12/13 June: Behalotacha :Shabbat comes in 9:04 pm, ends 10:24 pm
Parashat Behalotacha: El Na R’fa Na Lah (Please, God, Please Heal Her)
Parashat Behalotacha (‘When You Arise’) includes the story of Miriam’s illness, which is a result of her speaking ill regarding Moses’s wife (though the text does not tell us what Miriam’s criticism was, or indeed, if she was criticising the wife or Moses himself). As a result of this illness, Moses turns to the Divine and utters a five-word prayer, translating roughly to: Please, God; please heal her. It’s heartfelt and powerful, perhaps even more so in the Hebrew, in which the monosyllabism is unusual. This theme of falling from leadership, healing, and returning also plays out in the Haftarah. In this section of the Book of Zechariah, the Israelites are readying themselves to return to service in the rebuilt Temple, after returning from the Babylonian Exile. The prophet describes a vision of a heavenly courtroom, arguing about the place of Joshua, the man in line to be the High Priest. Standing as an accuser against Joshua is Satan. Another angel stands at Joshua’s defence, and Joshua is clothed in filthy garments. The argument of Satan seems to be this: Joshua is unfit to serve as High Priest, because he is covered in sin (represented by the filthy garments). In response to this argument, the Divine says: ‘Is this one not a brand plucked from fire?’ Joshua, the Divine seems to be arguing, was brought here out of Babylonian exile, a place of oppression and abuse. The angels then help Joshua to change into clean clothing, and the Holy One tells Joshua that if he follows in God’s ways, Joshua will be able to serve in the Temple.
This is a fascinating story in the middle of a series of strange visions. Like Miriam, Joshua is defended and argued for, and is able to move on from the wrongdoings that had previously trapped him. It turns out that who we were in the past, the wrongdoings of our histories, can be moved on from. We do not need to remain trapped there. But it takes work. It takes t’shuvah . And it also takes understanding, learning, and growing. These times have only got stranger as of late. We are reckoning with a history that might be akin to filthy garments that we are clothed in: a history of slavery, oppression, and prejudice, which has resulted in a modern society that is not fair and equitable for all. It’s up to us to remove those garments together. But in order to do so, we must first acknowledge that we are wearing them. El na, r’fa na lah . Please, God, help us to heal our world.
So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.
Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself. This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:
” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”
Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.
I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman