Beha-alotkha & Beshallach: Stomach versus Soul

June 5, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach | 2 Comments
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Food cannot satisfy us, when we doubt the meaning of our lives. Yet many people divert anxiety about their futures into craving for food—both today and in the Torah.

When the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave Egypt, they take all their herds and flocks with them. They are never forbidden to use their livestock for milk or meat, so they are in no danger of starving. Yet a month and a half after they leave Egypt, they complain about food.

The entire assembly of the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness.  The Children of Israel said to them: If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat beside a pot of meat, when we ate bread until [we were] sated; for you brought us out to this wilderness to put to death this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot 16:2-3, in the Torah portion Beshallach)

How could dying in Egypt with a full stomach be better than journeying with God’s protection? These are the people who choose to follow Moses and his god out of Egypt, who sing and dance after God rescues them from the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea. How could they feel so discouraged in the second month of their trek across the wilderness?

God diagnoses the problem, and solves it—temporarily—with manna.

Then God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down food from the heavens… (Exodus 16:4)

Manna satisfies the people for a while—not because they need additional food, I think, but because it reminds them daily that God loves them like a parent. They are already following the divine pillar of cloud and fire across the wilderness. Now they know that they are not wandering aimlessly; serving God gives them a purpose in life.

The Israelites forget their purpose and fail to serve God whenever they are idle or afraid during their sojourn at Mount Sinai. But they are in good spirits when they march away from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you raise up”) in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. They head toward their promised land supplied not only with the manna God provides, and the livestock they brought up from Egypt, but also with a splendid portable sanctuary and its numinous objects, as well as a set of God-given rules and principles to live by.

Alas, after only three days of marching they lapse into complaining again. The Torah does not tell us the content of their complaint at Taverah. It merely says God hears and reacts with anger, consuming the edge of the camp with fire. Then the people switch from complaining to sobbing.

And the riff-raff that was in its midst felt strong cravings, and they sobbed, and the Children of Israel also [sobbed], and they said: Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, and the cucumbers and watermelons and leeks and onions and garlic. And now our nefesh is dried up; there is nothing except the manna for our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat, animating soul, life

Why, when they are on the verge of getting their own land, do the people yearn for the food in Egypt again? Psalm 78 answers:

They tested God in their hearts by asking for food for their nefesh. (Psalm 78:18)

To me, this shows that the people are not complaining about dry throats, but about dry lives. They have not lost their appetite for food, but they have lost their appetite for being God’s people.

For the survivors of the Golden calf incident, life at Mount Sinai was both pleasant and meaningful. They had the pleasure of serving God by making donations, but their donations were the treasures they took from their Egyptian neighbors, rather than anything personal. They also had the pleasure of serving God by skilled creative work, as they made the sanctuary and its holy objects.

Now, as they march north, the people are approaching the border of Canaan. They know their next service to God will be taking over a land inhabited by other people. As we learn in next week’s Torah portion, Shelach, very few Israelites believe that God will single-handedly drive out the inhabitants and leave them empty cities and farms. Instead they are anticipating war, which means many hardships and deaths.

Now the thought of serving God fills them with anxiety instead of purpose. So, as the psalm says, they sob for Egyptian food to (unconsciously) test whether God will nourish their souls.

God correctly interprets the sobbing as indicating a lack of faith, rather than a desire for tasty food. But instead of reassuring the people that their lives will be filled with meaning, God takes a punitive approach, and tells Moses:

To the people you shall say: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; then you will eat meat … Not for one day will you eat, nor for a couple of days, nor for five days, nor for ten days, nor for twenty days. Until a month of days, until it comes out of your nostrils and you are nauseated because of it! For you rejected God, who is in your midst … saying: Why did we leave Egypt for this? (Numbers 11:18-20)

I confess I am like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. My life is full of meaning and purpose right now, while my material needs are met and I spend my days drawing insights and inspirations from the Torah, and sharing my life with people I love. Yet there are empty times in my day, when I need to rest or alleviate chronic pain. At those times, anxiety about the future haunts me. What if my sense of purpose is not strong enough to carry my through old age, when I must face hardships and the deaths of people I love?

My first impulse, as these times, is to comfort myself by eating something tasty. Yet I know that if I eat too much, I will make myself sick in the long run. I would rather keep faith that God is with me, and my life will continue to be worthwhile no matter what happens.  But how can I do that?

The only solution I know is to refocus and cultivate gratitude for the good life I have now. Do you have another solution to the anxiety of the Israelite? Please comment!


