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Friday, June 10, 2011

Parshat Be'haalotekha: The Cycle of Holiness

This week’s parashah/portion is Be’haalotekha (Numbers/Be'midbar 8:1-12:16). It begins with the instructions for the lighting of the menorah in the mishkan/tabernacle by Aaron. It then continues with instructions for the purification and dedication of the Levites, or priestly tribe.  Aaron, brother of Moses, and his sons were to be the kohanim, or main priests, meant to carry out the sacrifices.  However, the entire tribe of Levi, to which the kohanim also belonged, were to also be a priestly class meant to serve in the mishkan and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

What struck me in reading the instructions given in the parashah was what was to occur after the Levites purified themselves:  “You shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting (or tabernacle) and you shall gather together the entire community of Israelites.  Then you shall bring Levites near to God and the Israelites shall place their hands upon the Levites.  And Aaron shall ‘present’ (lit., wave) the Levites as a tenufa/wave offering before God on behalf of the Israelites so they may perform the service of God (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:9-11).”  Following this, the Levites are then instructed to place their hands on the heads of the animals to be sacrificed as a sin offering and a burnt offering on their behalf.  Only then may they begin to perform their priestly duties.

What interested me in these verses is that the laying on of the hands of the people is what confers power upon the Levites.  I have always simply thought of the Levites’ holiness and special status as coming simply from their genetic lineage.  However, though that is what makes them Levites, it seems as if they would have no power as priests, per se, were it not for their affirmation by the people.

This is also true of so much in our lives.  A thought may arise as a reaction to an important event or a certain person may come into our lives seemingly to serve a specific purpose.  However, we are the ones who give the thoughts or the people and their actions power over us.  It is not inherent in them.  Yes, they may be linked to significant aspects of our life, but they only have power if we allow them to.  And that power, if we choose to confer it, can also be used to benefit the universe and us or to our detriment. 

What also fascinates me about the description of the ritual is that Aaron is then to present the Levites as a wave offering before God.  It is as if he is commanded to actually wave or show the Levites to God (and the people) the same way he is to wave the first fruits when they are presented as an offering.  But again, he is doing this on behalf of the people.  They have sanctified the Levites and now Aaron, who is himself a Levite, is showing them to God. It is as if he is saying to God “these are the ones whom the people have affirmed may represent them.  They are sacred not because of their lineage, but because the people has declared them to be so. So look closely!”  It is only then that the Levites are ready to perform their priestly tasks.

Continuing with the analogy above, this piece of the ritual represents the conferring of power to be used for compassion, kindness and all humanity and not for anger, hatred or selfishness.  When we allow people or thoughts into our mind and our life, the ego would like to use them to serve it’ purposes. The ego wants to use them either for self-aggrandizement or self-deprecation (flip sides of the same coin).  But the holy spark within us, that which longs for unity and connection, guides us to use our thoughts, feelings and emotions for the holy purpose of bringing compassion and goodness into our lives and the world around us.  We simply have to pay attention to its voice from moment to moment.

It is as if there is something in us, which, like Aaron, declares before that piece of God that is within us,  “I am using these thoughts, feelings and emotions for the betterment of the world.  I am trying my best in this moment to bring holiness into the world.  See this. Acknowledge this. And help me in my endeavour.”  The divine spark within is therefore acting not only on our behalf, but also on behalf of the entire universe to which it is connected, since all of the sparks within each of us are ultimately a part of the One from which they emanated.

Though the Levites have ritually purified themselves before all this occurs, they are still not ready to be the conduits between God and the people.  So too, we may purify our minds and our hearts before acting.  We can do this through prayer, meditation or other spiritual practice, even if for but a few moments. But if we do not see our thoughts and actions as ultimately connected to the greater good and to the Oneness of the universe, our purification is for naught.

Once the Levites are presented, they then offer a sacrifice before God to atone for their sins. They may be purified and affirmed by the community, but they are still not perfect. They are still human.  So it is with us as well.  None of this is about perfection. Rather, it is about being mindful as much as possible of the intention of our actions and how they can bring compassion and holiness into the world.  We will ultimately make mistakes. We will err. We will do things we might consider “unholy.”  But we continue the process, as each moment provides us with a new opportunity for holiness.

Finally, after making their sacrifices, the Levites are then ready to put their hands on the head of the animals to be sacrificed on behalf of the people who had recently done the same to them. 

All is connected. We receive holiness from each other in order to pass it on to others.  Our thoughts arise out of the things that happen to us and the people we encounter.  However, our intention and actions – and the recognition of our imperfection – is what makes us ready to continue the process of connecting with others, who are not really others, for we are all part of the One.  We all shine with the Divine light of the menorah, which was lit at the start of this parashah.  And we are all both Israel and Levi – the ordinary and the holy.  For we are all one.

Shabbat Shalom.

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