Commentary for Beha’alotecha

24 Jun

In the Torah the worst punishment one can receive is not a death sentence. There is a punishment called kareit– “cutting off”- that is considered to be even worse. The exact details of kareit are debated by the Rabbis, but there is general agreement that it involves being spiritually cut off from the Jewish People, whether through an early death, dying without leaving behind any children to carry on one’s legacy, or more metaphysical means such as the destruction of one’s soul after death or one’s soul being stuck in limbo rather than being allowed to enter Heaven.


There are thirty-six commandments one can violate in order to be liable for kareit, including the prohibitions against engaging in various forbidden sexual relationships, eating chametz on Passover, violating the laws of Shabbat or Yom Kippur, worshipping false gods, eating a sacrifice while in a state of impurity, certain types of blasphemy, and drinking blood (among others). These sins must be done willingly, with full knowledge that one is doing something wrong, and without repentance, as such a severe punishment will only be doled out for severe affronts to God.


Of the thirty-six commandments one can violate in order to be liable for kareit, thirty-four of them are prohibitions, but there are also two that are positive commandments. Punishment for not performing a positive commandment is in and of itself very rare in the Torah (for example, there is a positive commandment in the Ten Commandments to “honor your father and mother (Ex. 20:12)” but one only incurs a punishment from violating the prohibitions against striking or cursing one’s parents (Ex. 21:15, 17). To have such a harsh punishment attached to positive commandments is very unusual.

The two commandments in question are the obligation of every Jewish male to become circumcised and the obligation of every eligible Jew to bring and eat of the paschal sacrifice.


Interestingly, the verb the Bible uses for entering into a covenant with someone- lichrot– comes from the same root as kareit, and literally means “to cut,” based off of the ancient practice of cutting animals in order to make a pact, and is the probable origin of the English phrase “to cut a deal.” Every covenant we see made in the Torah requires mutual action between the parties involved, and both of these mitzvot serve as important symbols of our covenant with God. Circumcision symbolizes a willingness to sacrifice of ourselves for God, and is even referred to in the Grace After Meals as God’s covenant which has been “sealed in our flesh,” while the paschal sacrifice represents God fulfilling the covenant with Abraham by bringing us out of Egypt.


The reason this subject comes up in this week’s parshah is because of the actions of a group of Jews who had been ritually impure during the time for offering and eating the paschal sacrifice during the first Passover after the exodus. We learn from Lev. 7:20 that the impure may not eat of sacrificial meat, and thus these people would be unable to bring the paschal sacrifice and would be ineligible to perform that mitzvah for this year. They could have just said, “Oh well. I guess we’ll have to wait until next year,” but instead they approached Moses and Aaron asking “why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord‘s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites (Num. 9:7)?”


Moses consults God, who establishes the Second Passover, a day one month later when all of those who were impure or were too far away from Jerusalem to make their paschal offering in the proper


time can still fulfill the mitzvah. It is only then that God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that anyone who does can bring a paschal sacrifice but does not do so is subject to kareit. An uncircumcised male Jew is viewed in this same light: as one who could take measures to allow himself to be a party to the covenant but chooses not to do so, and as result are forbidden from eating from the paschal sacrifice (Ex. 12:48), which commemorates a demonstration of God’s willingness and ability to fulfill God’s part of the covenant. If we want to engage in our covenant with God we cannot sit around and do nothing. Instead we must be like those Israelites in the desert who, when faced with not being able to celebrate that covenant, actively sought a way that they could take part. God ensured that their efforts bore fruit, and the will do the same for ours.

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