This is the season of pageant and protocol, as we celebrate graduations and weddings. As we participate in such celebrations during this season, perhaps we wonder about the intention and the history that structures and guides each of these events, from the music, the processional, the rituals and words, the costumes — all the parts that make up these ceremonies of transformation and consecration. And who guides the student who becomes a graduate, the individual who enters into partnership?
Parshah Behaalotecha offers a biblical perspective on both individual and collective journeys with detailed instructions for the purification and consecration of the Levites, the planning and directions for the journey from Sinai to Canaan, and securing a guide through the wilderness.
God instructs Moses to single out the members of the tribe of Levi to serve as ritual experts and caretakers of the Tabernacle. Following the appointment of the Levites in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, Behaalotecha details the process of preparing these chosen individuals for their role of standing in the place of the first born, and protecting the people from harm: "I take the Levites instead of every male first-born of the Israelites … to perform the service … in the Tent of Meeting … so that no plague may afflict the Israelites … "
Every leader must utilize a system that organizes specialists, deputies and followers. The portion continues to describe how Moses follows God's organization of the masses who journey from Egypt to Canaan. God sees to every detail: the trumpets and the trumpet blasts that will summon and direct the steps of the travelers, the cloud and fire that guide them, and the marching order of the Israelites. Professor Masha Turner teaches that the order of the marchers reflects the status of the tribe's ancestral matriarchs, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. Every step, every stop and start of the Israelites' journey is orchestrated by the Holy One.
How do we reflect on and understand our contemporary journeys, particularly those that include a "commencement," a recognition of a new beginning that is premised on and facilitated by the completion of a course of study? How do we consider the protocol of uniting two souls who chose to pledge themselves to one another in the company of family and friends? This portion reminds us that, throughout human history, we prepare our bodies and spirits for service, and search for the means and the music and the protocol that will lift us out of ordinary time and action into the realm of the special, the noteworthy, the sanctified, the sacred.
Before the portion concludes, there is a brief mention of Moses asking Hobab, who may have been Moses' brother-in-law, to serve as a guide as the people venture forth. Moses' words echo Ruth's entreaty to Naomi, which many of us read on Shavuot: "Please do not leave us." Both requests reflect the desire for a human, familial companion as one faces the uncertainty ahead. Moses continues, " … you know where we should camp in the wilderness and [you] can be our guide … if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that God grants us."
As we prepare for and celebrate beginnings and endings, may we, like our biblical ancestors, prepare with intention and insight. As we embark on new adventures, may we, like those before us, find worthy guides and companions.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as the rabbinic director of the East Geographic Congregational Network of the Union for Reform Judaism.