A FEW MINUTES WITH THE TORAH
Spotlighting the outstanding d’vrei Torah written and delivered by congregants. Melissa Putterman Hoffmann shared some thoughts with us while leading services recently.
“Be Patient.” “Are you Kidding?”
by Melissa Putterman Hoffmann
This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotcha. Here are some English meanings ascribed to that word: when you ascend; when you raise the lamps (in the Tabernacle); when you light the lamps. And here is my favorite: when you step up.
The Israelites receive instructions regarding Passover, journey forth from Sinai and complain to God on more than a few occasions. Moses gets an advisory committee. There are incredible vivid images: the cloud that covered the Dwelling Place, the fire-like glow at night in that cloud and God descending from the cloud to talk with the people, the movement of the people on their journey whenever the cloud rose, the magnificent silver trumpets created at God’s command to call the people, the people being given so much food after they complained one too many times that it came out of their nostrils and made them sick, an entire corner of the camp bursting into flames because people were unappreciative, leprosy as a consequence for gossip.
Is there a time to voice dissatisfaction? And is there something satisfying about announcing how unsatisfied we are? Should complaints be accompanied by suggested solutions whenever possible? Imagine that we’ve seen in the news this week that petition scrolls were discovered in a cave in Israel. Outside the cave was an engraved sign that
said Town Hall Meeting Here with an arrow pointing down. Archaeologists have determined that the scrolls were those of the 70 elders Moses selected to assist him in governing the people. Those 70 elders were the first prototype for lower upper middle management. They didn’t have Moses’ direct line to God. It’s possible that all they could do was listen, perhaps make note of each complaint, and offer suggestions wherever possible. Most likely they missed the mark sometimes – making snarky responses to some complaints and offering suggestions regarding others that no one bought. They must have worked hard though to capture the discussion at each meeting because on the tablets, words are crossed out and substitutions inserted out all over the place. Nevertheless, we have a sort of transcript of that Town Hall meeting.
Welcome to this Town Hall meeting. Who would like to speak first?
C We left Egypt 2 years ago. The food is lousy. Speaking of bad food, have you actually tried the manna?
E Arthur Stewart is experimenting with plant-based brisket. Please be patient.
C And now you want us to make a second Pesach – which by the way we haven’t made since the night we left Egypt!! Even if some of us are unclean, the Pesach offering with bitter herbs must still be made?
E People will talk. The Sages will note this difficult-to-explain lapse. They’ll comment that it was a “disgrace to us Israelites” that for 39 out of 40 years the Passover offering was not brought.
C I heard the one who neglects the Pesach offering to God will be uprooted from his people. A return to Mitzrayim… that might not be so bad.
E God said to tell you that an agent will be available at the gate to escort you back to your original destination.
C Finally we are on our way after being stuck here for over 50 chapters in a book that will come out some day. But all this starting and stopping? The cloud goes up, we move; when the cloud is down over the Dwelling place for many days, we stay. Move, stay. Oy.
C And the noise and the choreography?? Two silver trumpet sounds and we have to assemble. One trumpet blare and only the heads of our families will go. And we have to know which blow is for which direction. What is this? Shushan Brass? And a trumpet sounds when there is an affliction? THERE IS ALWAYS AN AFFLICTION! It’ll be a wonder if we ever get anywhere – unless a trumpet blows because we are at war. Then we’re going nowhere. Again.
C And if you ask me, those trumpets look an awful lot like another kind of a horn that will be sounded someday to kick off the Holidays. I wish scholars would just make up their minds. Our tribe is making too many trips to Bat Yam Keal Music as it is.
E Blowing the trumpet is a mitzvah. The allegorical “trumpet” we sound in order to enlist God’s help against the evil inclination is our heart-broken cry, the silent tears we shed over being so spiritually weak that we are vulnerable to the evil inclination’s strategies. When we beseech God to have mercy on us, God comes to our aid and rescues us from our enemy.
C Are you kidding? And so much for speaking our minds. Last night a whole corner of the camp burned up because people were talking about all the noise and schlepping and bad food. By the way, a little meat and fruit and vegetables like we had in Egypt wouldn’t kill anyone. But a little quail, not so much that we die with our mouths full.
C And poor Miriam – one comment against Moses’ wife and boom – leprosy.
E But when Moses saw his sister’s illness he cried out “Oh God, please heal her!” He didn’t go into a whole narrative of what happened, why did you become ill? All he felt was a deep concern, and he erupted into a beautiful and simple and eloquent prayer with five Hebrew words– meaning Please, God, heal her.
C Moses is great and all, and without him, we’d never know what God wanted us to do. But does God only talk to Moses? Can’t he talk to us directly without bursting us into flames?
E Thank God Moses finally hired some help. It’s been impossible to get his attention for even a minute with all the weeping going on around here. The Talmud puts it succinctly: “If you try to do too much, you end up doing nothing.”
E And Moses asking for help may be a sign that just because he’s grown in stature, it doesn’t mean his sense of self-importance will grow beyond all bounds. He’s doing the best he can, and we’ll try to be better advisors.
One thing about complaining: we get to give voice to that which ails us. And while misery loves company, it can feel good to know that we are not alone in our dissatisfaction. We may wish that others in our work group or community would just get the work done without questioning or debating, but when we see complaining and problem-solving, we know that others are feeling safe and included enough to step up and have a stake in our work together.