Parashat Beha’alotecha – Limmud on one Leg

The following is from the Limmud on one Leg series of short Divrei Torah on the Parashat Ha’Shavua, the portion of the week, that are written by different people each week. Details of how to subscribe are on their webpage.


Parashat Beha’alotecha

Aaron prepares the lamps for the menorah in this week’s parasha. The observance of Pesach (Passover) is recounted. The people complain about their situation and Moses feels unable to cope. Miriam is stricken with tzara’at (an illness not quite like leprosy described in parashiot Tazria and Metzorah).

Miriam Berger is Rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue where she has been since her ordination in 2006. She still comes out in a cold sweat when she thinks of the mammoth task of being Programming Co-Chair of Limmud Conference, knowing it was back in the dark ages with a dial-up internet connection and more post it notes than she cares to remember.

We emerged from the Underground into a beautiful night when my seven-year-old son was mesmerised by the bright, full moon glowing a vibrant orange. “You see it and know it’s the middle of the Hebrew month of Sivan but your Muslim friends at school must be looking at it and realising they are half way through Ramadan”. I often find myself drawing parallels for him between that which he feels is special and unique to us and that which has a slightly different language or choreography but makes the unfamiliar within his classmates’ culture chime with his own experiences.

Parashat Beha’alotecha contains within it a quirk of biblical Judaism that in fact using the more current practices of our neighbours may allow us to understand these odd verses.

Finchley Reform Synagogue have been hosting a Muslim community for their nightly prayers throughout the month of Ramadan since 2013. Following a devastating arson attack on their community centre, the Somali Bravanese have been using our hall for six consecutive years and though we have members to welcome them every night we always share an Iftar meal one night a week. The joy found within the obligation of the daily fast and the feast is palpable but the pragmatism around the missed fast days is remarkable. The list of why it may not be possible to fulfil the fast on any particular days of Ramadan seems endless and generally comes down to common sense. But rather than simply not fulfilling the “mitzvah”, the days are rolled forward after Ramadan has finished so that the experience is not simply missed for those who could not partake because of a short-term health issue or other practical concerns but can be made up later on in the year.

Having this in my mind whist also experiencing the full moon by which to recreate our Passover exodus on the 14th day of the month illuminates this otherwise seemingly peculiar section of the Book of Numbers (9:1-14). Not only are we reading about the recreated first Passover sacrifice, the original “Seder night” but also about the disappointment of those who couldn’t partake due to corpse contamination or because they were on a journey. The pragmatic ruling however gives them the opportunity to roll it forward to the following month and observe it then. It seems akin to some explanations of Chanukah being a delayed observance of Sukkot for those who missed it because they were at war.

These verses, which can be written off as odd halacha, remind us of two important ideas. Firstly, that inclusivity, encouraging more people to fulfill the mitzvah and be part of experiencing the ritual, is more important than the exact timing of it. And secondly, when we truly allow ourselves to understand other people’s religious practice, we live the beautiful words of the late Jo Cox, “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”