Parashat B'ha'alotkha

Beyond Fear

Social Justice As A Sacred Communal Obligation

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Parashat B’ha’alotkha also illustrates how dedication to social action can bring more intimate losses, such as separation from family and from many members of the society that stands to benefit. Putting oneself forward politically, whether as a professional or as a volunteer, also invites public scrutiny of one's private life. This is an easy channel for the resentment of people who don't relish the discomfort of change, even for the better, or who doubt the authority of those who undertake leadership.

Moses, the person most responsible for carrying out God's plan to restructure society, is the Torah's prime example of one who encounters these losses. He essentially gives up his personal life after encountering God at the Burning Bush, when he returns to Egypt. Throughout the rest of the Torah, he is never shown interacting with his wife or children, only with his brother, Aaron, his sister Miriam, and his father-in-law, Yitro.

Further, having become intimate with the Eternal, Moses find his frame of reference shifted to the seventh generation, far beyond that of the Israelites who feel keenly their lack of control over where their next meal is coming from. He prays for the multitude, but no longer shares or understands their fears and frustrations.

Finally, in Parashat B’ha’alotkha, he finds his most intimate relationships become public issues and he loses, albeit temporarily, the trust of both his siblings.

Yitro leaves for Midian after spending two years at the Israelite camp. According to a midrash, Moses is left both socially bereft and professionally unsupported. Yitro had been Moses' interpreter, the experienced leader, who understood ordinary people when Moses no longer did.

To make Moses' job possible again, God appoints, and inspires, 70 assistants, leaders of the people who can interpret and apply the laws Moses receives. According to another midrash, all of these leaders had been overseers in Egypt, where they willingly took blame, and beatings, for failure to meet quotas rather than make impossible demands of those under them. As in the case of the Levi'im, a reliable group makes it possible to realized shared social ideals.

However some personal pain is inevitable, and impossible to share. According to an illuminating rabbinic midrash, the wives of Moses' 70 assistants dressed up to celebrate their husbands' new honor, but Moses' own wife Tzipporah remained plainly clothed. When Miriam asked her why, she replied that it wouldn't make any difference how she dressed, because Moses hadn't touched her in years.

Miriam tactfully called Aaron to a family conference just outside Moses' tent, where Moses and no one else would overhear her saying that if the 70 assistants could remain sexually active, Moses had no excuse for neglecting Tzipporah.

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Nina Wouk is an accountant who spends most of her free time serving on three ritual committees.