PARSHA PHIL: Behaalotcha

Defining dedication

In Short

While prominent donors are vital to the continued work of the organizations we support, so are "the people" who participate on any level, illustrating perpetual, renewed dedication.

When a philanthropist creates (or donates funds to) an institution, must the funds be spent strictly within the bounds of the donor’s wishes, or can broader, often evolving, aims be considered?

Donor intent in philanthropy is a hot topic, but it seems to be an age-old one. This week’s parsha, Behaalotecha[1], may shed some light here.

Our parsha begins with an instruction from God regarding the Menorah.

“Speak to Aaron: “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the Menorah.” (Numbers 8:2)

The verse is innocuous, but its placement in the parsha’s opening is strange.

The Menorah’s design and creation were already discussed in Exodus 25 and 37, respectively. If additional laws about the Menorah are to be discussed at all, why place them here and not there?

Sometimes one parsha’s beginning follows themes from the previous parsha. Last week, parshat Naso recounted the dedicatory offerings of the 12 tribal princes, one tribe per day, as the Mishkan was finally dedicated (chanukat ha-mishkan). But why suddenly introduce the Menorah after the princely dedication? 

This issue troubles many commentators. Rashi attempts to resolve the odd placement with a curious midrash.

When Aaron saw the princes’ dedication ceremony, he became depressed since neither he nor his tribe participated alongside them (i.e., of the twelve tribes, Levi did not participate). God said to him: ‘Don’t worry! Yours is greater than theirs because you will kindle and light the Menorah.’”

What an odd midrash! Why would the rabbis hone in specifically on the lighting of the Menorah? After all, without Aaron, the tribes would not have been able to offer anything! Aaron and his tribe will serve continuously in the Temple, offering literally every sacrifice, and Aaron and future High Priests will be able to enter the Holy of Holies. Clearly, Aaron’s role and involvement in the Mishkan is superior. Why, then, would the Menorah service in particular, if at all, make Aaron feel better for being snubbed at the Mishkan’s dedication?

To understand Rashi, we need to appreciate that the word Hanukah (dedication) has two meanings in Hebrew, which, marvelously, parallel the two meanings for dedication in English.

  1. dedicating a building (action)
  2. being dedicated to a task or purpose (quality)

The princes’ 12-day dedication ceremony was clearly of the first variety.

The Menorah, in contrast, represents the second variety of dedication. The Menorah kindling occurs twice daily and has a very practical function – the Menorah service quite literally “keeps the lights on.”

But it is not just its regularity and functionality that stand out. The Talmud records a remarkable feature of the Menorah’s kindling: The Kohen would not light the seven branches together. Rather, he would light five – then stop. He would perform other services, and then enter again to light the remaining two. Why? “Kedei lehargish et kol ha-azarah,” “to get everyone in the Temple Courtyard stirred up with emotion” (Yoma 33b). In other words, the Menorah’s daily lighting was used for dramatic effect, as a means to emotionally engage the Jewish people. We also learn in Yoma 24b that while the Menorah’s cleaning and setup had to be performed by a Kohen, any Jew, that is, even non-Kohanim, could actually light the Menorah.

The Menorah, then, represents a symbol for ongoing dedication to the Temple: not just the daily commitment of keeping the lights on, but as a method to engage the Jewish People, the core constituents of the Temple. 

It should not be surprising then that the Menorah plays such a pivotal role in the Hanukah story, which commemorates the Hasmoneans, a family of Kohanim, re-dedicating the Temple after the Greeks defiled it. In that dedication ceremony, the Menorah was front and center, representing the renewed dedication of the Jewish people to the original spirit of the Temple.

The dedication of the tribal princes, as detailed in parshat Naso, is essential. The Mishkan requires the pomp and circumstance of a grand opening and the eternal recognition of the visionary leaders who facilitated it into existence. But without the dedication of the Menorah detailed in Behaalotcha – daily, ongoing, engaged and engaging dedication –  a project like the Temple would eventually fade.

So too with donor intent: The most lofty of intentions by donors is essential. But those ideas must be translated into an ongoing commitment at every level in order for the organizations we support to stay focused and impactful beyond the initial dedication.

Rabbi Noah Greenfield has a unique background in law, rabbinic studies and business. He is a consultant at McKinsey & Co., a graduate of Yale Law School, a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, and received his ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the proud husband of Dr. Nava Greenfield and father of their four boys; the Greenfields live in Riverdale, N.Y. and Bethlehem, N.H.

[1] Note: the current cycle in Israel is one week ahead and this week they are reading Shelach. The cycles will re-align on July 30 when Matot-Masei is read together in the diaspora.