Behaalotecha is an interesting and busy parasha. It jumps around to a lot of different topics that bring up a lot of questions. In past parashot, the common chain of events is that God tells Moses how things for the Israelites need to be and they carry out those commandments, but in this text, we learn about people bringing concerns and questions to Moses and his own concerns that he brings to God. I really enjoyed that because something beautiful about Judaism is its ability to question and struggle with everything. It has been strange to read about Israelites following orders without question, so I felt a bit relieved and intrigued by the change in the way the story is being told.
A specific concern brought up by the Israelites is from a few people who want to be able to participate in the mandated sacrifice and ceremony commemorating Pesach (Passover) but cannot because they have been near a corpse and therefore are ‘defiled.’ While this question was not asked directly to God, but instead through Moses, it shows the trust and faith that the Israelites had in Moses as well as their ability to grapple with what was bring asked of them. They engaged in the commandments and mandates that Moses brought to them and worked to ensure they could carry them out correctly and meaningfully.
We learn that strangers are also expected to participate in the Passover rituals and that the Jewish people who chose not to are to be cut off from their family. The interaction between God and the Israelites is really important even with a mediator – it shows that they are interested in engaging with each other and willing to do things asked of them while also having autonomy. Another way that God interacts with the Israelites, indirectly but fully present and actively, is by leading them by Cloud. God has a cloud that shows the tribes where to settle down and when to start moving through the desert again – kind of a weird interaction but pretty significant and interesting.
In the Torah Queeries commentary for this parasha, the author focused on Moses’ request to God to take some of the burden off him – he has been an active prophet for a while and the complaints and questions that the Israelites have are overwhelming and exhausting for him. God agrees to spread the spirit around and allows 70 old men share it with Moses, allowing some of the weight to be off his shoulders. What this commentary was teasing out of this section was that Moses made it explicit that he “seems to have no boundaries as to whom hewantss to include in the spheres of his life or the life of the Israeli nation” (p198). Reading between the lines here, it seems as though people, not just men, could have the ‘spirit’ in them and be prophets. Later in the parasha, Moses’ relationship with a non-Jewish woman is brought into question. Moses’ and God’s defence of that relationship seems to reinforce the amount of diversity that Moses and God both allowed and thought important in the Israelite communities.
I think that this reading of the parasha is a really (maybe overly) generous reading of it. There are a lot of strange gender things going on and some out-of-character behaviour from Miriam and Aaron that make me feel uneasy about this parasha or the Torah Queeries commentary. To try to learn more and see this from a different perspective I read the commentary from The Woman’s Torah Commentary and found some interesting answers.
The Woman’s Commentary helped me understand the strange Miriam and Aaron complaining about Moses’s non-Jewish wife thing. It raised questions of narrative authority and whether or not we could trust the narrative perspective of the Torah, especally because so many people have written, rewritten, or added to parts of it over the years. The multiple authors make the stories so the events in them are questionable which, to me, is ultimately more interesting.
But even with critical readings of this parasha, it still puts Miriam who is a really important woman in a place where she is unfavorable and other because she is placed against Moses and God. “It is hard to escape the conclusion that is a woman challenging male authority that Miriam is so sharply rebuked and singled out for punishment” (p274). There is a theory that because Miriam was such an important prophet and voice for women, that later generations who were not so interested in woman having that kind of role or power changed this parasha in some way.
The concluding parapragh from the commentary is as follows:
“We mourn for the Miriam who was silenced and banished in Num. 12 and from the Torah generally. Our anger and sense of loss is real. But so too is the inspiration we draw from this woman who had to struggle and still struggles to be heard. Miriam of the Torah and the Midrash invites us to be prophets ourselves, to speak from the heart of our visions and dreams. She invites us to be our sisters’ advocates and to be direct in our advocacy … urges us to be brave enough to raise those issues that are of vital concern to women and men today, but about which no one seems willing to speak” (p278)
For me, reading this section as I entered into Pride month and the beginning of my summer was really wonderful. The last bit from the Woman’s Torah Commentary really ressonated with me, though the Torah Queeries interpretation did not. Both of these commentaries was about critical investigation into these texts and about recognizing or making an active choice to welcome those who have been marginalized and left out.
In publishing this post a week later than I meant to, I’m feeling a bit out of place. I actually was able to do the readings and everything in a timely way, but then all the responsibilities that come with planning a madatz (countselor in training) program for a seven week summer caught up to me. I am really hoping to take these next two or three days to fully catch up by writing my Shelah Lekha post and startig the next one. Hopefully by the time this month is over, I will have been able to catch up and do this in real time.
The cool thing about having sat with this parasha in the back of my head for the past two weeks is that I was able to have a lot of conversations about it. Because part of the educational curriculum I writing for madatz is about Jewish identity and Judaism and rebellion, etc. themes that were present in this parasha came up in the planning sessions that I had with my two tzevet memebers (the two counselors who are running the program with me). We’ve had some wonderful, introspective, and definitly interesting conversations because of that.