Drash on Parashat Beha'alotcha
Rabbi Miriam Wajnberg
United Hebrew Congregation of Singapore
The past year and a half has been one of immense challenges. Problems that long existed were brought to the forefront, like access to quality healthcare and the invisible challenges facing parents in the workplace. New problems surfaced. Time and time again, we dream up creative ways to respond to the challenges.
We have created new Jewish rituals - rituals to gather online, rituals to remember, like the ner neshama lit by Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne, rituals for receiving vaccines, rituals for returning to sacred spaces.
This creative problem-solving is not unique to our time; it is as ancient as Torah! In Parshat B’haalot’cha, Moses encounters a practical problem, in need of a ritual solution. God reminds Israel of how to celebrate Pesach, with a sacrifice offered at its set time, according to set rules. But what if that doesn’t work for everyone? “But there were some householders who were impure by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those householders said to them, ‘Impure though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarrred from presenting Adonai’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?’” (Numbers 9:6-7)
These Israelites have a practical problem - they are impure, and therefore can’t participate in the Pesach sacrifice. Are they excluded from the ritual, or is there room for creativity?
Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, wrote in November 2020 that, “Holidays are hand-me-down tools that we mistakenly think of as precious art, created by our ancestors to do something - to plant seeds, to settle debts, to resolve conflicts and to heal grievances. Many such collective events fade away. The ones that stick around often suffer a strange fate: They are placed on a pedestal...All rituals begin as improv, and the lucky ones suffer the curse of becoming scripts.”
Moses could have left the established celebration of Pesach on a pedestal, without room to improvise a response to the human need arising from close contact with death. Instead, Moses comes before God, and God’s response expands the Pesach ritual beyond its set borders. “When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to Adonai - they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month…” (Numbers 9:9) This delayed celebration, a month later, becomes known as Pesach Sheni - the second Passover. From our earliest origins as a people, improvising ritual to meet the needs of the time has been a part of who we are and what we do. The creative rituals of our Progressive communities are an integral part of how Judaism responds to human existence, seeking to imbue our lives with meaning, and to elevate our lives in holiness as we connect with tradition and with the Divine.