Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Behaalotekha

Second Chances and Pesach Sheni

In Bemidbar 9, a group of people who were ritually impure from contact with a corpse petition Moshe to nonetheless permit them to participate in the Paschal rite.

  • Nature of the request – Given that the ritually impure are generally excluded from partaking in sacrifices, on what basis do the people expect Moshe to allow them to participate? Is their request grounded in strict legal arguments that the prohibition should not apply to them,1 or are they asking for Moshe to override the law as a humanitarian dispensation?2  Or, perhaps, do they simply wish to bring the offering at a different time, as ultimately occurs?3  Which possibility is best supported by the verses?  Does Moshe have the power to overrule a Torah prohibition?  See Pesach Sheni – The People's Petition.
  • Second chances – Why does Hashem allow for a "second chance" specifically with regard to the Korban Pesach, as opposed to other commandments?  Should people always be given a second chance, or are there instances when this is not warranted?  What does our story suggest about who deserves a second chance and who might not?

Miracles in the Wilderness: The Selav

After the nation complains about the tedious nature of their Manna diet, Hashem provides them with "שְׂלָו".  The people gluttonously gather and devour it and are immediately punished by God.

  • Though most identify the "שְׂלָו" as quail, a minority opinion asserts that it refers to fish.  How might each identification illuminate the Biblical account?  For elaboration, see שְׂלָו – Fish or Fowl
  • The nation's complaint of "אֵין כֹּל בִּלְתִּי אֶל הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ" would suggest that the Manna was their sole source of nourishment.  The Hoil MosheShemot 16:18About R. Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi disagrees, suggesting that the Manna served only as a supplement and that there were often other food options.  What might be prompting this position?  What does it suggest about the miraculous (or not so miraculous) nature of the Israelites' wandering in the Wilderness?  See Life in the Wilderness for more.

Idle Gossip or a Challenge to Authority?

How is Miryam and Aharon's critique of Moshe to be understood?  Was this simply idle and misguided chatter, or did they have a more fundamental disagreement with his behavior, leading them to question his authority as leader?

  • The Sifre12:1About Sifre Bemidbar views Miryam and Aharon as intending no harm, and, in fact, trying to facilitate Moshe's family life by encouraging the resumption of normal relations between Moshe and Zipporah.  Some modern scholars,4 in contrast, cast Miryam and Aharon in a negative light, suggesting that they were contesting Moshe's leadership and claiming to be his equals. With whom do you agree?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of each position? 
  • R"Y Bekhor ShorBemidbar 12:1-6About R. Yosef Bekhor Shor presents Moshe's siblings as being troubled by what they perceived as hubris in Moshe's decision to marry a non-Israelite woman.  Was intermarriage prohibited at this point in history?  Is it Biblically prohibited?  If not, was marrying an Israelite nevertheless preferred, thus providing some justification for Miryam and Aharon's complaint?
  • Under what circumstances is it permitted to speak about another person? What if one has constructive intent?  If you find another person's actions troubling, is it problematic to consult a third party about their behavior before approaching the person him/herself? 
  • For elaboration, see Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage.

Who is Chovav?

Chovav is introduced to the reader as, "Chovav the son of Reuel the Midianite, the choten of Moshe."  From the verse, it is unclear whether Reuel or Chovav was the choten of Moshe, though Shofetim 4:11 clearly identifies Chovav as such. At the same time, in Shemot 2, it is Reuel, not Chovav, who is described as the father of Moshe's wife, Zipporah.  To further confuse matters, in Sefer Shemot, it is Yitro who is described as Moshe's choten.  What is the relationship between Chovav, Reuel, and Yitro?  How can they all be Moshe's choten?

  • The question depends to a large degree on the meaning of the word choten.  Does it refer only to one's father-in-law,5 or might it refer also to one's brother-in-law, especially if he also played a role in contracting the marriage?6  For elaboration, see חֹתֵן / חֹתֶנֶת.
  • The Mekhilta18:1About Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael Shemot posits that Chovav, Reuel, and Yitro are all merely different names of one and the same individual.  This is consistent with the general tendency of Rabbinic Midrashim to consolidate characters by identifying different names with the same person. See Identifications for other examples and analysis.  In our case, what are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?7  
  • If Yitro and Chovav are the same person, why is he still in the Israelite camp in Bemidbar, despite Shemot 18 concluding with Yitro's departure to his own land?  Did Yitro/Chovav return?  If so, why?  For discussion, see Yitro's Life After Shemot 18 and Yitro – Religious Identity.
  • For elaboration and other approaches regarding the possible relationship between these three characters, see Yitro – Names.
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