This portion frequently involves a repetition of, and a deeper probing into, certain important matters we’ve already discussed. Our work today will largely be to explore what’s new in the iteration here and the elements of this treatment that are of special value, especially as we proceed in the wilderness. We’ll put a real focus on how dissension and rebellion can begin, even in the wake of God’s presence and support, and what meaning and possible lessons we can draw from it.
I. Read 8:1-4
A. We’ve talked about the lamp stand before. But the text brings us back to it with new and significant messages. How and why? What do we learn anew, or re-learn in deeper ways here?
(There’s mounting to light lamps. Mounting is important; we know that partly because that word gives the title to the portion. What’s significant about mounting? Recall last week’s portion was Naso, “lift up.” The counting involved a lifting up of the head. Now we have a mounting. There’s an ascending in all of it. Is this a going up to God? A going up to get and set the light? More?
Take a look at Chabad piece on the nature of elevation. We’ll return to this toward the end of our session today.
The Zohar sees lighting and ascending together - the two terms, “make ascend” and “make good” signify one and the same thing. At that moment, the Community of Israel is blessed, and blessings are diffused throughout the worlds. There’s a tie in the Zohar between the altar where the incense is burned and the lamp stand, which we won’t get into now. But suffice to say, the lamps are essential in the view of the Zohar to ministering to the joy of the whole of existence.)
B. Now, let’s go to a deeper level: Note the lamps will “give light at the front of the lamp stand.” Do you recall who brings the oil to light the lamps? How do we put all this together? What does our role in lighting the lamp mean? What’s the significance right here in the narrative?
(This is the light of God, representative of God’s ways and expectations. Yet, we are crucial to make it shine, to make these ways manifest, concentrating at the foot of the lamp stand. We make the lamps. We make the menorah. We care for them. We carry them. We bring the oil. We mount it to light the lamps. God’s light is central to our lives. We’re needed, though - through this service, wisdom, living in obedience to God’s ways - to spread it “as a light to the nations.” Plus, we ourselves need this light to light our own way, as we take it in, enlightening both our lives and our mission in the world.)
II. A. Read 9:1-5
We’ve encountered the passover as part of our study of the redemption from Egypt. We’ve even learned through its mention later in the text in an account of the festivals that were to be held on sacred days. Why do we see it again here?
(There are many explanations in the commentaries. We won’t go into them all here. But we do see and note fresh elements.
There is some detail in that and how it is celebrated annually, not just once upon redemption. Perhaps we should also acknowledge and always remember, after emphasizing God’s light and our role in spreading it in our midst, that it was God who redeemed us, that it’s God’s saving hand that brought us here, will carry us through the wilderness, and bring us to the land of promise. It’s as if there’s an understanding of wilderness anxiety, and the antidote for that anxiety is and must be an ongoing awareness of God’s saving and protective role.)
B. In that vein, note 9:15-23. We’ve read and discussed this topic before - the people being protected by God through a cloud and then leading the moving out at the cloud’s lifting. One sage makes an interesting point about the text here: there’s a numerical correlation between the phrase, “by God’s word,” and the word, “the tabernacle,” as there is between the root word for tabernacle and the word for cloud. I don’t often take you on numerology trips, but I want to see if you have any hypotheses for this. As you answer, keep in mind that there seems to be no pattern to the amount of days in place under the cloud at any one time.
(The carefully designed flow of frequently and generally equally applied use of words involving protection, move, the place of sacred encounter, and God’s word is a purposeful, balanced interweave, just as it is and should be in our lives. This is especially important as the journey through the wilderness has just begun and is perhaps at its most challenging.
Yet, there are things over which we have no control. We get situated, and then we have to move. We’re ready to go, and we stay. There is order and Divine pattern; we have choice and say; and yet there are things within our lives with God that are beyond our control and understanding.)
III. And, yet, the people complain. We’re going to spend much of the rest of our session today trying to get to the bottom of this - why, how, what it means, and what our response might be.
A. Read 11:1-3. Why are they complaining? They have the support of God. They have been given freedom and the Way. There is the sacred, the organization, a reminder of God’s saving hand from Egypt, God’s support by night and day. Yet, even with all that, the people complain. Do people do so today?
(Still touched by slavery, by the “narrow ways.” Weak. Difficult path. Material challenges overwhelm and make spiritual strength hard to find and play a sustaining role. Could it also be that God’s support was clear to Moses and Aaron but didn’t “filter down?” This clearly involved a refusal to accept authority.
Ramban says they spoke and acted out of a bitterness of their soul as do people who suffer pain. This was evil in the sight of God.)
What does it mean that God’s reaction seemed to be directed to the “outskirts” of the camp?
