Parashat B'ha'alotkha

Beyond Fear

Social Justice As A Sacred Communal Obligation

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Aaron agreed. Moses, overhearing, knew that he was not master of his own time; rather he had to remain on call day and night. But he held his tongue. The reason the Torah gives is his humility, which also serves to protect his privacy.

In this case, no ritual exists to name or resolve the problem. Thus God personally overreacts on Moses' behalf, striking Miriam with tzara'at (leprosy), which forces her exile from the camp.

Perhaps this excessive intervention is deliberate, a desperate means to reunite the Israelites, even in opposition to God. If so, it works: Aaron, Moses and the people immediately join together, focusing their many separate fears on God's anger at Miriam. Aaron appeals to Moses, Moses prays for Miriam, and the people refuse to move camp until she can rejoin them. This is the beginning of a renewed solidarity among the threatened family, and between the family and the people.

B’ha’alotkha makes no attempt to minimize fear and the inevitable risks of social action. Further, it reminds us that the Source of our obligations does not always act in ways that we find benign or even reasonable.

Yet it also depicts the continued triumph of mutual solidarity. When the group consciously and in unity names and confronts its fears, its members can carry out their responsibilities. In accordance with the Torah's profound knowledge of human psychology, shared confrontation of fear works even when the threat is inaccurately identified.

Parashat B’ha’alotkha, with its emphasis on sacrifice, reminds us, when we form social action committees and organizations, how serious is the responsibility involved. It was left to later generations to articulate the proportionate greatness of the reward. Another evolving staple of Jewish belief is that our ancestors' lives prefigure ours: if the untrained generation of the desert overcame the fears that might have deterred them, so can we.

Acknowledging these stories as our own, we can proceed with a clear understanding of both the risks we may face, and the means to move beyond fear in carrying out the sacred imperative of social justice.

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Nina Wouk is an accountant who spends most of her free time serving on three ritual committees.