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Parashat Beha’alotekha

June 12, 2020

God Expands the Torah
A D’var Torah for Rarashat Beha’alotekha

By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’11)

Can we incorporate within our personal theology a divine and all-knowing God, who agrees to change the laws of Torah upon human request?

It’s an interesting question that emerges both in this week’s Torah portion – Beha’alotekha – (when you light the lamps) and later in the Book of Numbers, where the Daughters of Zelofhad ask God to amend the Torah’s laws surrounding land ownership.

In this week’s parashah, an interesting interaction occurs between Moses and a group of men, who come in contact with a dead body.

According to the Torah, those who become ritually impure (tameh) through contact with a corpse are not permitted to participate in the Passover sacrifice. But, the men want to complete the commandment.

They take their case to Moses: “Impure though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Numbers 9:7)

Moses listens to their concern, and agrees to take the matter to God.

“Stand by,” says Moses, “and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you.” (Numbers 9:8)

God hears the case, and ultimately expands the Passover observance to enable those who were not originally permitted to participate, to return in thirty days and observe a Pesah Sheini – a second Passover.

In many ways, this amazing turn of events provides us with great insight into the evolution of God’s law and its ongoing opportunity for spiritual growth. It also demonstrates God’s willingness to engage in a dynamic Torah.

Notes the Etz Haim biblical commentary: “To the sincere individual, life often does offer second chances for spiritual fulfillment that may have been missed when the opportunities first presented themselves.” (Etz Hayim, Page 820).

The dynamic repeats itself later in the Book of Numbers when in Chapter 27, the Daughters of Zelofhad present a complaint to Moses, asking why Israelite land ownership must be restricted to men.

The daughters, too, are actively requesting to engage in the laws which will in future guide the Jewish people. And, similar to the men whose complaint helped established the Pesah Sheini, God actually amends the existing law to facilitate additional inclusion and active participation.

God’s willingness to alter or expand existing laws is inspiring in many ways. It demonstrates that Torah can constantly be examined to meet evolving needs and changing times.

But, is there a theological dilemma?

Indeed, if God is wise and all knowing, why weren’t these provisions included in the Torah’s original text? Why did it take human concern to expand policies of ritual practice and land ownership?

Noted Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1911-2006), in a lecture he gave, “There was a unique revelation (regarding Pesah Sheini) in which a genuine will to fulfill a mitzvah, commandment, brought about an entirely new way to fulfill a mitzvah, one that had not existed before that point in time,” he said.

“If we feel we cannot live without an aspect of Torah, and it is really so, Hashem listens.”

In other words, as Rabbi Shapiro taught, God has set before us a series of opportunities to become more involved and, as the Torah recounts, God is more than willing to meet that demand.

So perhaps this is the week to think about second opportunities, and those things in our lives which we assumed were not subject to change or elevation.

We are told in the Talmud (Sotah 14a) that we cannot be God, but we can “follow God’s attributes.” As God reviewed these two petitions and found, in the words of Rabbi Shapiro, “new ways to fulfill a mitzvah,” perhaps we can embrace new opportunities regarding personal laws and behaviors which we assumed were carved in stone.

Gradually, we are exiting a period of isolation and social distancing. In recent weeks, we have been prevented from engaging in many of our previous routines.

While we have been called upon during the pandemic to make significant sacrifices, there have been personal opportunities to increase our spiritual understanding and practice.

During the past ten weeks, many of us have spent increased and invaluable time with our families. We have — in many cases — retracted from our busy work lives, and have learned to reflect more about our lives.

Many synagogues have reported a dramatic increase in attendance at services, programs and study opportunities on Zoom, Facebook and other platforms. It seems we want more.

As difficult and painful as these past weeks have been, we have in many ways been blessed with the ability to revisit our lives and re-emerge some weeks later.

We have hopefully elevated ourselves in our roles as parents, partners, friends and community members and have in many ways emerged from our prohibitions and our restrictions with a Pesah Sheini – a second chance.

These new insights remind us that our lives, Torah and our application of both are in constant motion. As some have noted as they consider God’s response to the two biblical petitions, we can learn that what appears to be lacking in the beginning, can ultimately be revisited and perhaps even elevated.

The stories of the men of Pesah Sheini and the Daughters of Zelofhad, inspire us to recognize God’s willingness to expand the borders of Jewish law and understanding when we declare that “we want more.”

It is a message that can elevate us as we begin to re-engage with our work places, our social circles and our other daily interactions.

We have been given a second chance to be better, and to uplift our connection with spirituality and a higher power.

The Torah encourages us this week to think about second chances: whether it is God’s establishment of second Pesah more than three thousand years ago — or our renewed and reinvigorated lives today.

As this week’s parashah inspires us to consider, sometimes when we feel locked within the laws of our lives, if we truly want more, God can open new doors, and inspire us to reach even higher.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman graduated from AJR in 2010 and serves as spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a USCJ affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.