Parshat Beha’alotecha begins with a description of the menora and the procedure for lighting it. Then we read about the consecration of the Levi’im and the second Passover — that is, the first anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt.
The rest of the parsha describes how the Israelites finally begin their journey to the land God has promised. Finally, the Torah introduces one of the major themes of Bamidbar — whining and complaining. The people complain, Miriam and Aaron complain, even Moses complains. It seems that no one in the Israelite camp is a happy camper.
But before all of that, the Torah describes how the Levi’im were to be purified in a special ceremony that would set them apart for service to God in the sanctuary. They would then replace the firstborn in the role of religious functionaries. The Torah says:
Now I [God] take the Levites instead of every firstborn of the Israelites, and from among the Israelites I formally assign the Levites to Aaron and his sons, to perform the service for the Israelites in the Tent of Meeting and to make expiation for the Israelites, so that no plague may afflict the Israelites for coming too near the sanctuary.
We know that coming too close to the holy without proper authorization is dangerous:
* God tells Moses: “Man may not see Me and live.”
* Nadav and Avihu offer “strange fire” on the altar and are consumed.
* Uzzah reaches out to prevent the ark from falling and is killed.
Therefore, the designation of a group of people trained from childhood to serve in the sanctuary and to avoid the dangers of wrong behavior there makes sense.
But Rabbi Meir of Premishlan, a 19th-century Polish hasidic leader, has another take on “so that no plague may afflict the Israelites for coming too near the sanctuary.” He notes:
It is the usual custom of the world that if, God forbid, any sorrow or distress, injury or illness, storms upon a person, at that moment he becomes much more pious and righteous; he opens his hand and his heart very wide indeed. Therefore the Torah hints to us “may no plague afflict the Israelites — when they come near the sanctuary” [i.e., may it not be the case that they are coming to the sanctuary only because they are in distress]. But rather may they do that which is good and upright in the sight of God and humanity while they are enjoying an abundance of goodness and blessing, in the midst of plenty of joy and success.
As the World War II era saying has it, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
Many of us know people whose children only call when they want something, when they need money or a babysitter or help with a difficult problem. And even though the parents may help — after all, they love their children and don’t want to see them struggling — it certainly must break their hearts.
So how do you think it makes God feel?