Beh’alotcha: Birthright Or Human Right?

| parsha reflection |

Beha’alotcha, Hebrew for “When You Step Up”, is the third parsha, Torah portion, in the Book of Numbers. The parsha opens in the midst of a long list of instructions from G-d about the upkeep of the tabernacle; specifically, the special role of the Levites as servants of the high priest. Then it abruptly turns to disquieting stories about the Israelites’ penchant for complaint and jealousy towards Moses, right up to that prophet’s very own siblings.

But a common theme links the seemingly disparate chapters: the concept of a community’s leaders in worship chosen by divine will, and G-d’s jealous protectiveness of those elevated into such positions. I’ll admit: special roles given out to a select few in the community have always troubled me in Judaism, and perhaps even more so since I began my meditation practice a few years ago. In our modern, democratic era, being granted such status by birthright or mysterious divine choice seems anachronistic, irreconcilable with our ideals of meritocracy. Meditation especially, we are so often taught, is an egalitarian practice, open and equally challenging (and rewarding) to anyone who wishes to try it.

Thus, a parsha such as Beha’alotcha can be discouraging, maybe even demoralizing: not a Levite? Oh well, you’re just not “given to [G-d] from the midst of the Israelites”. Have you ever found yourself frustrated with a rabbi, or another communal or spiritual leader? If so, be careful, especially if he’s your brother; Miriam learns this the hard way when she’s afflicted with a terrible skin disease for criticizing Moses.

Yet curiously, the one character in the parsha who does push back forcefully against the hierarchy G-d has imposed on the Israelites is Moses himself, the very man G-d put at the top of the order. When Joshua approaches Moses to alert him that two other men are “prophesying” in the camp, he responds, “Are you jealous on my part? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would place His spirit upon them.”

In a parsha filled with incidents of a wrathful G-d who takes none too kindly to questioning by the Israelites, Moses’ comments here are just about the only thing that resonate with me, along with his pleas to G-d for Miriam’s health despite her criticism.  He demonstrates his credentials for leadership not by emphasizing that he was handpicked by G-d for the job, but in expressing the wish that his unique connection with the transcendent should be shared by the whole community.

As I’ve dug deeper into my meditation practice over the past few years, I’ve heard many profound teachings from equally thoughtful teachers. At times, I’ve wished I could be more like those insightful people, and wondered why I couldn’t be as wise as they were. But of course, I can be — we all can be. Insight and a clear vision of the ineffable aren’t arbitrarily given to a select few from on high: any of us, through practice, through attention, can achieve it.

My kavannah, or intention, for this week is that we remember that deep understanding isn’t beyond our ability to attain. We have to work at it, sure, and sometimes with a lot of frustration, but profound awareness is something we can all develop. As we sit tonight, with every breath let’s remind ourselves that thousands of ordinary people before us have had the same difficulties and success in maintaining that focus, and that we’re not any more or less capable of growing from the practice.