Judaism: A Second Chance
Our Parashah opens with G-d telling Moshe (Moses) to tell Aaron: “When you light the candles, the seven candles will illuminate opposite the face of the Menorah” (Numbers 8:1).
The Midrash notes the juxtaposition of this directive immediately after the account of the chieftains’ donations for the Dedication of the Altar (Numbers 7:11-89), with which Parashat Nasso concludes, and expounds upon this juxtaposition:
“You find that immediately before, eleven Tribes brought their offerings but the Tribe of Levi brought no offering. The Tribe of Ephraim and all the Tribal Chieftains brought their offerings except for the Chieftain of Levi. And who was the Chieftain of Levi? – That was Aaron, as it says ‘And the name of Aaron inscribe of the Staff of Levi’ (Numbers 17:18). Now Aaron had not brought offerings with the other Chieftains, and he said: Woe is me, lest because of me the entire Tribe of Levi will be rejected!
"G-d said to Moshe: Go and tell Aaron, Do not worry! You have been prepared for something even greater! Therefore it says, ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you light the candles…’. The offerings apply as long as the Sanctuary stands; but the candles will continue forever, ‘opposite the face of the Menorah’. And all the blessings which I gave you with which to bless My children – those, too, will never be annulled” (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:6 and Tanhuma, Beha’alot’cha 5).
The Midrashic commentator Maharz”u (Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn, Grodno and Vilna, died 1862) explains why the Midrash singles out the Tribe of Ephraim: “He was not even a son of Jacob, and he was the youngest, the last one to be born; yet he nevertheless brought an offering, while the Tribe of Levi – the third of the Tribes – brought no offering” (commentary to Bamidbar Rabbah 15:6).
Rashi, in his first commentary to Parashat Behaalotcha, paraphrases and summarises this Midrash: “Why does this section of lighting the candles of the Menorah come directly after the section of the Tribal Chieftains? – Because when Aaron saw the dedication-offerings of the Tribal Chieftains he became disheartened because neither he nor his Tribe [Levi] had participated with them in the dedication. G-d said to him: By your life! Your contribution is greater than theirs, because you will light and beautify the candles” (Commentary to Numbers 8:2).
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) cites Rashi’s comment, but challenges it: “It is not clear to me why [G-d] would console Aaron with the lighting of the candles, instead of consoling him with the incense-burning every morning and evening, which is what the Torah explicitly praises him for, as it says ‘they shall put incense before You’ (Deuteronomy 33:10), and with all the sacrifices and the meal-offerings of baked cakes, and with the Yom Kippur service which is valid solely if performed by him, and the fact that he alone enters the innermost chamber of the Sanctuary, and that he, who is ‘Holy to Hashem’ (Exodus 28:36, 39:30) stands in His Holy Temple ‘to serve Him and to bless in His Name’ (Deuteronomy 10:8), and that his entire Tribe serve our G-d”.
Having explained why he finds Rashi’s comment unsatisfactory, the Ramban proceeds to offer an alternative explanation: “Rather, this homily’s purpose is to show how this parashah alludes to Hanukkah (the Dedication) of the candles which was wrought in the Second Temple by Aaron and his sons, meaning the Hasmonean Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and his sons”.
The Ramban reinforces his explanation that this narrative of Aaron lighting the candles in the Mishkan alludes to the Menorah which his descendants, the Maccabees, would rededicate in the Second Temple, by citing a somewhat obscure Midrash, the Megillat Setarim (“Scroll of Secrets”) of Rabbeinu Nissim (Rabbi Nissim ben Ya’akov, Tunisia, 990–1062). This anthology of halakhic decisions, commentaries, and midrashim has sadly been lost, and only a few fragments, quoted in other works, still survive.
And the Ramban then cites the above Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:6 and Tanhuma, Beha’alot’cha 5) and concludes his exposition: “Now it is obvious that when no Holy Temple stands and the sacrifices are cancelled because of its destruction, the lighting of the candles is also cancelled. Therefore the Midrash has to allude to the candles of the Hanukkah (Dedication) of the Hasmoneans, which applies even after the destruction [of the Holy Temple], even in our exile. And similarly the Priestly Blessing , which is also juxtaposed to the account of the chieftains’ donations for the Dedication of the Altar, applies forever”.
For twelve days, one Chieftain from each of twelve Tribes came to present a donation to the Mishkan. Only Aaron, Chieftain of the Tribe of Levi, was denied the opportunity.
But he and his sons – the Kohanim after him for all time – were given their chance to make their contribution to the Mishkan, and later to the first Holy Temple, and later to the second Holy Temple, and later yet to the Jewish narrative for all time.
Immediately after this episode finishes, the Torah switches to a subject that is definitely out of chronological sequence: “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the second year from their Exodus from Egypt, in the first month, saying: The Children of Israel shall perform the Pesach-sacrifice in its appointed time…” (Numbers 9:1-2).
