Behaalotcha: Humility and Chutzpah

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 month ago

      Rabbi Yishmael…says: One who learns in order to teach is given the opportunity to learn and to teach (ללמוד וללמד); and one who learns in order to do is given an opportunity to learn and to teach, to observe and to practice (ללמוד וללמד, לשמור ולעשות)[1].

      The Menorah

      Our parashah appears to consist of multiple disjoint episodes. In the first of these, Aharon is instructed through Moshe about lighting the menorah. There are no instructions here regarding the ark. The ark is behind a curtain, in another world; it does not need our input, and it can be said to represent the written Torah. The menorah, on the other hand, can be said to represent the oral Torah. (This is why, incidentally, it is precisely the menorah that must consist of one solid piece of gold, and not be put together out of multiple pieces—it can potentially be OK to quote excerpts of written Torah out of context, but it is very important to see oral Torah as one piece, and any quote from it should be interpreted only in context[2].)

      Moshe looks through—in some sense, he is—an אספקלריא מאירה, a clear window[3]. He transmits what comes down to him exactly as it came down, changing none of it, adding nothing of his own; this is what it takes to bring us the written Torah. Aharon, on the other hand, is not such a clear mirror—he does add some of himself to knowledge he transmits—and this is why it is Aharon who lights the menorah: because oral Torah is in fact about adding a bit of ourselves to Torah, and it rises up, like little flames, to heaven.

      This week, we will attempt to tie together all the episodes of the parashah. And while our primary thesis will be from Rav A.Y. Kook, and some subtheses will be from Rav Ouri Cherki and Pinchas Polonsky, we plan to add some of ourselves to it as well.

      The Tahara of the Leviim

      Levi, the son of Yaakov, makes some independent, sometimes violent, decisions, which are denounced by his father. It is perhaps in response to his chutzpah that his tribe’s mission becomes to humbly serve in the Temple, following all rules precisely.

      In kabbalah, chutzpah and humility are poles with a complex relationship. A student must have humility to learn; chutzpah at this stage is utterly destructive. On the other hand, humility and following rules is not portrayed as a good way to live life; at a certain point, chutzpah becomes essential. It is the proper balance and the proper timing that are key.

      Kabbalistic literature describes the story of Adam as an instance of poor timing; Adam’s chutzpah developed too early. Had he followed directions and not eaten the fruit, he would have eventually reached a stage at which his chutzpah would have been appropriate and productive; instead, it manifested in a destructive way that split Adam in two—one half with chutzpah, one half with humility—to allow the issue to be fixed, after which point the two can be reconnected once again.

      Moshe, according to the literature, is the embodiment of the humble half. He embodies humility, and he understands humility, and this is why he can faithfully transmit Torah without adding anything of his own. On the other side, Mashiach is the embodiment of the half with chutzpah.

      Pesach and Pesach Sheni

      The people exhibit some chutzpah; instead of meekly following rules, they come to Moshe and ask him directly: why should we be deprived of participation in this? Moshe, in his humility, does not decide the answer himself; when asked, he asks God, and then transmits the response.

      Pesach is, in some sense, a festival of passivity: we were taken out of Egypt by God. Pesach Sheni, however, is the result of us taking the initiative to ask. It is a festival of initiative; and therefore, on Pesach, we eat only matzah, symbolizing subordination, whereas on Pesach Sheni, we are free to eat chametz. Iyar, the month of Pesach Sheni, thus becomes the month of initiative, and it is no coincidence that Israeli Independence Day, as well as Jerusalem Day, are in Iyar.

      Like our forefather Avraham, we have a tendency, if we do not like something, to argue with God. This chutzpah is integral to Judaism and the Jewish people. It is, of course, important to follow the Torah, but there is no need to do so unquestioningly; the mitzvot should be discussed as well as followed, and this discussion can result in corrections at times.

      The first tablets, created entirely by God, did not survive their descent into our world; the second tablets, a collaboration between man and God, did. We can have a functional world if we work together with God to make it, and this requires an element of chutzpah.

