Creating Community

Parshat Beha’alotecha: Creating an Edah

By Andrew Nusbaum • 19 Sivan 5779 • June 21, 2019

This week’s parsha continues the Israelites’ journey in the desert after receiving the Torah at Sinai. There are three themes I’d like to highlight: Kvetching, Community, and Second Chances.

At this point the Israelites have received the Torah, and the Ark, and the Tabernacle. If one didn’t know better, one might think that should end the story, or at least the Book of Numbers. Instead, we encounter the first of several challenges to Moses’ and God’s authority. We are told God was “incensed” at the complainers and struck the camp with fire until Moses intervened. The text relates that that spot was memorialized as Taberah, “burning,” to remember the fire, and also presumably that even God can’t take too much kvetching.

And yet, in the very next line, the people start up again! Apparently not even the threat of smiting can stop Jews from complaining. Moses, so distressed, actually cries out to God, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me… kill me [instead], I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” (Num 11: 14-15).

Pretty harsh words! As a reminder, we are just a year out from the Exodus from Egypt, and just seven months since Moses meeting God face to face on Sinai. Not very encouraging!

One might expect God to be angry with Moses along with the rest of the people- after all, he’s the leader, he’s the prophet. God wouldn’t have chosen him unless he thought he could do it—didn’t they have this whole conversation already? But that doesn’t happen. Instead, not unlike a long-suffering parent, God goes from being frustrated against the ungrateful people, to focusing on comforting Moses, clearly in pain, crying out for assistance.

Perhaps sensing Moses’ fragility, God tries to directly assist Moses by showing him a better leadership model: of sharing responsibility among a community, a group whom we are told is supposed to “share the burden” and, at least for a moment, also share in Moses’ prophetic powers.

  1. Jonathan Sacks sees this moment as significant due to the urgency of Moses’ request, and the concern God seems to reflect back. God is not relating to Moses as Creator or Sovereign, but as friend, echoing similar advice he received from his father-in-law Jethro about needing to delegate communal responsibilities to protect himself from burnout: “the thing that is too heavy for you, you cannot do it alone.” (Ex. 18:19)

    In his famous essay collection Kol Dodi Dofek, R. Joseph Soloveitchik notes the distinction between the Israelites as a machaneh—a military camp, focused on external survival and an edah—a congregation built on shared history and destiny, looking towards the future. Unlike a machaneh, which he says is motivated by fear, an edah, R. Soloveitchik says, is ultimately driven by love.

    It turns out that this parsha is the only time in the entire Torah where the Israelites are described as both an edah and machaneh in the same line (Num. 10:2). The text’s shifting terminology echoes the people’s struggle to decide what kind of group they are actually going to be. I would argue one thing that helps them transition from a mishmash of refugees and survivors to a sustainable and relatively unified community is Moses’ willingness to share his burden, and responsibility, with others.

I can relate to both of these themes quite strongly: growing up without a Jewish education or community, it took many years for Amanda and I to find a congregational home after college. As always, the urge to kvetch was strong. It is much easier to criticize how others do things than to jump into the arena and try to create something yourself.

B’nai Emunah’s supportive community empowered both of us to push ourselves far beyond what we thought we could do when we first walked through its doors twelve years ago. It’s been a place to share burdens, get advice, tell stories, grow Jewishly, and give back. We will always be grateful for the time we’ve spent here and the memories and relationships we made.

One last theme: second chances. We’re told that when Moses was instructing the people in how to conduct the Passover sacrifice in the desert, several men had an objection: they had recently come in contact with a corpse and were ritually unclean. Yet, they still longed to participate. “Impure though we may be, … why must we be debarred from presenting the… offering… with the rest of the Israelites?” (Num. 9:7) Given what happens a few lines later at Taberah, you might assume someone would be about to get zapped, but instead Moses tells them to stand by while he asks God—and rather than getting angry, God creates the institution of Pesach Sheni, a “make-up” opportunity for those who missed Passover the first time. This additional holiday, we are told, was specifically for those who were impure or had been on a long journey during the festival—but the Jerusalem Talmud later expanded this category to anyone “spiritually distant from God and the Jewish people on the holiday.”

Various Hasidic rebbes were fascinated by the idea of this second chance holiday and celebrated Pesach Sheni with their Hasidim, complete with matzah and an abbreviated seder (conveniently, this version of the holiday only lasts one day rather than seven or eight). For them, it represented the idea of teshuvah, returning to God. As R. Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, the sixth rebbe of Chabad put it, “Pesach Sheni means that nothing is ever a lost cause.” Indeed, connecting it with the rest of our parsha, we can see how important second chances are to our survival as a people—God is not only merciful, but also incredibly patient!

For me, B’nai Emunah exemplifies this openness and patience, the receptiveness to the realities and struggles of the world, while also having the determination and chutzpah to stand up for what’s best for the community’s needs. From day one, Amanda and I were always made welcome, and as time went on, encouraged (if not sometimes conscripted) into active participation. It didn’t matter how much we knew (or didn’t know), or what experiences we might not have had as children. At B’nai Emunah all that mattered was showing up.

As a child, I wanted to be Jewishly engaged, but didn’t know how. As a young adult, I felt stuck on the periphery for years, unable to bridge that gap and actually join a community. It took a leap of faith, like Moses’ cry to God, to start the process, and our lives have been better for it. If college was where Amanda and I first started our Jewish journeys, B’nai Emunah is where we grew up, both literally and spiritually. We will always consider it a home, and all of you, our edah. Thank you.