objecting to the actions of the people around us. Even if someone does things in a way
in which we would never do them, this does not necessarily make them wrong. We must learn to accept the fact that
different people make different choices in life, and what’s right for one person
might not be right for somebody else.
In the opening verses of Parashat Behaalotekha, the Torah issues a
command concerning the kindling of the
menorah in the
Beit Ha-mikdash: “When you
kindle the lamps, the seven lamps shall shine toward the front of the
menorah.” This command is ambiguous,
but the most common explanation is that the lamps to the right and to the left
of the middle lamp should be tilted toward the middle.
(8:2) advances a theory to explain the symbolic significance of this
arrangement. He writes that the two
sides of the
menorah represent the two basic groups among
Am Yisrael – those involved mainly in “chayei sha’a,”
worldly pursuits, and those who devote their lives to “chayei olam,” Torah
study. Both groups must focus their
attention on the “middle lamp,” meaning, the central purpose of it all, which is
the service of the Almighty. Whether
we are among those who engage in ordinary work for a living or among those who
devote themselves entirely to Torah learning, we must be “turned” toward the
middle, without ever losing sight of the Godly purpose behind our pursuits.
Moshe Mordechai Karp,
in his Vayavinu Ba-mikra, notes
that Seforno’s insight may help explain the famous Midrashic passage cited by
Rashi concerning the command of the
menorah. The Midrash tells that Aharon
felt dismayed that he did not participate in the special gifts brought by the
the twelve tribal leaders, in honor of the Mishkan’s inauguration. The leader of each tribe brought a
gift – with the exception of Aharon, leader of the tribe of Levi. God sought to ease Aharon’s concerns
by reminding him of the mitzva of kindling of menorah, indicating
to Aharon that, in the Midrash’s words, “yours is greater than theirs.” Already the Ramban raised the
question of why Aharon, the kohen gadol, would be troubled by his
exclusion from the nesi’im’s gift, and why specifically the mitzva of kindling the menorah would provide him with
comfort. The Seforno’s comments may
allow us to explain the Midrash by noting the fundamental contrast between the
nesi’im’s gift and the menorah. Each tribal leader offered his gift
as a representative of his tribe, such that each of the twelve tribes of
had its special day of celebration in honor of the Mishkan, signifying
the special value and unique stature of each individual tribe. The Midrash teaches that the kindling
of the menorah, which represents the unified mission that binds together
all segments of the nation, is greater than the tribal leaders’ offering, the
celebration of the individual tribes.
Individuality is important and has its place, but even greater than
individual or tribal achievement is the
menorah, the notion of bringing together the different segments of the
nation and highlighting the “middle lamp,” the joint mission and set of ideals
that we all share.