Beshallach: Hands Up

January 6, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Posted in Beshallach | 2 Comments
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What does it mean to raise one or both hands when they are empty?

Today, the gesture for “Stop!” is holding one arm straight out from the shoulder, with the hand bent back, palm forward.

If you raise one arm straight up into the air, you are “raising your hand” for permission to speak.

When an authority figure says “Hands up!” you raise both arms, palms forward, to show you are not holding a weapon.

What if you raise both arms at an angle somewhere between straight up and straight out? Whether your hands are turned up or down, it looks as though you are making a religious gesture.

In many Jewish Renewal congregations, when we stretch out both hands with our palms down, we want to transmit a blessing to someone.  (This gesture is derived from the Torah’s description of leaning one’s hands on the head of a man or boy in order to transfer holiness, as Jacob does to bless his grandsons in Genesis 48, and as Moses does to commission Joshua as his successor in Numbers 27.)

When we stretch out both hands with our palms up, it means we are prepared to receive a blessing. This is also one traditional posture of supplication to God; we reach forward and up toward “heaven” with empty hands, hoping God will fill them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”), God tells Moses to split the Reed Sea by holding the staff that summoned the ten plagues in Egypt, and stretching out his hand over the water. After the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea and seen the Egyptian army drown,

…the people were in awe of God, vaya-amiynu in God and in Moses, his servant. (Exodus 14:31)

vaya-amiynu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they trusted, and they had faith, and they believed, and they relied upon.

Because they have seen Moses signal the miracle by raising his arm, they believe that the god who split the Reed Sea is their god, the god of their leader Moses. So at that moment, they trust God.

The Israelites trek across the Sinai Peninsula unmolested, while God provides manna and quail for them to eat. Yet in less than three months, when they are camped only one day’s journey from Mount Sinai, the people complain to Moses that they have no water.

God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water comes out.  But Moses notes that the people did not trust God to provide for them.

And he called the name of the place Trial-and-Disputing because of the dispute of the children of Israel and because of their testing God, saying: Hayeish, God, bekirbeinu, or ayin? (Exodus/Shemot 17:7)

Hayeish (הֲיֵשׁ) = Is it there? Does it exist?

bekirbeinu (בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ) = in our midst, inside us.

ayin (אָיִן) = not there, nothing.

A traditional translation of the people’s question is: “Is God in our midst, or not?” But another valid translation would be: “Does God exist inside us, or nothing?”

Immediately after the Israelites doubt God’s presence, the people of Amalek attack them.

Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Refidim. And Moses said to Joshua: Choose for us men and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill and the staff of God will be in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, to fight against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Chur went up to the top of the hill. (Exodus 17:8-10)

At this point, Moses probably assumes that he and God will do their usual routine, in which Moses raises the staff and God sends a miracle. But God does not speak to him. And when the battle begins, Moses does not seem to be holding the staff.

And it happened, when Moses elevated his hand, then Israel prevailed; but when he rested his hand, then Amalek prevailed. And the hands of Moses were getting heavy, so they took a stone and they placed it under him, and he sat upon it. And Aaron and Chur held his hands, one on either side, and his hands were emunah until the sun set. (Exodus 17:11-12)

emunah (אֱמוּנָה)  = steadiness, dependability, faithfulness. (From the same root as vaya-amiynu above, 14:31)

Why do the Israelites prevail when Moses’ hands are raised? Is it because God is responding to Moses’ gesture and making it happen? Or is it because their faith in God’s presence is renewed and they fight better?

Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 29a says: “Did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? No; the text only teaches that as long as Israel turned their thoughts above and submitted their hearts to their father in heaven, they prevailed; but otherwise they failed.” In other words, there is no magic in Moses’ hands, and God performs no miracles. When Joshua’s men prevail against Amalek, it is only because the sight of Moses’ upraised hands encourages them.

Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in Particulars of Rapture, p. 245: “The role of Moses’ hands is to model for the people the attraction upward that is faith.”  Moses demonstrates prayer and attachment to God by raising his hands toward heaven.

Maybe that is why we raise our hands for blessing in many Jewish Renewal congregations. Words are not enough. When we see upraised hands we remember in our bodies, not just our intellects, that we want to connect with the divine.

Raising our own hands, palms up and empty, completes the ritual link. Then we can—sometimes—feel that God is bekirbeinu, inside us. Then it is easier to prevail over our own internal enemies, our own psychological Amaleks that attack us when we complain too much.

