Parshas Behalosecha: The Ascension That Torah Causes

The opening verse of this week’s parsha contains a rather strange word:

Numbers 8:1-2:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר׃ דַּבֵּר אֶל־אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹת אֶל־מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת׃

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you ascend the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp-stand.”

In his famous explanation of the extremely odd and unusual term “בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ”, Rashi proposes two options:

Rashi on Numbers 8:2:

בהעלתך. עַל שֵׁם שֶׁהַלַּהַב עוֹלֶה, כָּתוּב בְּהַדְלָקָתָן לְשׁוֹן עֲלִיָּה, שֶׁצָּרִיךְ לְהַדְלִיק עַד שֶׁתְּהֵא שַׁלְהֶבֶת עוֹלָה מֵאֵלֶיהָ (שבת כ"א), וְעוֹד דָּרְשׁוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ מִכַּאן שֶׁמַּעֲלָה הָיְתָה לִפְנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, שֶׁעָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן עוֹמֵד וּמֵטִיב (ספרי):

WHEN THOU MAKEST [THE LIGHTS] RISE — Because the flame rises upwards (עולה), an expression denoting “ascending” is used of kindling them (the lights), implying that one must kindle them until the light ascends of itself (Sifra on Leviticus 24:2; Shabbat 21a). — Furthermore our Rabbis derived from here (from the expression בהעלתך) that there was a step in front of the candelabrum upon which the priest stood while preparing the lights (Siphre).

The first explanation offered by Rashi is rather popular in the world of education. The extrapolated implication is that one must educate so that each candle can burn bright on its own, even when the original spark is no longer there. Each light, each child, each student must ascend on their own once the educator is no longer with them. A truly successful education is one in which the student is able to be his or her own person, taking what he or she was taught and using it as the building blocks towards his or her own unique contributions to the world.

The second explanation offered by Rashi is more straightforward: the use of the odd term of “ascension” here teaches us that there were a few stairs leading up to the menorah that the kohein was required to ascend.

Though Rashi quotes and seems to like both explanations equally (Sifsei Chachamim), they do not both work equally as well grammatically in the text itself. The literal meaning of the verse is that the candles/lights themselves ascend, not the person lighting them. This would make Rashi’s first explanation a far stronger candidate than his second. Given its lack of grammatical correctness, what are we to make of Rashi’s second suggestion?

It could well be that Rashi is here highlighting the fact that, in reality, it is not just the object of the mitzvah that is elevated, but the subject as well. The one performing the mitzvah is elevated along with the object with which he is performing it. A person is lifted up through the mitzvos that he or she does. In the case of the menorah, then, in as much as the candles and flames are being lifted up, the kohein performing the mitzvah is surely elevated as well. Indeed, all people are fundamentally changed by the mitzvos they perform.

Ponder, for a moment, the fact that one is supposed to make a new bracha every time that he or she performs the same mitzvah over again. If one eats twenty cookies in a day (in twenty separate acts of eating), he or she is to make twenty separate brachos. If one enters and exits a succah twenty times in one day over the holiday of Succos, one is to make a new bracha each and every time. Yet, this is not the case when it comes to birchas ha’torah; we do not make a new bracha each time we sit down to learn Torah. Why is this the case?

Famously, Tosfos (Brachos 11a) explains that even when a person is not engaged in the literal act of learning Torah, he is still engaged in Torah nonetheless. There are myriad halachos that apply throughout the whole day, and as one moves through his day, the application of these halachos is considered like learning Torah. Whereas, when one is not ensconced in the four walls of the succah there is no argument to be made that he is fulfilling the mitzvah of being in a succah, there most certainly is an argument to be made that even when one is not actively studying a Torah text, the entirety of the world can be seen through the prism of Torah, and thus one need only make a single bracha at the beginning of the day for all the Torah thoughts he might have throughout said day.

But is this answer of Tosfos not a tad bit too idealistic? Even if everyone should be “learning” all day, or in a Torah state of mind, this is most certainly not the case. There are times when, however unfortunate, there is no doubt that Torah is the furthest thing from a person’s mind. Is Tosfos’s answer simply wishful thinking?

Maybe it’s something far deeper, and more fundamental. As we explained above, though a person can leave the Torah, the Torah never leaves a person. Closing a Gemara or leaving the beis midrash is not leaving Torah. What a person has learned remains with him always and no matter what, regardless of how sure he might be to the contrary. The mitzvah of talmud Torah, and indeed, all mitzvos, fundamentally change and elevate a person in ways that cannot truly ever be reversed. The repercussions and implications of this reality are clear and obvious…

Halacha And Kabbalah (Part 1): Introduction & Overview Of The Fundamental Halachic Process

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