In lifting others, we, too, shine

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community in St. Louis.

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

The Israelites still are in the Wilderness. They still are preparing to inaugurate usage of the Mishkan/Dwelling-place, the portable wilderness Sanctuary or Tabernacle. Our Torah portion opens with these words: 

“The Eternal spoke to Moses as follows. ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, B’ha’alot’cha-When you mount the lamps, the seven lamps shall shine toward the front of the Menorah.’ And Aaron did so …” (Numbers 8:1-3a)

At the outset (in Numbers 8:1-4), this week’s Parashah, B’ha’alot’cha, focuses on the Menorah, the seven-branch lamp stand that will illuminate the sacred precincts. The topic is not new to us. We already have encountered the Menorah in Exodus. Exodus 25:31-39 describes the design, the pattern and the plan for the lamp stand. There we read, “v’he’elah et-neroteha v’hey’ir ‘al-‘eyver paneha/with its lamps mounted so as to cast light on its front side” (25:37).  

In Exodus 27:20-21, we learned how the menorah was to be fueled with pure olive oil brought by the Israelites “l’ha’alot ner tamid/to cause the lamp to go up continually.” 

We also were informed that regular, daily maintenance of the Menorah was to be the responsibility of Aaron and his sons. Thus, the prominent points in Exodus about the lamp stand are recapitulated and reinforced at the beginning of B’ha’alot’cha.

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There is a key difference, however. B’ha’alot’cha, the word that gives this week’s reading its name, is indicative of the inflected nature of the Hebrew language. In grammar, inflection is the process of modifying a word to yield or to change meaning. One of the ways Hebrew does this is by adding prefixes and/or suffixes to a stem (Shoresh). Often translated “When you mount,” B’ha’alot’cha is comprised of the stem ‘alah, “to go up” or “to ascend,” in a causative construction, as is the case in Exodus. (Not to be confused with Allah, the Arabic name of God.) Many of us know ‘alah as the nouns ‘alee’ah/going up to bless the Torah and/or ‘aliyah/going up, that is, immigrating to the Land of Israel. 

In our reading this week, the prefix Bet (“in” or “when”) as well as the suffix cha (“your”) are joined to ha’alot. The literal meaning of B’ha’alot’cha, then, is “in your causing to go up” or “when you cause to go up.”

Note that although causative forms of ‘alah/to go up” also appear in Exodus (25:37; 27:20), there they are not, so to speak, personalized. This week, however, the word is personalized: Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim-Israelite priests, are charged with kindling the lights of the Menorah so that they stand out and shine forth from the lamp stand. Moreover, this week the Torah also tells us, “Aaron did so.”

There is symbolism in this “personalization of the causative” at the start of this week’s Sidrah. Since ‘am Yisrael, the Jewish People, is to be “a dominion of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), it is as if each of us is called upon to emulate Aaron and the Kohanim, but not in a literal or even ritual sense. Rather, we should be like Aaron in seeking to elevate our surroundings and those around us, helping them to cast their personal light brightly.

Commenting on our Torah portion, on B’ha’alot’cha, our sages averred that the reason for causing the lamps to go up is “your [i.e., our] merit.” (Numbers Rabah 15:1) 

Therefore, Torah teaches us that we are not to inflame or incite others, to cause them to burn up or burn out, but that we are to lift them up and enable them to shine, to be “at the top of their game” (whatever it might be), to stand out brilliantly in their own fashion and to excel in whatever manner they are able. 

B’ha’alot’cha: When you make it possible for others to reach their peak and to shine, you, too, are at your brightest and your best.

Shabbat Shalom!