Is it the feeling of God inside us that lets us prevail? Or is it God Itself?

Regardless of the answer, I am grateful for the inner strength that comes when I become aware of a deeper meaning in the universe and inside myself. I pray—with uplifted hands—for that strength, so I can prevail over my own internal enemies. And I am grateful when my friends help to support me as I reach upward.

Beshallach: High-Handed

January 20, 2013 at 9:22 am | Posted in Beshallach | 2 Comments

As a child I was a natural victim, the target of any bully who needed to humiliate someone.  So I can imagine how the Israelites might feel in the book of Exodus/Shemot when they finally leave Egypt on the morning after God’s tenth and final plague:

Our god beat the pharaoh!  We asked our Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold, and they just handed it over!  Yesterday we were slaves, and today we are free!  We can do what we please, and we never need to be afraid of Egypt again!

Pillar of Cloud, by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, 1731

The Israelites leave the city of Ramses unchallenged at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When sending out”).  They march for three days in military formation, following God’s spectacular pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  For three days, they feel on top of the world.

God leads them to the Reed Sea, rather than by the main road to Canaan, which passes through the land of the Philistines.1  When the Israelites reach the shore of the Reed Sea, God stages one last showdown with the pharaoh.

God strengthened the heart of the pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and he chased after the children of Israel, while the children of Israel were going out beyad ramah. (Exodus 14:8)

beyad ramah (בְּיָד רָמָה) = with a high hand.  Yad (יָד) = hand; power to do something.  Ramah (רָמָה) = high, exalted.

What does it mean to march “with a high hand”?  When I first read this passage, I pictured the Israelites raising their hands as if they were trying to get the teacher’s attention.  But this image is the opposite of the spirit of beyad ramah.

In both Biblical Hebrew and English, the word yad or “hand” is used in many idioms.  After all, we accomplish things primarily with our hands.  Twice in the Torah portion Beshallach Moses raises his hands in order to channel divine energy.  At the Reed Sea, God tells Moses:

And you shall be hareim your staff and stretching out your yad over the sea and splitting it, and the Children of Israel shall come into the middle of the sea on dry land.  (Exodus 14:16)

hareim (הָרֵם) = raising, lifting up.  (From the same root as the adjective ramah.)

Battle with the Amalekites, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

Later in this week’s Torah portion the people of Amaleik attack the Israelites, and Moses influences the course of the battle by stationing himself on a hill and raising his hands.

And it happened that Moses yarim his yad, then Israel was mightier, but when he rested his yad, then Amaleik was mightier.  (Exodus 17:11)

yarim (יָרִים) = he would raise.  (From the same root as ramah.)

The Israelites win the battle because Aaron and Hur help Moses hold up his hands when he gets tired.  This confirms that holding up his hands is how Moses channels God’s power; he does not have power of his own.

But the idiom yad ramah refers to acting as if you have power to accomplish things by yourself.  It appears only four  times in the Torah, and two of these appearances refer to the way the Israelites leave Egypt (in Exodus 14:8 above, and in Numbers/Bamidbar 33:3).  The other two appearances help to clarify the idiom’s meaning.

But a person who does it beyad ramah, whether citizen or foreign resident, is reviling God; so that person will be cut off from among the people. (Numbers 15:30) 

In this passage, the Torah has just ruled that if someone inadvertently fails to obey one of God’s laws, he can atone by offering a goat as a sacrifice.  But if he does it on purpose, acting “with a high hand”, the consequence is more severe: he is banished or dies.  When someone transgresses deliberately, beyad ramah, he is acting as if he has more authority than the religious law.

The fourth occurrence of yad ramah in the Torah comes in Moses’ parting poem to the Israelites.  In his long final warning, Moses quotes God’s response to their ingratitude and idolatry:

I said: I would have cut them to pieces,

I would have made the memory of them disappear from men,

If I had not feared for the provocation of enemies—

lest their foes would misinterpret,

lest they would say: “Our yad was ramah, and it was not God Who accomplished all this!”

(Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:26-27)

Here, the “high hand” is the arrogance of Israel’s enemies, who will falsely assume that they have the power to destroy Israel on their own, without God’s collaboration.

Similarly, in English “high-handed” persons assume they have all the power, and arrogantly do something without considering the concerns of others.

So why do the newly freed slaves in the portion Beshallach leave Egypt beyad ramah?  Dazzled by their new higher status, they may well imitate the arrogance of their former masters.  If they had a chance, they might even try to bully or enslave someone less fortunate.  But God does not give them a chance.

