Select Page

This D’var Torah on Parshat Beha’alotecha was delivered to the JRC Board of Directors during their Board Retreat on 6/15/22 by Immediate Past President Elliot Frolichstein-Appel.

At this moment of transition for JRC and all of us serving on its board, this week’s parsha is Beha’alotecha. It’s a mixed bag of a parsha, with a wide range of unrelated snippets with echoes of our Jewish life together at JRC.

First the Levites prepare to serve in the Mishkan, and we learn details about how to light and maintain the menorah, in a foreshadowing of what will later become Hanukkah. Then we get a bunch of instructions about Passover and the Exodus, many of which find their way into the Haggadah. Later, Moses invites his Midianite relatives to march through the wilderness with the Israelites (possibly to serve as local guides), perhaps foreshadowing some interfaith work. And there is a description of the divine presence in a pillar of cloud and fire leading the tabernacle and the camp, giving us “Vayehi binso’ah ha’aron” that we sing in our torah services. Like I said, a mixed bag.

In addition, as part of this random walk around the Jewish experience, there is of course a lot of Jewish kvetching, along with some divine comeuppance for the kvetchers.

The unwashed masses of Israelites, who are here described as “Asafsuf” or riffraff, and who receive **literal manna from heaven** every day, decide that they really miss the meat and vegetables they enjoyed back in Egypt under slavery. They start kvetching about the food, and as a result, they are overwhelmed by flocks of quail. They can’t keep up with the barbecuing, and they all get sick after a few days of quail meat.

Miriam and Aaron kvetch about their brother Moses, and how come HE gets to be the big shot leader and they don’t. While they’re at it, they make racist comments about Moses’ Black Cushite wife. The three siblings are summoned to the Mishkan, where Aaron and Miriam are subjected to a godly lecture. In an act of divine sexism, Miriam (but not Aaron) is turned suddenly leprous, which, with no small amount of irony, turns her skin snow white. In Aaron’s plea to heal his sister’s leprosy, we get our alternative prayer for healing – “Al na, El na, refah na lah.”

Most relevant to our purpose here tonight, in the midst of all the whining surrounding him, Moses kvetches to God that he is miserable in his leadership role and would rather be struck dead than have to remain at the helm – or at the complaint desk. However, instead of being struck dead, Moses receives divine instructions to appoint a committee of 70 elders to share the burden of leadership. After all 70 elders are nominated and oriented, they all get some of the divine spirit that Moses has, and they do a bit of prophesying work – before stopping to hear what comes next.

But before they can get to the next agenda item, they are all interrupted by an urgent report. There are two seemingly rogue Israelites – Eldad and Medad – who are not in the meeting but are instead walking around the camp prophesying on their own. This causes great consternation among the appointed leadership council. Joshua, who will eventually succeed Moses and help the Israelites achieve their strategic goals when Moses can’t, now wants to stop these two freelancers, since they are not following the official plan. Moses reminds the group that freelancing is awesome and that, in fact, it would be great if EVERYONE could go around doing the prophesying thing, since that would mean less of a burden on those who are in official leadership positions. The elders, chastised, join Moses to leave their meeting at the Mishkan and go back among the Israelites in the camp.

I see several lessons we can draw from the mixed bag that is Parshat Beha’alotecha, from freelancers Eldad and Medad, and from this whole kvetch-o-rama.

First, Jewish communal life is messy. It’s always going to be a mixed bag rather than an orderly march. We’re always going to be juggling a weekly torah ritual, upcoming holiday planning, some liturgical tweak, family tensions, and sorting out everyone’s changing roles. So let’s acknowledge that it will be messy, and let’s not let that upset us. We are ALL part of the “Asafsuf” – the riffraff – even if we are among the appointed elders. Messy is fine, and messy is real.

Second, community leadership can be a heavy burden. This parsha long predates the Shakespearean concept of “heavy is the head that wears the crown,” but the concept is timeless. In our board roles, we talk about our fiduciary responsibilities, our responsibilities to one another, and our responsibilities to our community. Some of us feel the burden in the form of endless meetings, some of us feel we are letting others down by not carrying our weight, some of us don’t feel appreciated, and some of us have a constant nagging feeling that we’re forgetting something important. So let’s be kind to ourselves and to each other. Let’s be willing to offer to help, to ask for help, to recruit help, … AND to let some things drop in the name of all of us carrying the burden without burning out. And remember this very early problem-solving template: when a community leader has reached their limit, the response may be to appoint a committee of elders!

Third, we should encourage the freelancers and not grumble about them. Let’s take Eldad and Medad’s energy in going around the camp prophesying on their own, and figure out how to harness that for the community’s benefit. Whether that prophesying out in the camp is Ideation or Prototyping in the Design Thinking cycle, it’s an opportunity for us to learn and to innovate. We just have to keep an eye on our Joshua-like reflex of wanting to shut them down merely because they aren’t on the current agenda.

Fourth, there will always be kvetchers. The truth is each of us will be a kvetcher at some point. We are all ambassadors to and of the congregation, and sometimes that means we are the complaint desk. Let’s listen for the underlying concerns in each complaint, whether they are selfish to the kvetcher or concerns for the community, and let’s figure out how the kernel of that kvetch becomes a constructive suggestion or insight. And let’s work to frame our own kvetching as constructive suggestions coming from a place of love and dedication to one another.

Finally, whether it’s manna or quail, let’s remember that food is always a key component of Jewish communal life, and that food always offers an avenue for engagement, even if that is in the form of kvetching. Let’s focus on the nourishment – physical and otherwise – that we all need as we serve JRC.