Behar-Bechukotai by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


Behar-Bechukotai: Faith and Doubt

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


Scene: A campfire in the midst of the Israelite encampment. It is late; most, or all, of the people have gone to bed, conditioned to follow the rhythms of the days and the months and the seasons—they have no other way of telling time. It is rare for anyone to stay up late, even beside a roaring fire, for fear of wild animals which roam the wilderness.

It is late, but we find Rabbi Moses and his two nephews, Elazar and Itamar, the latter serving as sub-priests in the Desert Shrine, the Mishkan. They sit by the fire and hope for wisdom from their learned uncle, who, as Chief of the Prophets, both those who preceded and those who will follow him, is able to speak with the LORD GOD as with a beloved comrade.

The fire is dying down.


Itamar (turning to his brother, and drawing a leathern wine-sack from his robes): Plum wine, My Brother Elazar? It will ward off the night’s cold.

Elazar (shrinking back): No thank you, Brother Itamar. How can you drink that stuff? It tastes foul, and the burning goes right through my body. And, besides—after what happened to our beloved brothers, Nadav and Avihu? How can you dare follow their bad example? No, thank you, again.

Itamar (drinking deeply): I find it soothes me, after a long day of cutting sheeps’-throats and burning carcass after carcass to the Spirit in the Clouds. It makes it easier to forget. May I tell you a secret?

Elazar (gesturing towards Moses, who is swaying and prayerfully mumbling incoherently): Careful you keep your voice low, if you don’t want our steadfast uncle to overhear.

Itamar (waving a hand in dismissal): He will not hear us; he is entranced by the flames, and communing with his God. Here is my secret, Brother Dear: I never wanted to be a priest. I wanted to play the kinnor, the ten-stringed harp, and write psalms.

Elazar: In praise of God?

Itamar: You may think so—you may well think so (he laughs ruefully). No, not in praise of that Thunderer who sends plagues; I wanted to woo Ahuvah bat Kehvess, the daughter of that wealthy shepherd from the Tribe of Issachar. But Poppa Aaron and our religion-minded Uncle Moses over there insisted that you and I replace our dead brothers. How can a man argue with his elders? And so I, an obedient son, put on Avihu’s linen robes and picked up the slaughtering-knife. More’s the pity: my harp has gone missing, and my fire-scorched brain is befuddled daily by the smoke of offerings to His Testiness. Ha!

Elazar: I beg you, Brother, to stop speaking in this manner. It does not dignify the robes you wear or the exalted office you hold, to insult the Most High God.

Itamar (drinking again): Why, will He smite me dead? Let Him do so, and welcome—I have heard from Egyptian soothsayers in the camp—part of the Mixed Multitude that Ramesses II sent along with us—that Nadav and Avihu did not truly die—rather, they were smitten by Anubis, god of the Dead, and mystically carried off to the Afterlife. Such a fate would I desire for myself—anything, anything not to see the face of another dumb beast as I raise my knife! Cows, sheep, goats—they haunt my dreams. I am a musician and poet, not a butcher. O Nadav, Avihu, Anubis—how lucky they are, how lucky—

Elazar: Brother, please be careful of your words. The Lord God will not brook any blasphemy from the laypeople; all the moreso from His anointed priests. Please, my brother—

Itamar: Pah! What do I care about His proscriptions and prohibitions, the minutiae of mitzvot? I tell you, Brother: I think that God’s a fable. Indeed, I posit that there is a Natural Law beyond Torah Law. I—

Elazar (soothingly): Calm yourself, Brother. Look, look upward, at the stars! How can you tell me that you do not believe in our God, when you behold the beauty of His universe? Please, Brother—

Itamar: Yes, Brother: I admire the stars above—so much so, that I suggest that God and the Universe are one. Matter and mind, mind and matter—perhaps all nature, not God alone, is divine! And I believe that the Universe is uncaring, uninvolved in our affairs. Consider: if God were a caring deity, I daresay He would not have destroyed our brothers over an accidental, mistaken incense formula. How small—how petty of the Thunderer!

Elazar (seeing Moses coming out of his trance): Hush now, Brother: our uncle is returning to us from the World of Faith and Prophecy, and will shortly share with us new knowledge of our God, and of the future of our people.

Itamar: (sarcastically) O my prophetic soul! Mine uncle? Then must I harken unto him.

Moses (shaking himself awake, as though from a long trance or dream): Hear, O’ Israel: the Lord your God is a jealous God, punishing those who maintain misguided ideas about His nature. And He will punish the third and fourth generations of those who doubt Him or His power….

Elazar (nudging Itamar, who is beginning to nod off from the effects of the alcohol and the lateness of the hour): D’you hear, my Brother? Beware the path you are following—God is watching!

Moses: …And those entrusted with His priesthood must watch themselves all the more carefully, for right thoughts, right reason, right actions (Itamar rises, yawns and stretches).

Elazar (clutching at Itamar’s sleeve): How can you ignore the words of our rabbi-uncle? You must stand in awe of God!

Itamar (exiting): ‘Tis late: I must go to sleep. Let Him strike or bless me, as He wishes; I will never cease to question. Good night, Brother, Uncle. Upon my thin and narrow priestly bed, I will commune with God—or the Universe—and be still.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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