In this week’s Torah portion, after “the children of Israel were going out beyad ramah“, the pharaoh sends a troop of charioteers after them.

And Pharaoh came closer, and the children of Israel raised their eyes, and hey!  Egyptians!  Pulling out after them!  And they were very frightened, and the Children of Israel cried out to God.  And they said to Moses: “Are there no graves in Egypt, that you take us to die in the wilderness?  What is this you have done to us, to take us out from Egypt?” (Exodus 14:10-11)

At once the Israelites are struck with fear of their old owners, the bullies who tortured and subjugated them.  They cry out to God, but there is no immediate response.  Their belief in God’s protection is too new and fragile to withstand their reflexive fear.  They cringe and despair.  They are caught between the sea and the chariots.  At that moment, they think they will always be victims.

Yet when they complain to Moses, they make a sarcastic joke: “Are there no graves in Egypt, that you take us to die in the wilderness?”  Thus Jewish humor is born.


Would you rather be an arrogant bully, like the pharaoh in the book of Exodus, treating people with high-handed disregard, too habitually hard-hearted to learn compassion?

Or would you rather be like an Israelite in Egypt, never certain of your status and power—but resilient enough to keep your sense of humor?  If so, then be careful about when you act with “a high hand”.

  1. Exodus 13:17-18.

Bo, Beshallach: Clouds and East Wind

January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Bo | 1 Comment

This is the d’var Torah I delivered as part of my graduation as a maggidah:

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Beasts. Livestock disease. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Death of the Firstborn.

Today’s Torah portion picks up with the plague of locusts, goes into darkness, and brings death to the firstborn. Then, finally, Pharaoh releases the children of Israel.

Why locusts? One morning when I was in college in California, I stepped outside and—crunch! The ground was blanketed with crickets. They covered the lawns, the sidewalks, the flowerbeds. Their bodies were so close together, you couldn’t see the ground. Every time somebody opened a door, crickets jumped inside the building.

Those crickets on campus didn’t eat a lot of vegetation before they died. They were a wonder, but not a plague. They were amateurs compared to the locusts in Egypt. The Torah says:

And Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and God guided a an east wind into the land, all that day and all the night … (Exodus/Shemot, Bo, 10:13)
And the locust-swarm went up over the whole land of Egypt … (Bo, 10:14)
It covered the sight of all the land, and the land went dark. It devoured all the vegetation … and all the fruit … that remained after the hail. And there was no green left, in the trees or in the field, in all the land of Egypt. (Bo, 10:15)

Now that’s a plague.

You can watch a locust-swarm flying on YouTube. When the sun shines on it, millions of locust-wings glitter like a sea of sparks. And when the locusts swirl in front of the sun, they make a dark cloud, like a gigantic billow of smoke.

This reminds me of how God manifests as a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night, in next week’s Torah portion. While the pillar of cloud and fire is leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army after them. They meet at the Red Sea. Then the pillar of cloud and fire circles back, to stand between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And, the Torah says,

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind, all the night … and split the waters. (Exodus/Shemot, Beshallach, 14:21)

Both times, God humbles the Egyptians and frees the Israelites with a moving, swirling cloud that sometimes glitters and sometimes darkens.

Both times, God also brings in a ruach-kadim. Ruach means wind—or spirit. Kedem means east—or the place of origin. So the “east wind” is also the “spirit of the beginning”.

The first east wind brings in a vast cloud of locusts that finishes off Egypt’s plant life, and dooms Pharaoh to rule over a dead land. This east wind is Pharaoh’s enemy because he cannot accept the “spirit of beginning”. He is unable to change his ways and make a fresh start.

The second east wind parts the sea so the Israelites can escape from the Egyptian army and live. The east wind is their ally because, once they get over their initial despair, they embrace the “spirit of beginning”. They leave Egypt, ready to make a fresh start.

I think the holy “spirit of beginning” touches our lives, too—whether we see the swirling cloud or not. When we are really stuck, unable to choose anything new, we risk being devoured by a cloud of locusts. But—we have the ability to cast aside that mood, and follow the pillar of cloud and fire instead.

May each one of us receive the strength to embrace the spirit of beginning, and make a fresh start.

Beshallach: Pillar of Cloud and Fire

April 11, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on January 9, 2011.)

