21 June, 2024

Week of 16-22 June 2024

Torah portion: Numbers 8:1-12:16   Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Theme: Not by Might, Nor by Power, but by My Spirit

This parashah begins in the wilderness of Sinai. The erection and consecration of the Tabernacle have already occurred, as have the twelve days of offerings from the tribes, for the service of the Tent of Meeting. We might note the time frame of the parashah: Exodus 40:17 indicates that the Tabernacle was completed on the first day of the first month of the second year, since their departure from Egypt. Numbers 10:11 states that they set out from the wilderness of Sinai on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, and came to rest in the wilderness of Paran. In the intervening seven weeks, four important initiatives took shape: the ritual for the lighting of the lamps (8:1-4), the mandating of the Levites (8:5-26), the celebration of Pessah (9:1-14), and the creation of the silver trumpets to gather the community, assemble the troops, or celebrate joyous occasions (10:1-10).

 In Numbers 9:15-23, a cloud (an image of the presence of God) settled on the Tabernacle, appearing as fire at night. When the cloud lifted and moved, signaling their departure, Moses would proclaim: “Arise, HASHEM, and let your foes be scattered, let those who hate you flee from before you.” When the cloud came to rest on the Tabernacle, Moses would announce: “Reside tranquilly, O HASHEM, among the myriad thousands of Israel” (10:35-36, Scherman).  

The last two chapters of our parashah reveal painful dynamics within the community. The first is Moses’ distress when the people complain bitterly to the LORD, who responds with fire that ravages the outskirts of the camp. They named that place Taberah (11:2 from the root “to burn”). Facing the relentless complaints of the people, Moses became discouraged: “Let me see no more of my wretchedness” (11:14). In response, the LORD mandated seventy elders to assist him (11:16-17). The “gluttonous cravings” of “the riffraff” in objection to the manna and their demand for meat then followed. The annual migration of quail dumped on the camp an abundance of the exhausted birds, and the people took advantage of their plight to kill all too many of them. In anger, the LORD inflicted a severe plague on the people. Appropriately, this place was named Kibroth-hattaavah (11:34 the graves of craving/greed).

Leaving Kibroth-hattaavah, they go to Hazeroth, where Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses, on the pretext that he had married a Cushite woman, though their point is not entirely clear. Miriam is stricken with leprosy. Aaron admits their folly and begs Moses’ forgiveness. In compassion, Moses implores God’s healing for Miriam. To her humiliation, God excludes her from the camp for seven days; we assume that Miriam was healed there. The haftarah, in 4:6, offers an insight into the deeper meaning of these events: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit,” said the LORD of hosts. With that subtle, yet painful affirmation of Moses, they leave Hazaroth and encamp in the wilderness of Paran.    

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Reflect on an experience in your journey in faith that expressed various strands of your commitment. 2. What sustains your hope as you face difficult moments?

Bibliography: Plaut, W. G., The Torah, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York: 1981); Lieber, D. L., Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (New York, 2001); Scherman, N., Tanach, Mesorah Publications (New York, 1998).

This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Diane Willey, nds, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna 2005, 2006

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