Weekly parsha: June 6 2014

Torah portion Tuesdays: Parshat Beha’alotcha

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.

This week’s parsha, Beha’alotcha, might better be described by the well-known saying: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

I hereby dedicate this Torah portion to every kid or adult that tried to take a leadership role and accomplish something worthwhile.

I often marvel at the chutzpah of the Israelite people. First, they are freed from hundreds of years of slavery, and witness — with their own eyes — the most astounding miracle anyone had ever seen as they cross on dry land through the Red Sea. Then, about a month and a half later, they collectively decide that God doesn’t exist anymore and they fashion an idol for themselves.

This week they’re at it again.

It wasn’t easy to feed over a million people wandering through a desert. There wasn’t a McDonald’s in sight and no supermarket could keep that many groceries in stock. But God had it under control. He provided sustenance for everyone in the form of manna, which the Israelites would gather each day. Tradition tells us that once eaten, the Israelites could make it taste like anything they wanted.

That’s almost as good as ordering personal room service every day. But even that wasn’t good enough!

Some troublemakers confronted Moses and started complaining.

“Where’s the beef?” they would ask. “How come there’s no meat? Back in Egypt we had delicious fish and fresh vegetables. Now all we get is this lousy manna.”

This is a scenario that every person who has ever volunteered to lead a committee, chair an event, or be president of a temple can completely relate to. I can just imagine all of your heads nodding knowingly.

So Moses becomes worried that the people will rise up against him (all because they want some steak) so he brought the problem to God, and in typical God fashion, He becomes incensed, and decides to teach these pain-in-the-neck Israelites a lesson.

“You go ahead and let them know,” God told Moses, “that if it’s meat they want, then it shall be meat that they get.”

Moses questioned this decision — how in the world will there be enough meat to feed a huge number of people?

God told him not to worry, and just watch.

God caused flocks and flocks (and more flocks) of quail to fly among the Israelites. The Israelites then spent two full days doing nothing by gathering up dead birds to eat, after which they literally gorged on the quail meat. The text paints a descriptive image of gluttony gone wild, with skin and meat all over people’s faces and stuck in their teeth. (Much like some of our Thanksgiving dinners.)

Then God caused a little plague to hit. Nothing deadly — just a little Mosesuma’s revenge. My guess is that after this incident, no one was really in the mood for meat or poultry again.

There are myriad lessons here for all ages and great questions for b’nei mitzvah kids to ask themselves:

• What’s the value of public service if you think everyone will just complain all the time?

• Do you think people are inherently dissatisfied and always want more? Is there ever a way to make everyone happy?

• Are there kids that you know (or maybe you!) who make some teachers’ lives miserable by always criticizing?

• Why would anyone want to go into politics or become a leader?

At precisely the moment when young teens are considering what their roles within Jewish and secular life might look like, this story might provide a huge dose of reality.

Previous week’s parshas:

Parshat Naso

Parshat Bamidbar

Parshat Bechukotai

Parshat Behar

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

Posted 12:42 pm, June 3, 2014
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