And God went before them; by day, a pillar of cloud to lead them down the road, and by night, a pillar of fire to give light for them, for walking by day and night.  The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night will not withdraw from before the people.  (Exodus/Shemot 13:21-22)

And the messenger of God pulled out, the one going before the camp of Israel, and it went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud pulled out from before them, and it stood behind them.  Thus it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel, and it was the cloud and the darkness, and it lit up the night, so that this did not come near to this, all the night.  (Exodus/Shemot 14:19-20)

And it was in the last night watch when God looked down on the camp of Egypt in a pillar of fire and cloud, and it put the camp of Egypt into an uproar.  (Exodus/Shemot 14:24)

amud = pillar, column, upright support; from the verb “to stand, to take a stand”

Humans often hear God’s voice in the Torah, but there are only two verses where humans might be seeing God:  when the elders climb Mount Sinai and behold God’s feet in Exodus 24:10, and when God lets Moses see his back in Exodus 33:23.  The rest of the time, God becomes manifest through messengers (also called angels) who look like human beings; and through unnatural fires.  Fires of God appear in a covenant with Abraham; in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and later Korach; in Moses’ burning bush; on Mount Sinai; in the portable sanctuary or Tent of Meeting; and in the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites from the border of Egypt to the border of the promised land at the Jordan River.

This pillar first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he was sending out”). Pharaoh finally sends the Israelites out of Egypt, after the tenth plague.  When they reach the edge of the wilderness, the Torah says God “went before them”, and it describes the pillar.

The commentary is divided on whether there is one pillar or two.  But if the pillar of cloud is replaced by a separate pillar of fire for the night, what does the changing of the guard look like?  The Torah never describes it.  And in the third quote translated above, the Torah says that at dawn God was in “a pillar of fire and cloud”, which sounds like one pillar containing both elements.  So I picture one pillar that looks like a column of fog in the daylight, but as it gets dark, people see sparks of fire in the cloud, and at night only the fire is visible.

The pillar of cloud and fire has several purposes.  When the Israelites are traveling, rather than camping, the pillar is a guide showing them which way to go.  It is also a reminder that God is with them—that God is “taking a stand” for them, and they must “take a stand” for their god.

The pillar can only be divine.  A whirlwind can form a temporary pillar of cloud, a bonfire can make a pillar of flame and sparks, and an erupting volcano can do both, but a continuously moving pillar of cloud and fire is a miracle.

Furthermore, fire is already associated with the god of the Israelites, and it naturally inspires awe and fear.  A cloud, on the other hand, is usually made of fog.  In the desert, moisture is a welcome caress on the skin, a gentle gift, a reminder of God’s kindness.  God’s kindness is confirmed later in the story by the fact that even after the Israelites do things that enrage both Moses and God, even after they make the Golden Calf, the pillar of cloud and fire returns to lead them.

In this week’s Torah portion, the pillar of cloud and fire is not only a guide and a reminder of God’s presence, but also a protection from the Egyptian army when it pursues the Israelites and catches up with them at the Reed Sea.  Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, a 16th-century Italian commentator, wrote that the angel, the pillar of cloud, and the pillar of fire were three separate things, and the angel came down to direct the two pillars, which both circled around to stand behind the Israelites, between their camp and the camp of the Egyptian army.

But since the word malach means both angel and messenger, I think the pillar of cloud and fire is God’s messenger.  The message for both camps is that God stands up for the Israelites, protecting them from the Egyptians.

Nevertheless, in the morning, when the Sea of Reeds splits and the pillar presumably moves along with the Israelites across the dry seabed, the Egyptians foolishly follow them.  And once the Israelites are safe on the shore, God looks down from the pillar of cloud and fire, and puts the Egyptian army in an uproar by making their chariot wheels get stuck or fall off.  Only then, when it is too late, do the Egyptians recognize that God is waging war on them, and decide to flee.

It’s a replay of Pharaoh’s refusal to take the miraculous plagues seriously.  No matter how visible the reminder of God’s presence in our world, people will ignore it if they are fixated on destroying something.  When we are determined to solve a problem by eliminating it, we override any inner qualms, whether they appear as cloud, the heart-softening temptation of kindness, or as fire, the nagging fear that we are playing god or doing something wrong.

But if we try to be holy people, metaphorically taking a stand with God, we can recognize both kindness and awe as manifestations of the divine, inspiring us to take the right path.  We have a better chance of noticing when we are fixated on killing a problem.  We can look around for other solutions, other ways of dealing with the problem, even other ways of working with problematic people.

Instead of getting stuck in the muck and drowning, we can continue on our journey, guided by the pillar of cloud and fire within.

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