On the 18 of Sivan 5781, which is May 29, 2021, we read the portion B’ha-alot’kha, “when you rise.” The beginning of the portion refers to rising to light the menorah. Below is a drash I was honored to share with the Temple Beth Israel Shabbat minyan.
The mouthful word B’ha-alot’kha
One thing is certain about Biblical Hebrew — it can certainly be a mouthful. Our portion is named for the first significant / distinct word in the parsha. This happens to be an infinitive construct with a pronoun suffix. I do not tell you this to wow you with my grammatical knowledge. Rather to commiserate that the word can easily get stuck in one’s mouth and sound like a jumble. The prefix, בְּ, means in or when. הַעֲלוֹת is the Hiphil form of the same root as aliyah, ascent, indicating a rise in spiritual state by returning to Israel. In Hiphil, this root means to rise, elevate, bring up.
And the final ךָ means “you” or “your.” If you remember nothing else, understand that biblical and liturgical Hebrew has words ending with the ךָ sound because the author is trying to speak directly to you.
Like many American Jews, I learned how to read the Hebrew alphabet without knowing anything about what I was saying. So that revelation about possessive and direct object suffixes was revelatory. I recognize that the text was reaching out towards me with every final ךָ. This reminds me to keep reaching towards Jewish wisdom, across language barriers, time, and other distractions.
So how can we connect with this ancient narrative of wilderness perambulations?
Focus on the triennial reading, the middle third
One way to provide focus for an explanation of this week’s parsha is to focus on the triennial cycle reading. Each portion takes a significant amount of time to chant aloud. So, we have a tradition of reading ⅓ of each portion for three years. We are in the second year of that cycle, meaning that many communities are reading the second-third of each portion this year. For B’ha-alot’kha, this correlates to chapter 9, verse 15 through chapter 10, verse 34. Beginning with the cloud of HaShem covering the tabernacle. Moving forward through HaShem’s cloud surrounding us by day, as we journeyed from the camp.
Cloud of the Divine journeying before us
It is easy for us to find ourselves completely separated from this narrative. After all, when was the last time you saw the cloud of the Divine journeying before you?
Our tradition challenges us to sort out how we see ourselves immersed in this desert journey. How are we connected to the Jewish people and how are we connected to the Divine? What does it mean to be guided by HaShem? Do you believe in Divine providence? Does HaShem perceives every action that will be taken by humans and allows it to occur? If you do not believe in Divine omnipotence, all-powerful nature, and omniscience, all-knowing foresight can the Divine be sovereign?
If we accept our place in a kingdom of priests, what lamp are we rising to light each day? How are we proclaiming our place amongst HaShem’s people?
Halakha, The Way of Judaism
For me, the brilliance of Judaism is that we do not require our kahal, our community, to be in perfect alignment on the nature of the Divine. Our starting point: fundamentally, HaShem is beyond human comprehension. Thus, we seek to emulate God more than we seek to claim to know the nature of the Divine. How do we emulate HaShem?
Halakha means The Way. Fundamentally, it is The Way to bring Divine Light into every human act. We are all wont to forget The Way. So, we have some unique tricks to remind ourselves not to stray towards our baser inclinations. First, the fringes on our four-cornered garment. Fewer people wear four-cornered garments, and many who do choose to tuck their fringes into pockets. We also developed the habit of wearing a yarmulke when praying. Some choose to wear it at all times when practical. All of these elements work together to allow HaShem’s Spirit to infuse our thoughts and actions.
The final sentence of our triennial reading resonates deeply with me. So much of life is beginning to open up again, including in-person davennen with Temple Beth Israel. As we journey from our camps of safety in our homes, how can we remember that HaShem precedes us? What concrete ways can we remind ourselves and those around us that Truth and Goodness light the way on our personal and communal journeys? How can we alight within ourselves the desire to be near the Divine each day?
Focusing on humility, avanah
The Mussar Torah Commentary, published by the Reform Movement’s CCAR Press, suggests that we focus on avanah, the trait of humility. This is not irrational piety. Rather, as Maimonides suggests, it is the middle point between self-abasement and arrogance. Alan Morinis further defines this attribute in his book, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar. He says: “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others” (49).
I choose to see avanah as a dual command. First, to acknowledge my ego and my proper place in the landscape of human interaction. In my life, when I perceive myself as not having power, I over-extend my presence to compensate for feeling under-appreciated. Simultaneously, I must be constantly aware of the souls around me. Particularly, their need to be seen individually and completely. Acknowledging the healthy space that I inhabit and the holy space I defer to others is the cornerstone. With avanah, I humbly begin to rise towards acknowledging the light of HaShem.
Thus, on a daily basis, I attempt to rise to light my way towards alignment with HaShem. I take stock of myself and stop the internal chatter long enough to see and elevate the souls around me. With avanah we can adjust our sight to catch a glimpse of the cloud of HaShem traveling before us each day.
Image by Reijo Telaranta via Pixabay.