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. Continue Reading

Behaalotekha: Great Source

My all-time favorite midrash is a commentary on Numbers/Bamidbar 12:1ff. It identifies Moses’ “Cushite wife,” against whom Miriam complains, as the black ink of the Torah: in this view Miriam believes that Moses has become too wed to the letters of the Torah and its literal meaning, while she continues to advocate for the white space, the oral/folk traditions in Revelation.

I love this commentary because

1) it makes sense of an otherwise obscure passage;

2) it doesn’t require twisting out of shape any of the larger narrative context; and

3) it is both radical and faithful.

More on this midrash, including a “Sermon Slam” story from this episode.

Sadly, however, I cannot tell you where exactly this commentary is to be found. I am sure that I didn’t invent it myself. I believe I was directed to it through end notes in The Five Books of Miriam.

So, this seems a particularly good spot to mention The Five Books of Miriam, edited by Ellen Frankel and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996.

The dialogue of voices — between “Our Daughters,” “Our Bubbes,” “The Ancient Rabbis,” “Sages in Our Own Times,” and individual women, such as Leah (Torah), Huldah (Tanach), Beruriah (Talmud) — seem particularly appropriate given the variety of voices heard in this portion: Hobab, the people, Joshua, Miriam and Aaron, Moses and God.

Frankel’s device is a great way to show some of the interaction over the years between sources and ideas…and to carry forward that interaction. Another great feature of this book is that it’s eminently readable without reference to the notes, while nicely substantial end notes are offered for those who want them.


The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.