(Were complainers marginal, the ones who were least committed and were on the edges, as “outside agitators”? Or is there something to the fact that the word for outskirts (katzeh) is like the word for leader (katzin), thus suggesting contested leadership, or leadership that failed to stem the waywardness before it got out of hand? Or is it a bit of both? Doesn’t rebellion take root in a complex way - discontent from those who are least committed OR, quite the contrary, those who have a self-interest in mucking up the works, spreading to others, and then being picked up by leaders in whose “political interest” it is to oppose, to the harm of all?)
B. Read 4-6.
1. Does this add to our understanding?
(How quickly we forget?! There was nothing so great about the “old days,” yet rabble-rousers can play tricks on the “riff raff?” Isn’t this common and essential to rebellion - the infectiousness of bitterness and lust and evil, perhaps initially from only a few, leading to straying, abandoning course, and creating a new and wrong reality among many? In fact, when the new course is hard, even though it leads to great promise, it may be especially easy to recall with nostalgia times that involved little responsibility as far better than they were. This helps create an environment for broad-based rebellion and tearing down.
This is a people pretty empty in the spiritual tank, which makes them very vulnerable to material weakness and distraction from any purpose, especially holy purpose. And all the organization in the world, all the counting and being counted, all the sense of mission and direction, etc., will mean little if the core of the people is this weak, and troublemakers can push them so easily off course.
It’s one thing to relish the idea of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It’s quite another thing to do it. It’s very hard - and right from the start. After the miracle of redemption, the glory of revelation, even the instruction and organization, one could think “we’re home free!” Isn’t this text here to say: it doesn’t work that way at all; there’s no quick and easy path to living strong in the way of God, however right and good it is. And there are always bad actors who, if not checked by the “good people” and leaders, can push the whole community off course.)
2. What’s the problem with manna all of a sudden? We learn it was delicious and fulfilling and God-given. (?)
(How true is it that the “sufficient” doesn’t often satisfy the appetite? We tend to want more, even the luxurious, more than the next guy has. Being satiated, if bored, is insufficient, and can cause discontent. The inner resources are lacking. We are learning why the path to promise goes through the wilderness! We must strengthen and learn to curb instincts like these, whether in the wilderness of the text or our own, and to avoid falling away from the truth and into bad thinking, often at the instigation of misleaders.)
C. Read 10-17. Now the complaining is coming from everywhere, literally the entire people, God is angry, and Moses is surely alone, uncertain, and really desperate. What does he do and why? How do you react to his appeal? How does God?
(We do turn to God at such times. If our work is for God, don’t we tend especially to feel the burden belongs at least in part to God, at least to answer us and guide us? Moses is not really a saint or a hero. He’s a bit like we are, in need of help, in need of God’s help. This has the feel of a psalm of lament, doesn’t it? And yet it’s a lament in which we actually hear God’s response.
God does respond, and the Divine wisdom has a clear sense to it that Moses didn’t have, but needed to have, more distributed leadership among select elders, and leadership that had the fill of God’s spirit. This is needed, especially at times to help turn the tide and keep it in check when bad actors get it going. Note the language per se: “God drew upon the spirit that was on him (Moses) and put it on the seventy elders.”)
D. Read 31-34.
God grants the desires of those who seek excess, indeed excessively! What do you make of this passage?(There are consequences, curses, if you will, for those who abandon God’s path. It has the feel to me of Dante’s Inferno, where the punishment is a gross and eternal extenuation of the wrong that was done in the first place.)
E. Read 12:1-10. I have always studied this account of Miriam’s speech out of its context. Reading it in context, do you see and take away anything new or different?
(I see that the disease of dissension began at the outskirts, was unaddressed by leaders, and came up in complaining in all the families right to the tent of Moses. It here appears to have infected even those who loved and served Moses and the community the best - especially Miriam. All such spreading effects of evil are serious, must be guarded against, and merits the highest and strongest sort of vigilance among leadership.)
Read 11-15. What do we make of this as a conclusion to this difficult portion?
(Moses “mounts up,” (elevates in the manner described in the Chabad piece) to ask God’s help in saving Miriam. Though she faces the consequences of tzara’at, an exile, she returns, and the community then moves forward.
Do recall that Miriam herself is associated with lifting up - Moses from the water, the people from Egypt (see Micah), and the water from the wells. We’ll see more of this in coming weeks. Surely, Moses is honoring that, and God is, too, in the saving act. This is the conclusion: this is the text of lifting up, of mounting. No matter the challenge, we’re to lift up, to mount. And Moses’ love and grace in doing so in the act of prayer for Miriam is a lovely example of it.
We are made in God’s image. Just as we learn from God’s acts, we resist and oppose rebellion and must find ways to root out what causes it and fill in with the good and holy. And we are to elevate and save, just as we mount to light the lamps of God’s light.)