Parashat B'haalot'cha

June 9, 2023Lillian Burkenheim Silver

I was eight, sitting in my Hebrew class on a hot Tuesday afternoon after school. Cantor Wagner entered the room, sat down on the teacher’s desk, and took off his watch. He held it up and looked at each of us. The watch looked expensive to me. Holding it up high, he said, “I will give the watch to the person who can answer this question: why did it take the Israelites 40 years to reach the Promised Land?”

We all wanted to win the watch. But why did it take 40 years to cover an area that could be walked in four days? You can guess the reasons the class suggested. Sad to say, none of us got the watch. Cantor Wagner told us it took 40 years for a new generation — a generation that did not remember being slaves in Egypt. Interesting, but to an eight-year-old, that didn’t make sense. But somehow, Parashat B’haalot’cha gives a glimpse into the answer. This parashah reflects ongoing themes and begins to outline the qualities of leadership needed to move beyond our past experiences, see where we are, and that no matter the obstacles, there is always the possibility of beginning again — honoring our past leaders while training the next generation (the generation that actually gets to the Promised Land). 

Numbers list requirements without a lot of explanation, thus allowing us to speculate and interpret. This week’s portion is no different; it begins with the design and use of the menorah. Most importantly for us, G-d instructs Moses to tell Aaron to make sure the light is facing out to people — to continue to light their souls — and that he must ensure the light is burning before he turns away to other tasks.  

For all our tasks, there needs to be that burning light in our soul — knowing our purpose, our raison d’etre, and the requirement to complete the task before moving to the next.

The Levites were given the responsibility of carrying the Tabernacle through the wilderness. They received training and assumed this responsibility until they were 25, and they ended their service when they were 40 years old. Then their responsibilities ended, but their inclusion in the community was still important.  

As leaders and committee members, we need the proper training to undertake the tasks before us. There is a time to lead and a time to let others take over the tasks. There are always opportunities to learn, to take on new assignments, and to begin again.  

This theme continues as G-d directs Moses to gather the elders to share his leadership role — not talking with G-d, but leading. Moses is modest in his role as a leader. Some question who is chosen to lead with him. And a shift in direction is felt as the leadership begins to be shared. As in all new leadership situations, when there is a change, it takes work to transition to a new leadership model. It may mean that not every goal is completed quickly, but the group becomes stronger in the future. 

The Israelites camped where G-d directed throughout their journey and stayed as long as they were directed to stay. They needed to find a way to be positive about their lives, even when they were not in control. Sometimes they followed, and sometimes, they rebelled. There were lots of complaints, and G-d sought retribution. Moses was at a loss as to how to move them towards the Promised Land. He could not envision how to satisfy both G-d and the Israelites and reach their destination. According to Rabbi Akiba, Moses could not see beyond the present. Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazer, of course, had a different opinion. He believed Moses did not trust how the Israelites would respond if G-d made the “impossible possible.”     

As leaders, we are often challenged to work towards accomplishing our mission, to move our Sisterhood to accomplish our goals, and present our programs. We know our leadership structure. We have engaged our members to define our mission and goals. We have listened to their concerns and ideas and, with them, decided upon the best route to take to succeed.  

There are always those that look at the past and question the current direction. Like the Israelites, they remember their past experiences to evaluate the next step. Yet new people, new ideas, and a different setting change the expectations and possibilities. 

Today, we cannot rely on G-d to provide for us, but for inspiration and guidance. We must be resilient, listen to our community, meet them where they are, and find our path forward together.

Could I win the watch today? Probably not. Neither my 8-year-old nor my grownup self thinks the answer is that simple. The mindset of being a slave in Egypt needed to change to understand that their actions have consequences but also to survive into the future and flourish in the Promised Land. The Israelites needed to become a cohesive nation with direction, leaders, rules, and a shared spirit. 

As we begin our new terms of leadership, we are also starting out on our journey. The question for us is, how do we learn the lessons of the Torah to help our Sisterhood and women’s communities thrive?

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