      The Trumpets

      The Talmud[4] says that all the vessels Moshe fashioned were fit for him and for future generations—except the trumpets. Trumpets are artificial. They do not appear in nature. Moshe operates outside of nature, and our existence with him in the desert is miraculous—i.e. it does not follow natural laws. After Moshe, we are to operate within nature, with God’s miracles more “blended in.” As we are reminded during weekday amidah, the “musical instrument of nature” is the shofar that Mashiach blows[5].

      And indeed, while we are commanded to continue using the trumpets in the Land of Israel[6], they seem to have been phased out over time—for now. Every kabbalat shabbat, we get a not-so-subtle hint[7] that eventually, our goal is to bring the trumpets back and unite them with the shofar.

      Could there be something “supernatural” about humility, while chutzpah is rooted in nature? Let us keep looking.


      In the desert, we travel only when God says so, in the pattern in which God says, to where God says. Everything is formulaic, with no room for our own initiative. We are required to humbly do as we are told.


      Moshe can sense that there is another dimension to leadership that he is missing, and he asks Chovav, generally identified with Yitro, to join him in leadership and “be our eyes.”[8] It is unclear whether this invitation is ultimately accepted; most classical commentators believe that it is not.

      The Travel of the Ark

      This section, between two inverted נs, is sometimes said to be its own book of the Torah, sometimes referred to as the “Book of Yitro.” With Yitro having declined to share the leadership role, Moshe takes it on himself, in some sense developing the chutzpah to tell God to move the camp and bring it to rest.


      The desert, as per the Travel section, is school rather than real life. And like students often do not understand their subconscious dissatisfaction with their lack of freedom, and take their feelings out on irrelevant subjects like cafeteria food, so we take our feelings out on the manna. Somebody who understands the feelings of students may be able to explain to them that their yearning for freedom is positive, albeit premature[9]; often, however, teachers are not these people. Unlike parents, to whom the childhood of their children is naturally a temporary phenomenon, the teacher sees students exclusively in childhood, and spends decades without the age of his students changing. And Moshe does not understand the positivity of the drive; he simply gets very upset.

      In light of the difference between parents and teachers, Moshe’s conversation with God is very appropriate[10]: “Have I been pregnant with this entire people, or have I begotten them, that You should say to me: Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries the suckling infant…?” Unlike Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, Moshe is not avinu, but rabbeinu.

      The Appointment of 70 Elders

      God appoints elders, who are likely to see the Jewish people more as children than as students, to help Moshe. In an interesting demonstration of chutzpah, two additional people, Eldad and Meidad, also take on this role, “uninvited,” while within the camp. The Talmud[11] gives three possibilities for what they prophesied: Moshe dying before the crossing into Israel, the quails, and messianic prophesies about Gog and Magog. These are the things Moshe could not have prophesied. Gog and Magog deserve a separate discussion (or many discussions), but Messianic prophesies are off limits to Moshe, to whom Messianic chutzpah is foreign, and perhaps this is why we read about Mashiach in the Navi but not in the Torah.

      The Quail

      The eagerness with which the people catch the low-flying quail and put them out to dry shows how hungry they are to do work: here they are, feeling like they are catching and preparing their own food. We are all created in the image of God, and we all have the urge to create things and leave our mark. To freely be able to do that and maintain it, it is important to understand that such food is given to us by God no less than manna is. Slaves are not ready for this, and for some of them, this proves deadly. This episode serves as a warning of the prematurity of the drive for responsibility.

      The Rebuke of Aharon and Miriam

      Aharon and Miriam see trouble brewing: Moshe’s approach, in the miraculous, away from the natural, will not be sufficient in itself to enter Israel. As we have discussed, this is intimately connected to his humility; this is why his humility is mentioned explicitly here. Miriam and Aharon want to “fill in the gap” and bring him back into a full life in this world as well, being with his wife and creating children. God informs them that they are trying to fix something that they do not fully understand: that Moshe’s connection with Him is fundamentally different, and requires his level of humility and disconnection from nature. He has to be a “clear window,” and, along with that, a person satisfied with manna and not desiring meat. He must be a person, in a way, who spends his life studying rather than living. This is the only way he can pass the Torah to us correctly.

