Parashat B’ha-alot’cha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

“When the ark was set out to move, Moses would say:  Advance, O Lord!

May your enemies be scattered, and may your foes flee before you!’ (Numbers 10:35)

Parashat B’ha-alot’cha records how the Israelites leave Sinai on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year since the Exodus (Num. 10:11).  It describes the final preparations: the purification of the Levites, the order of the tribes, and the trumpet calls to signal the people.  Then it presents a brief, puzzling interlude:  Moses asks Chovav (who may either be Moses’ father-in-law, brother-in-law, or son-in-law) to accompany the Israelites, since…”You know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide.” (Num. 10:31)  B’ha-alot’cha doesn’t record Chovav’s reply.

Why does Moses need a guide?  After all, the parasha (portion) includes a description of God’s fire-cloud and its function as a guide:  “And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.” (Num. 9:17)  Moses should know you can’t get a better GPS than that!

Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010; a prominent American rabbi and Biblical scholar), reflecting upon earlier generations of Jewish commentary, posits the text conflates two wilderness narrative traditions:  the physical journey and the spiritual journey.  Each requires guidance, but of a different nature.  The two guiding mechanisms are often juxtaposed:  in the story of Jericho, scouts search out the weaknesses of the walls (Josh. 2), which then crumble at the sound of trumpets alone (Josh. 6).

The wilderness story describes moving from one place to another physically.  But those external moves are merely the backdrop for the internal shift taking place within the Israelites: acquiring faith in God.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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