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This week's portion, Behalotecha, covers a fairly eclectic range of topics. The portion begins with instructions to Aaron, the high priest, regarding the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle (Numbers 8:1-4) and then moves to the consecration of the Levite tribe for Temple service (Numbers 8:5-26). Next, we are told of the bringing of the paschal offering and the provisions made for those who cannot bring the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time (Numbers 9:1-14). This is followed by a description of the Israelites' encampment in the desert, the directions provided by a cloud [of glory] (Numbers 9:15-23), the creation and use of silver trumpets (Numbers 10:1-10), and the order and process by which the Israelites traveled through the desert (Numbers 10:11-36).

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The portion concludes with a series of complaints. The people complain twice--once about an undisclosed topic and once about the lack of meat in the desert--and are punished by God for their complaints. Moses in turn complains that the burden of leadership is too great to bear on his own, in response to which God deputizes 70 elders to aid Moses (Numbers 11:10-17, 24-30). In a separate incident, Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses' relationship with a Cushite woman, for which Miriam is stricken with leprosy for seven days (Numbers 12:1-16).

Out of this whole mix of topics, I am particularly fascinated by the Torah's description of the upstarts who cannot participate in the paschal offering at the time when Passover occurs. These people dare to ask Moses and God for a new ruling that will include them in the sacrificial rites. The pertinent passage begins with general instructions to the Israelites to bring the Passover sacrifice. The instructions last for two verses, and their main theme is the importance of the timeliness of the offering: "And the children of Israel shall bring the paschal offering in its proper time. On the 14th day of this month, in the afternoon, they will do it in its proper time, according to all its laws and statutes they will do it" (Numbers 9:2-3).

The Torah is obviously very specific about the time in which the Passover sacrifice must be brought. Yet, four verses later we find that there are some people who cannot bring the offering on the appointed day because they are ritually impure. They approach Moses and Aaron and posit the following query: " . . .we are ritually impure, why should we lose out and not be able to bring God's offering in its appropriate time within the people of Israel?" (Numbers 9:7).

This is an amazingly powerful question. The laws of the Passover sacrifice are explicit: It cannot be brought by one who is ritually impure, and it must be brought in its proper time. Motivated by an extreme religious self-confidence, the questioners approach Moses and argue that these rulings cannot be the whole story. They want to bring the sacrifice. For reasons beyond their control, they are not able to bring it on this particular day. It cannot be, though, that they will be cut off from the opportunity to perform this commandment. "Why should we lose out?" they ask. God responds that indeed they should not lose out, and that instead they and all those in similar situations will be given a second chance the following month to bring the sacrifice.

The well-known commentator Rashi quotes a midrash from Sifrei that explains that Moses should have received the laws regarding the second-opportunity Passover (Pesach Sheni in Hebrew) right from the start. Yet the questioners merited having the law taught in explicit response to their question because of the great merit of their inquiry. ("Merits accrue to the meritorious," as Rashi puts it.) The questioners' great desire to participate in this mitzvah (commandment)--and their refusal to believe that they could be excluded from it--are seen as a model of religious expression. It takes a great deal of courage to believe so firmly in one's religious rights that one is willing to challenge Moses and God.

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