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B'ha'alot'kha 5783 - And With the Opening of the Ark...

June 9, 2023 - 20 Sivan, 5783

Shavuot, Day 2, 2017. I had just returned to Los Angeles from a year in Israel. I was jet-lagged and not feeling well, but I decided to come to synagogue because I felt like I “should,” and I hadn’t seen people for a while. I dragged myself to shul and was immediately greeted with hugs, smiles, and a wave of comfort that I was home again. An hour later, I heard it: “Vay’hi binsoah ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kumah Adonai v’yafutzu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha.” “And at the lifting of the ark, Moshe would say: Stand up, God, and your enemies will scatter, and your haters will flee from before you.” As we asked God to stand up for us, we proclaimed that by taking this Torah out of the ark, together, we could conquer God’s enemies, all of the evil in the world. As I laughed and frowned at the Torah reading with the people sitting next to me, as I went up for a last-minute aliyah just so that the rabbi could say that the congregation missed me, as I caught up on the simchas and tragedies that happened in the congregation while I was gone for the year, I was lifted and sustained by the confidence our community had in its power to assert this Torah could conquer the world.

“Vay’hi binsoa ha’aron, vayomer Moshe.” Every week that we have a minyan, as we take out the Torah, we visualize ourselves as the Israelites in our parsha - in B’ha’alotcha, as we leave Sinai to march through the desert, proceeding tribe by tribe in perfect order. We carry the ark of the covenant as we seek out a new resting spot, and God’s presence, visible as cloud by day and fire by night, floats above us all the while. 

In a midrash in Sifrei Bamidbar, the Rabbis cannot fathom that anyone could threaten God. They say, “Are there truly people who exist who hate the one who spoke and the world was created?! Rather, the Torah is trying to say, everyone who hates Israel is like one who hates God.” According to the Rabbis, when the Torah says, “Your enemies will scatter, and your haters will flee before you,” the Torah equates God’s enemies with our enemies. As individuals, as a congregation, and as a Jewish people, God is on our side. When we open the ark in our Torah service, we re-enact the Israelite’s battle cry in the desert, confident that this hour spent immersed in God’s covenant will bring us to a place where we can overcome anything. 

Our parsha speaks of commandments about how to build a beautiful menorah in the Tabernacle, of how to treat the Leviim who carry and attend to that Tabernacle and who prepare and act as sacrificial offerings to God. Our parsha speaks of Moshe as the tormented yet holier than all-else leader and of those visible clouds that mark the Presence of God among as the people Israel travel through the desert. But we have no functional priestly class today, no Tabernacle, no Moses, and no pillar of cloud to show that God is here with us. All we have are the remnants of the people Israel, who in this parsha and many others, cry and moan and sin and are punished for it. We are the ones who are left to carry the ark, the Torah that we do have here and now, to prophesy and judge in place of Moshe, and to worship and enact ritual in place of the priestly class. Our text gives us immense responsibility, often responsibility that we don’t want to take on, or even, that pains us to consider. We plead God to stand up for us, to remember that God’s enemies are our enemies too. Even more urgently, we plead God to give us the strength and wisdom to stand up for ourselves. When we start singing, “Vay’hi binsoa ha’aron,” we plead for God not to leave us alone at war within this crazy text and with the burden of our responsibilities towards it.

“Vay’hi binsoa ha’aron” acts as both battle cry and plea for help. Some days, when we stand for the Torah service, we might personally feel more of that pull of confidence and pride, like I did that Shavuot. Some days, we might feel more of that pull of anxiety from the burden of mitzvot and the fear of what God may bring about because of how we’ve ignored or misinterpreted those mitzvot.  The anchoring point between the pride and worry is that we only experience the Torah service as a “we.” When we read through the book of Bamidbar and take away the Tabernacle, the hierarchical figures, and all of the objects and symbols that no longer exist, we are met with the words kahal and edah - community and congregation - again and again. The Israelites praise, complain, build, and break, all as a group. In our parshah, when the people Israel are complaining about lack of meat, Moshe cries, “I cannot carry this whole people by myself - it is too heavy for me!” (11:14), and God agrees to appoint judges to join him. A people can be trusted to carry an ark - a people can support the Presence of God, but even Moshe cannot survive carrying that people alone.

Halachically, we cannot read Torah without a minyan, without the ten people that constitute community in Jewish law. Just as Moshe could not have confidence in creating and enforcing law by himself, it would not make sense for us to experience Torah in isolation, lest we feel either overconfident in the Torah’s proclamations of God’s unending love or deflated by stories of God’s anger. It is crucial for both the person who is feeling the strength of “V’yhi binsoa ha’aron” and the person who is feeling the anxiety prompted by those words to sit side by side, to discuss their emotions and thoughts about the ritual at hand. By hearing Torah in community, we can experience enhanced confidence, knowing that we are in a room of people who came here this morning for this text and Jewish tradition, and perhaps most importantly, to spend time with this formulation of us. By hearing Torah in community, we must also experience challenge, through discussions about the parshah between aliyot and through thinking about what it means to translate our Torah learning towards the world around us. Together, we can process how to bring that military force that God heads in Parshat B’ha’alotcha towards a communal effort of text into action, with that combination of confidence in who we are and awareness of what we still need to do. That fear of the consequences we read about in our parsha - fire, plague, societal upheaval - is real and scary, but thank goodness we can process it together, with this group of people that we have chosen to sit here with today.

At Kiddush on that Shavuot, as I looked around at the people eating cheesecake, I thought about the sermons my rabbi had given in the past that frustrated me so much I wanted to walk out of the room, about people there with which I had had intense emotional conflict in the past, and about this often brutal Torah that we had celebrated together today. And I knew that this was exactly what I needed, this celebration of Torah with these people, in the traditional configuration of battle cry and plea, in order to experience the returning to balance and the rest that I needed on that morning. 

Please remember that at Agudath Achim, when we have a minyan, our Saturday morning Torah service begins sometime between 10:45am and 11:00am. As wonderful as our Torah study is with five individuals in the room, when we do not have a minyan, we miss those vital moments of ark-opening, of honoring and comforting each other with aliyot, and with symbolically standing at Sinai. Even when the “regulars” are out of town, we almost always end up with a minyan by noon. Tonight, I ask you to shift your Saturday morning schedule a few minutes back so that you can make it here in time for the Torah service. The coffee pot will be on, so no need to make your own at home! 

Tonight, in this minyan, may we be strengthened and challenged by God’s palpable presence among us as we strengthen and challenge each other. Tomorrow, when we are all present by 11:00am, we will celebrate Bob Lachman and present a battle cry at the ark on behalf of his health and well-being, knowing the power of community and Torah in relationship with one another.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784