Changing the Rules of the Game (Parshat B'ha'alot'kha, Numbers 8:1-12:16)

06/04/2015 03:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

It's no fun playing a game with someone who changes the rules in the middle. We said win by three, right? Well, you can't go and cut it by a point just because you threw up a clunker that somehow hit the backboard and rattled the rim and put you ahead by two. What's the point of keeping score at all in a game like that?

But when the game is being played between people and the Divine, a little room for changes in the rules can be a good thing, even a necessary one. Adjustments in the heat of battle are an important part of the story of this week's Torah portion, B'ha'alot'kha. There is a pattern to the Torah readings from the heart of the long, hot summer: layers of ritual and legal decrees balanced by depictions of key figures facing moments of challenge or change, as all the while the nation slowly moves forward toward the Promised Land. So too this week: Moses shares more of God's directives on the Levites' management of the Tabernacle, and the entire nation moves onward following a cloud and a pillar of smoke. Then, as in so much of the Israelite journey, there are bumps in the road, moments when the rules of the eternal game between the Israelites and the divine need to be revisited.

The first opportunity for a "do-over" comes in response to a group that has been unable to fulfill the signature ritual of the Passover sacrifice:

When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight (Numbers 9:11).

Those who are not in a position to offer the Passover sacrifice at its appointed time are given another chance, a month later.

A second shift in the rules of the game occurs when Moses complains that he cannot manage the burden of mediating the urges and needs of the Israelites. A new quorum of jurisdiction is convened:

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Gather for Me seventy of Israel's elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone (Numbers 11: 16-17).

A third change immediately follows, as God angrily reverses his commitment to provide manna as plentiful sustenance for the entire course of the journey. The restless, hungry Israelites long for the good life in Egypt that they had never really had. God replaces manna with meat -- more than they can possibly consume -- to show them a lesson: "The Lord will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you" (Numbers 11: 18-20).

How do these three changes in the rules of Israelite-Divine engagement relate to each other, and what do they suggest about the nature of Israelite law? All reflect a character of biblical law that is often lost in a strictly binary approach to religion. By any measure, we live in an age of societies wrestling -- often at the cost of great peril and anguish -- with fundamentalism. The hardening of the contours of religion is not limited to the terrors inflicted by ISIL and its like in the name of ritual and legal purity.

Extreme expressions of religious purity and power can be found in many places, possibly even on your street. The allure of absolute truth is eminently powerful, a bright light that illuminates all for believers. It can also cast a dark and looming shadow for anyone outside of this circle of light.

When law does not allow for fulfillment of the communities' obligations in the case of Passover, an adjustment is made to expand the circle of people who can engage with them. When the singular representative of the divine, Moses, expresses frustration with the efficiency of the hierarchy the Master of the Universe has decreed, again, the circle is expanded. And in the case where the Israelites complain of scarcity and upset within the bounds of the gift of manna, they are granted more -- more than they could possibly ever want -- to teach them the limits of desire.

The common value to all of these cases is how in the interplay between the players of the religious game -- God and the Israelites -- they learn together how to widen a new and rigid infrastructure, not only in order not only for it to be liveable, but in order to serve its purpose. This spirit of generosity in experimentation is as much a part of the biblical story as depictions of the immutability of the Law.

Because the players in this particular game are no less than God, Moses, and biblical Israel, speaking to us from and through the deepest reservoirs of religious myth and meaning, it is easy to claim that this flexibility within deep commitment to rules applies only to them and not to us. But we would do well to think again before reaching this conclusion. Stories of the law are rarely black and white. It's one thing to change the rules so that one side beats another. It's something else for the players to decide together what would make for a better game.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.