Beha’alotekha and the Torah Service

Traveling with God did not make for a smooth trip through the wilderness, and prophecy seems to have engendered more conflict — in the community at large and within the leaders’ family — than clarity in this week’s portion. The Israelites appear in deep struggle with on-going revelation and with life together in the Presence….a condition not altogether unfamiliar today: Our Torah services — shaped, in part, by three verses from this portion — reflect the struggles of Beha’alotekha [“…when you mount (lamps)”].

God’s presence among the people (Bamidbar/Numbers 10:36) directly precedes widespread complaining (Bamidbar/Numbers 11:1), which results in fire, plague and burials. Prophecy in the camp results in community strife (11:24-30) and serious trouble in the family of Miriam, Aaron and Moses (12:1-16).

Every congregational Torah reading is understood as a re-enactment of the Sinai experience. But we are also re-enacting something of this portion’s struggle as individuals, congregations and groups/movements of Judaism constantly re-interpret, and sometimes re-design, the liturgy surrounding the Torah reading in response to evolving understandings of revelation and to new realities in our communities.
[Liturgical AdaptationsRe-InterpretationsIn the Presence]

Beha’alotekha in the Liturgy

Moses’ plea for Miriam’s health (12:13) — (ana) el na refa na lah [God, please, heal her please] — is used as a healing prayer, within and beyond the Torah service. A variety of chants and songs has been developed over the years.

This verse also appears in the 16th Century piyyut [liturgical poem] Yedid Nefesh [Beloved of the Soul], where the “she” to be healed is the individual’s soul [nefesh, a feminine noun in Hebrew]. Yedid Nefesh is commonly sung on Shabbat evenings and/or at the close of Shabbat.

Numbers/Bamidbar 10:35 and 10:36 entered the prayer book during the middle ages, one verse to be recited at the removal of the Torah from the ark and one upon its return:

With the moving of the ark, Moses would say: “Arise, Adonai, so that Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You flee from before You.”
[Va-yehi binso’a ha-aron va-yomer moshe: kuma YHVH va-yafutzu oyvekha v’yanusu m’sanekha mipanekha]

And with its resting, he would say: “Adonai, return to the myriad families of Israel.” [u-v’nucho yomar shuva YHVH riv’vot alfei yisrael]
— translation, My People’s Prayerbook*


Liturgical Adaptations, Different Battles

Reform and Reconstructionist Adaptations

The earliest Reform prayer book (1819) replaced Numbers 10:35 with verses from Psalm 24. The 2008 Mishkan T’filah: a Reform Siddur includes verses 9 and 10: —

Lift up your heads, O gates! Lift yourselves up, O ancient doors!
Let the Sovereign of glory enter. Who is this Sovereign of glory?
The God of Hosts is the Sovereign of glory!
— translation, Mishkan T’filah

Kol Haneshamah (Reconstructionist) includes Numbers 10:35 and, at the close of the service, Numbers 10:36. But it offers an alternative reading for 10:35 from Psalm 118: Pitchu li shaarei tzedek avo vam odeh yah [open the gates of victory/righteousness that I may enter and praise God].

David Ellenson writes, in a note on the siddur‘s evolution: “Many liberal prayer books have omitted this passage from Numbers 10:35, feeling that the call for the elimination of enemies — even God’s enemies — reflects an ethic of resentment and vengeance that is inappropriate in the modern world.” (My People’s Prayerbook, p.56)

Both Psalm 24 and Psalm 118 relate to victory in war, however, if not the “elimination of enemies”: The context of Psalm 24 is the return of the ark to Jerusalem after war with the Philistines; Psalm 118 celebrates victory after “all nations beset me [kol-goyim s’vavuni].”

Service Modifications

In addition to modifying siddur language, many contemporary congregations have adapted choreography of the Torah service for various reasons, reflecting some aspect of Beha’alotekha‘s struggle:
— doing away with honors reserved for the kohanim [descendants of the priestly class] and levites [descendants of the temple aides];
— equally encouraging women and men to accept Torah honors where this is considered possible,
— encouraging women’s prayer groups where women, who could not otherwise read from the Torah or receive honors as things stand, can do so;
— theme-based invitations for aliyot [rising to bless the Torah] encouraging emotional connection to the reading;
— adding shared reading of the Torah in translation and/or discussion of the portion;
— chanting the Torah (where reading had been the practice);
— adding a Torah procession (where it had been eliminated),
— bringing the Torah to the women’s section, where there is one,
— passing the Torah from congregant to congregant;
— etc. [back to “In the Presence” (below)]

Other approaches involve no prayer book or choreography alteration, instead re-interpret existing services.

Seeking Sparks, Battling Klipot

Kedushat Levi (Levi Yitzcahk of Berditchev) notes that Numbers 10:35 and 10:36 are uniquely set off in the Torah by a pair of inverted nuns. The nuns — “each facing in the wrong direction” — suggest people “afraid of facing one another,” ashamed in fear of God. The People would overcome this condition, he says, by publicly demonstrating reverence for God as they traveled the desert; this would “encourage stray fallen sparks of the shechinah [God’s presence] to begin their journey back to their original habitat.”

Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen — who provide “chassidic and mystical perspectives” on the siddur for My People’s Prayerbook — describe a kabbalistically-based view of taking out the Torah:

In his commentary, B’er Mayim Chayim (p.38), Rabbi Chayim of Tchernovitz explains that the reason for the insertion of this verse [Numbers 10:35] at this place in the liturgy is that it is being used as a kind of battle cry against the forces of evil, or, as they are called in Lurianic Kabbalah, the k’lipot. And the scroll of the Torah — a manifestation of, as it were, the presence of God — leads us in battle. Indeed, we realize that the main event may not be the reading but the actual march itself! In our procession with the scroll of the Torah, we are in effect carrying the physical presence of God out in to the congregation and into the world!— p.61

Max Ticktin, of Fabrangen Havurah, suggests viewing “[God’s] enemies” as personal issues, theological conflicts or anything else that might prevent an
individual from finding God in the Torah reading.

In the Presence

Disparate versions of the Torah service — awe-inspiring pageant, re-union of cosmic partners, opportunity for study/discussion, carrying of God out into the world, etc. — are all meant to occasion some form of intimacy with God.

Numbers/Bamidbar 10:35 and 10:36 refer to God’s presence amidst and before the people. Psalms 24 and 118 ask God to “open the gates.” All four verses recall an experience when the people and God were together, in the desert and/or in the Temple. The plea is for a connection with God.

But every one of the service modifications listed above is an indication that something — formality/informality, gender, language — is (or was) getting in the way of intimacy with God in some communities.

Moreover, there is much disagreement between individuals, congregations and movements in Judaism as to what it means to be in the Presence. Do we recite or sing “el na refa na la” — or any other special plea for help — because the Torah service somehow creates a stronger connection to God and, therefore, an auspicious time for such requests? Do we feel that a song for healing belongs particularly to the section of the service wherein our connection as a community seems strongest, and the needs of our suffering loved ones seem most present? Or do we beg God’s healing simply because those words come next in the siddur?

Do we value various dvrei Torah — whether words from a bar or bat mitzvah, clerical sermon, informal drash or discussion — as part of on-going revelation? Or do we approach these words as one more barrier between us and lunch?

I am not sure that we need widespread — or even local — agreement. But I do think we need further consideration of the question: What do we, as individuals and as communities, believe is happening in the Torah service? How might our Torah services — and our own participation in them — better reflect those beliefs?

* Please see Source Materials for complete citations and more information.

For convenience of subscribers:

Beha’alotekha: Language and Translation
Beha’alotekha: Great Source

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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