Salvation on Trial
Parashat Beha’alot’cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
by Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT
This week’s parasha introduces a theme that will characterize much of the remaining narrative of Bamidbar. Chapters 11–25 contain a series of refusals on the part of Israel to accept authority. In chapter 12 even Miriam challenges Moses’ authority. In chapter 11 the people grumble about the unpleasantness of their journey, contrasting it with all the nostalgic pleasantries of slavery in Egypt, exasperating both God and Moses. Moses’ increasing frustration will later culminate with the incident of his striking the rock in chapter 20.
From a slightly different perspective, though, it is not the authority of God that is on trial in the wilderness, rather it is the efficacy of his salvation.
While still in Egypt, Jacob’s progeny were concerned as to whether Israel’s God could, and even more importantly would, deliver them. Even after the plagues and miracles wrought by Moses humbled Pharaoh and his court, our people still expressed their doubts on the Egyptian side of the Reed Sea. Then after Hashem parted the sea, drowning their pursuers, Israel quickly seemed to forget and continued to have doubts. Could they really question the power of God to deliver them after all they experienced? Perhaps, but more likely they were uncertain of the Holy One’s love for them and his desire to sustain and protect them. After more than 400 years of bondage in Egypt, Israel’s reactions were likely shaped by the popular understandings of the capricious pantheons of the ancient world, which made life perilous and uncertain.
Ironically, though, the Holy One of Israel is not a passive defendant in this trial; rather he is the ultimate magistrate, seeing all, knowing all, and meting out justice measured with compassion. When the people cried out for meat God provided an abundance of quail. “The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the wrath of Hashem flared against the people” (Num 11:33). According to Rambam only the instigators were killed, but the rest of the people had meat for a month. Either way, before inflicting the penalty, God demonstrated that he both could and would provide for the nation. Also prior to the chastisement, Moses gathered seventy faithful elders and God put his Spirit upon them, indicating his faithfulness to them (Num 11:24–25).
Earlier in this parasha we have a prior indication of God’s role as all-knowing magistrate, represented symbolically in the menorahs that the Levi’im are given charge over. Though the Torah assigns no specific meaning to the seven-branch candelabras, this week’s haftarah portion is more elucidating. Zechariah’s vision explains that the menorah symbolizes God as judge and the lights are his eyes roving providentially over all of the earth (Zech 4:10–14).
Zechariah’s vision is in fact a prophetic drama, which uses a courtroom motif to vindicate the salvation of Hashem when the children were downtrodden during failed attempts to rebuild the temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel. In this drama, Joshua the high priest stands before the angel of the Lord and the satan is in effect the prosecuting attorney. I believe it is no accident the name Joshua itself means “Hashem’s Salvation.” In this scenario the angel of the Lord who serves as the “defense attorney” rebukes the accuser and the vindicated hero is described as a “brand plucked from the fire.” Joshua has his ragged clothes removed, and he is adorned in attire appropriate to a Kohen and crowned with a “pure turban” (Zech 3:1–5).
This would be an appropriate time to “drop the mic” and move on, since the God of Israel has once again made his point. But this drama of deliverance has a sequel which is introduced with a “post-credit trailer.” God declares to the court, “Hearken well O Kohen Gadol Joshua, you and your fellow priests sitting before you. For those men are a sign that I am going to bring my servant the Branch” (Zech 3:8).
Yeshua, an abbreviated name for Joshua (Yehoshua), entered the historical drama in which the salvation of Hashem was again placed on trial. Though he also was silent before his accusers, the highest court vindicated him and crowned him with the victory of God. While Joshua the Kohen Gadol was often paired with Zerubbabel. a descendant of David and heir to the royal line, Yeshua stood on trial as both priest and king, the ultimate Messianic figure, the ultimate “Branch,” the quintessential “brand plucked from the fire.”
Decades after the holocaust, in the shadow of terror attacks and tsunamis, awash in a sea of secularism, we too may wonder about the efficacy of God’s salvation. It continues to be on trial among our people and often in our own minds. But it has been vindicated in the past and will continue to be in the future, and Hashem remains the righteous judge.