But the Book of Numbers began on the first day of the second month (Numbers 1:1), so this episode, which happened in the first month, does not follow the previous chapter chronologically. It might, therefore, be better to translate this in the pluperfect: “Hashem had spoken to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the second year from their Exodus from Egypt, in the first month…”.
But, as the Torah continues, “There were men who had been contaminated by a human corpse, so could not bring the Pesach-sacrifice on that day. They approached Moshe and Aaron on that day, and those men said to him: We are contaminated by a human corpse; why should we be diminished by not offering Hashem’s sacrifice in its proper time among the Children of Israel?” (9:6-7).
The result was G-d’s decree of Pesach Sheni – the Second Pesach, the second chance to offer the Pesach-Sacrifice exactly a month after its time. This entails four mitzvot, two positive and two negative:
That anyone who had not offered the Pesach-sacrifice in its correct time (14th of Nissan) must instead offer it exactly a month later on the 14th of Iyyar, Pesach Sheni (Numbers 9:9-14); to eat the meat of the delayed Pesach-sacrifice during the night of the 15th of Iyyar (v. 11); not to leave any of the meat of the delayed Pesach-sacrifice over until morning (v. 12); and not to break any of the bones of the delayed Pesach-sacrifice (ibid.).
Both Aaron’s charge and Pesach Sheni teach that G-d always allows us a second chance. The great Irish folk-singer Patsy Farrell could sing that “missed opportunities never come twice” – but Parashat Behaalotcha teaches otherwise.
This year 5774, somewhat unusually, Parashat Behaalotcha falls on the Shabbat immediately after Shavuot. This happens on average about one in five years: the last time was back in 5771 (2011), and the next time will be in 5776 (2016). And Shavuot, too, indirectly teaches this.
Shavuot celebrates the Giving of the Torah, and the Midrash fills in the background which the Torah does not tell us: “When G-d revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed Himself not only to Israel but to all the nations. He first went to the sons of Esau, and said to them: Will you accept the Torah? They said to Him: What is written in it? He said to them: ‘You shall not murder’. They said: The entire power of these people comes from their ancestor who was a murderer… He went to the sons of Ammon and Moab, and said to them: Will you accept the Torah? They said to Him: What is written in it? He said to them: ‘You shall not commit adultery’. They said to Him: Their entire strength lies in their sexual immorality, as it says ‘Lot’s two daughters became pregnant from their father’ (Genesis 19:36).
"He went to the sons of Ishmael, and said to them: Will you accept the Torah? They said to Him: What is written in it? He said to them: ‘You shall not steal’. They said to Him: The entire power of these people comes from their ancestor who was a robber… And thus He went from nation to nation, asking them if they would accept the Torah” (Sifrei Deuteronomy, Vezot Haberachah 343; also Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 286 and Deuteronomy 951; and see a similar account in Tanna de-Vey Eliyahu, Pirkei ha-Yeridot 3).
The nations of Ammon and Moab rejected the Torah when it was offered to them – yet centuries later, Ruth the Moabitess and Naamah the Amonitess would both accept the Torah and convert to Judaism. (Indeed G-d preserved those two entire nations in existence for centuries just for the sake of the one righteous woman who would emerge from each one – see Yevamot 63a and Bava Kamma 38b).
Decades ago, while yet living in England, I heard an explanation from Rabbi Joseph Shaw (Yosef ben Tzvi) zatza”l, of how we can accept converts to Judaism. After all, we might think – who are we to subvert what G-d has decreed? If G-d has decreed that a person be born non-Jewish, how can we, mere mortals, change His decree?
Surely, Rabbi Shaw z”l explained, among all those nations which rejected the Torah when God offered it to them, there must have been some Esavians, Moabites, Ammonites, Ishmaelites, and others who heard God’s offer and wanted to accept His Torah. But what can one person do against the entire nation?
Those souls who wanted to accept the Torah resounded through the generations, unfulfilled in this world until they accept Torah. Thus, according to this view, there are no converts – only Jewish souls who, for whatever reason, were born into non-Jewish bodies and eventually find their way home.
To them, too, God grants a second chance – even though it be millennia after the first chance.
When the first Holy Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and Jewish national independence was snuffed out 2,436 years ago, it must have seemed like the end of all hope for the Jews of the time: “Our bones have dried up and our hope has been lost” (Ezekiel 37:11).
Yet 70 years later Zerubavel led the nation out of Babylonian exile back to its Land, there to rebuild the Holy Temple and, eventually, national independence.
When the second Holy Temple was destroyed by the Romans and Jewish national independence was snuffed out 1,946 years ago, it must have seemed like the end of all hope for the Jews of the time.
It took longer – far, far longer – but eventually the shattered remnants of the nation came back home and restored sovereign independence. We noted earlier that in about one year in every five, Parashat Beha’alot’cha falls on the Shabbat immediately after Shavuot.
Intriguingly, and maybe not coincidentally, in both 5708 (1948) and 5727 (1967), Parashat Beha’alot’cha fell on the Shabbat immediately after Shavuot.