Table for Five: Beha’alotcha

The Divine Presence
June 20, 2024

One verse, five voices. Edited by Nina Litvak and Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

On the day the Mishkan was erected, the cloud covered the Mishkan, which was a tent for the Testimony, and at evening, there was over the Mishkan like an appearance of fire, [which remained] until morning.

– Num. 9:15

Rabbi Dr. Janet Madden
Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue

The setting-up of the Mishkan is an opportunity for theophany. Built according to Divine specifications, it is the spiritual center-point for the people, the locus of sacred immanence, the dwelling-place of Shechinah. Positioned at the heart of the community, it is the repository of sacred energy, connecting every element of creation. Just as the layout of the Israelite camp is a horizontal representation of cosmic order, so the Mishkan continues that motif through a vertical axis. And in the vastness of the landscape of desert-wilderness, the language of visual symbols becomes a love-language of connection between the One to every aspect of creation. Literally grounded in the earth upon which it has been erected, the Mishkan is the link between the heavens and the earth. In the atmosphere above it, air and water combine to form the protective cloud-mass that contains life-sustaining dew and rain — the perceivable reassurance that life will be sustained. This cloudy combination shields the human and more-than-human worlds from the potentially catastrophic merging of the bright desert sun and the incandescence of the Mishkan, providing another marker of Divine protection. And at night, the time of deepest human vulnerability, the power of the Divine manifests as fire, the encoded possibilities of purification and destruction on dramatic display, the juxtaposition of fiery light set against the darkness to create an indelible image of Presence. As our ancestors must have done, may we, too, encounter earth, air, fire and water as portals to connection with the Holy One.

Rabbi Abraham Lieberman
Judaic Studies, Shalhevet HS

The section preceding this verse speaks of the narrative of Pesach Sheni (Second Pesach, Bamidbar 9:1-14). There were people who, because of their state of impurity at the time of the sacrifice of the Korban Pesach, could not offer it, so they approached Moshe with a very poignant question. “Why should we be deprived … among the Children of Israel”? (Bamidbar 9:7) They didn’t want to miss out on this mitzvah through no fault of their own. Moshe turned to Hashem, who introduced a mitzvah, Pesach Sheni. Their request created a new mitzvah, going from 612 to 613. It is to be celebrated by the people who could not participate in the Korban Pesach at its appointed time, though replicating some of the same details the next month. 

And then comes our verse telling us about the Cloud of Glory covering the Tabernacle during the day and its appearance as a Fire at night, a continuous showing of the Divine Presence. What connects these two sections, juxtaposed next to each other? According to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the connection is a natural one. Pesach represents the deep love of the Jewish people for Hashem, and these people showed how much it bothered them that they could not participate. On a deeper level when we examine their words, we see exactly that point  — yet there was more. They wanted to be unified with the rest of the Children of Israel. The lesson is very powerful, when we are united in serving Hashem together, we merit the Divine Glory.   

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Executive Director/Aish LA

What is your purpose? Throughout the 40 years in the desert the Jews followed the cloud and pillar of fire; signifying God’s presence and 24/7 assurance that no matter where the Jews were, God was with them. I can use some of that! The biblical Jews’ purpose was not in question. How do we develop that confidence today? Firstly, you have certain natural talents and thinking that no one else will ever have, as the Talmud documents. Allow your unique genius and ability to take you in that direction. Another factor is where in history has God placed you? Sometimes a person may be forced into doing something due to external circumstances, which can bring out one’s unknown qualities. Parenting is one such example. Lastly, sometimes a person may not be particularly talented or have experience in a situation, yet they are inspired to make the necessary improvements. Consequently, their desire to fill the need spurs them to be granted “heavenly help” as a reward for their efforts. Take fundraising. I believe everyone can be a fundraiser for a just cause. Once that cause is identified, people can walk through walls to reach their monetary goals. In addition to the above insights, the Torah is our guide. For without it a person can find themselves on the wrong side of Free Palestine (from Hamas) demonstrations. God is present but hidden, imperceptibly leading us along in our purpose. But it’s our responsibility and opportunity to identify the direction of our journey. 

Dini Coopersmith
Educational Director, Orot haTorah Israel www.reconnectiontrips.com

Netivot Shalom gives a Hasidic explanation to this verse. On the day the mishkan is erected in a person’s life, as each individual goes forward to build his personal mishkan, his/her place for Hashem to dwell, a cloud may cover the tent of meeting, things get dark and stormy, and at night there may be a fire over your sanctuary, trials and tribulations, struggles and difficulties come to test you. But says the Torah: This is how our personal mishkan is built, this is how we develop as an individual and as a nation. We are always tested and often, we are in a dark place, we think we cannot possibly move ahead and grow from this devastation, but eventually the cloud rises again, the morning comes, and the Jewish people can travel and move ahead. A Jew grows and moves toward greatness and meaning through the darkness and difficulties but only after the trials and tribulations make way for a great light. God is encouraging us that we are not meant to move forward during the darkness, we just wait it out and remain steadfast in our emunah, and know that when the clouds lift and let in the dawn, we will be able to move towards our purpose and reach higher levels of clarity and growth. May we merit to see the clouds, fire and darkness move aside and the sun and clarity take their place, individually and nationally soon!! L’ilui nishmat Daniel ben Aryeh v’Liora.

Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas
Founder of The Ritual House, www.theritual.house, @rabbi_tova

Jewish rituals often have a specific element out of the four (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) connected to them. For instance, Shabbat candles and havdalah have fire, the blowing of the shofar and smelling the spices on havdalah have air, washing our hands before breaking bread and the mikveh contain water, blessing and eating challah with salt and blessing and drinking wine on Shabbat and holidays is earth. According to our tradition from the Zohar to Maimonides, we can see these four elements grounding nearly every aspect of our ritual life, and yet, we often do not notice them as they are interwoven seamlessly. This Torah portion is a reminder of how the most sacred spaces and holy of holies are contained by each of these mystical elements as well. The cloud is a beautiful combination of water and air, while the fire shines brightly. The one missing is earth, which reminds us that we, as earthly creatures dwelling on the land, are essential to this sacred space. This week we are encouraged to remember these elemental energies to connect more deeply to what matters most. We are blessed to do just that through our sacred rituals.

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