      Moshe rises to great heights and makes, as is almost the universal opinion, the greatest contribution ever to Jewish life—and to world history. But Moshe too cannot be everything, as Aharon and Miriam want him to be; neither he nor the people is ready to enter the Land of Israel. In next week’s parashah, Aharon and Miriam will see their fears play out, and there is nothing they can do about it.


      Today, we have advanced almost unimaginably beyond the generation of the desert. Today’s Israelis are widely renowned—or, more likely, vilified—for their chutzpah. We often do not appreciate this quality, seeing humility, on the other hand, as sometimes the main quality to strive for[12].

      Rabbi Eliezer the Great, near the very end of the tractate Sotah, describes what, throughout the centuries, have been seen as the horrific conditions leading up to geulah. Reading these now, many of them look an awful lot like the workings of the economy of the world today. The very beginning of his description[13] is בעקבות משיחא חוצפא יסגא—“At the time of the approach of Mashiach, chutzpah will increase.”

      According to Rav Kook, this is not something to lament; on the contrary, this element is absolutely essential to what needs to happen.


      We have mentioned, in passing, several places in our davening that we hope will in the future bring this story to the reader’s mind, but there is another place that ties much of this together. In stark contrast to נעשה ונשמה, when we say אהבה רבה[14], we ask God to instill in our hearts the ability to do six things with the words of his Torah’s teachings[15]. These six things are the four things Rabbi Yishmael mentions in Pirkei Avot, with “bookends” on either end.

      The first bookend is to listen: after all, we are about to say the Shema, and listening is the very first thing to do in order to follow the Torah. Not coincidentally, when properly done, it is also an act of great humility. The next step is to learn, and then to teach. This fills out the “humility half,” though really we are on a spectrum, with each item involving more chutzpah. The next thing we ask for the ability to do is to safeguard these teachings, and then actually to perform them. Our requests have “crossed the desert,” and become more messianic, requiring more chutzpah. And finally, the bookend on the other side is to fulfill. We have gone from listening—the ultimate humility—to believing that we can completely fulfill God’s plan on Earth—the ultimate chutzpah, and a vision for geulah.

      Let us carefully focus on these words in the morning, and ask, as we move from humility to chutzpah, that we develop the right combination of the two within ourselves. Then let us think about the Israeli public today, and get excited that things that we have been awaiting for millennia are coming to pass—and that we, with correctly modulated humility and chutzpah at the right times, could make a crucial contribution.

      [1] Avot 4:6. In some editions it is 4:5, and in some editions, the “לשמור” is missing.
      [2] In fact, throughout history, anti-Semites routinely seem to love quoting the Talmud out of context.
      [3] Yevamot 49b; today, the word אספקלריא refers to a mirror, but it could be used far more broadly in the time of the Amoraim, and this translation of it seems more consistent with the context.
      [4] Menachot, very bottom of 28a and very top of 28b
      [5] Yeshayahu 27:13
      [6] Bamidbar 10:9
      [7] Tehillim 98:6
      [8] Bamidbar 10:31
      [9] Were it not premature, we would not have joined the nostalgic crying about Egypt in Bamidbar 11:5
      [10] Bamidbar 11:12
      [11] Sanhedrin 17a, middle of the page
      [12] See, for example, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, Avodah Zarah 20b, lines 5-8 of the wider section.
      [13] At the very top of Sotah 49b
      [14] Or the morning אהבת עולם, depending on nusach
      [15] Actually, there are eight. The first two, having to do with understanding, interestingly precede even hearing the words. This may be referring to a basic understanding of Torah that we are born with—our basic sense of fairness and morality. That, and the lack of humility of those who believe that this basic sense is sufficient for life in general, are subjects for a separate discussion.

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