Beha’alotecha : The Complete Torah
Jamie Weisbach is with IfNotNow Chicago.
In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha, an interesting problem arises. After the celebration of the first Passover in the desert, a group of men approaches Moses and Aaron and raise a new question. For reasons beyond their control, they were ritually impure on the appointed day for the Passover sacrifice, and were therefore unable to fulfill their obligations.
The Talmud asks why it was that these men were impure on Passover in the first place. One answer proposed is that they were carrying the bones of Jacob, fulfilling the communal responsibility to their ancestor to ensure that he wasn’t buried permanently in Egypt, but instead brought back to the land of his fathers. Another answer is that they were tasked with burying the matei mitzvah, the dead with no relatives to bury them. According to both, they were engaged in mitzvot essential to the community, but which nevertheless had a negative impact on them as individuals.
Despite these noble reasons, the problem still stood that they were unable to perform the Passover sacrifice on the correct day. What should they do? Was this their only shot at celebrating Passover for the year? Should they have made the sacrifice anyway? Were they legally liable for having missed such an important obligation?
When confronted with this brand new question, Moses did not know the answer. Nothing that he had been told so far, nothing in the Torah he had, prepared him to answer it. Instead, Moses turned to G-d and asks what should be done. I want to take a minute to imagine what this must have felt like. What must it have been like for these men to realize they had a question that had never been asked before? For them to go confront their leader and demand an answer? To learn that their leader had no ready-made answer for them, that perhaps, G-d G-dself had not yet thought of this? To find themselves in a religious system that suddenly seemed to have no space for them, that wasn’t able to respond to the situation they found themselves in?
For me and many others, this isn’t hard to imagine. It is easy to feel that Judaism doesn’t currently address our most pressing questions, that we are raising new problems to which our leaders have no ready answers. It is easy to wish that we had the same recourse that these ancestors of ours did — turning directly to G-d to receive an answer from on high. When pressing new questions arise, it’s easy to feel that our existing tradition simply doesn’t have the answers we need.
And yet, since the rebuilding of the second Temple, Jewish tradition has rejected direct prophesy as a means of answering questions. If a leader claimed to bring answers to our questions by means of direct prophecy, we would turn away from him, not write down his words as new scripture. While there exists a strain of rabbinic tradition lamenting this prophet-free reality, there are also many powerful rabbinic voices praising the absence of prophecy as a positive development.
In one famous story, “The Oven of Achnai”, a divine voice shouts down from heaven the answer to a debate, and the Rabbis reject its authority, ruling that “the Torah is not in Heaven” and therefore that heavenly voices have no bearing on our decision-making. In other texts, the Rabbis boldly proclaim that their wisdom and the process of Torah learning have inherited the authority of prophecy, and have thus displaced prophecy as an approach to addressing communal problems.
There are many powerful reasons for these arguments that our current method of Torah study is better than prophecy. Torah study is more democratic and egalitarian — hypothetically anyone can participate and be part of arriving at answer. It affirms human potential to solve our own problems, and establishes a relationship with G-d in which we are trusted to confront thorny problems directly, rather than waiting for a response from on high.
One reason, though, is particularly on my mind this week. This is the idea that no matter how new and original our questions are, the answers already exist in Torah. There is no question we could ask that Torah doesn’t address in some way, no problem that would require outside intervention. Our Torah is complete, and perfect; all it takes is for us to search it to find what we need. In a time of prophecy, Torah is always incomplete — the answers to new questions don’t exist yet, and have to be created out of whole cloth. But in a time of Torah study, the answers are there, somewhere, as long as we have the courage and insight to search for them.
Now, by Torah, I don’t just mean the five books of Moses, or the Tanakh, or even the whole corpus of Jewish literature. I mean the process of learning Torah, of laboring over texts in community, going through layers of interpretation and meaning, and forging our own understanding out of the work of those who have come before us. The process, this 2,500 years-old-and-counting conversation is our Torah, our inheritance. In Psalm 18 it says that ״G-d’s Torah is temimah״ a word indicating complete, or perfect. We don’t need to turn to prophecy anymore, or wait for divine voices, because the Torah we have inherited contains everything we need.
After Moses speaks to G-d, he returns with an answer. The questioners who were unable to observe Passover get a do-over, called Pesach Sheni, literally, a second Passover. A month later, they can come back to the Tabernacle and perform the Passover sacrifice exactly as if it was the appointed day. I can only imagine the relief at the both the kindness and the novelty contained in this answer. Getting a do-over on Passover is startlingly innovative, and yet grounded in a clear set of values: caring for second chances, respecting leaders who take on difficult, but important tasks, and extending the opportunity for religious connection even to those who come to it by unorthodox paths.
In these difficult times I pray that we can have the faith to believe that our Torah is Temimah — complete, and that whatever question we are bringing can be found within it. I pray that we can have the trust to search it with open hearts, open to its wisdom and eager to bring our own. And I hope that we can have the merit to find answers in the tradition of Pesach Sheni, innovative, daring, and grounded in the values that our future needs.