Can’t we be more like elephants than riffraff? Beyond individualism to community, covenant and courage.

Parashat Beha’alotcha 5781
פרשת בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1-12:16 

Why can’t people be more like elephants?
Consider these facts about elephants from the World Wildlife Federation

  • Elephants have around 150,000 muscle units in their trunk.
  • Their trunks are perhaps the most sensitive organ found in any mammal – Asian elephants have been seen to pick up a peanut, shell it, blow the shell out and eat the nut.
  • Elephants use their trunks to suck up water to drink – it can contain up to 8 litres of water.
  • They also use their trunks as a snorkel when swimming.
  • An elephant’s skin is 2.5cm thick in most places.
  • The folds and wrinkles in their skin can retain up to 10 times more water than flat skin does, which helps to cool them down.
  • They keep their skin clean and protect themselves from sunburn by taking regular dust and mud baths.
  • Amazingly, elephant calves are able to stand within 20 minutes of being born and can walk within 1 hour. 
  • After two days, they can keep up with the herd. This incredible survival technique means that herds of elephants can keep migrating to find food and water to thrive.
  • The elephant’s temporal lobe (the area of the brain associated with memory) is larger and denser than that of people – hence the saying ‘elephants never forget’.

Their noses do so much more than ours. They have thick skin. They don’t need to worry about their babies crawling on dirty floors. And they have awesome memories. I think it would be pretty neat to be an elephant.


I learned something else about elephants this week. A video of elephants in Israel’s Safari Ramat Gan, a zoo near Tel Aviv, shows how elephants put aside their own self-interest to care for their young in times of danger. The video was brought to my attention by Daniella Yitzchak, our congregation’s office manager, who wrote about it in her weekly email message

Daniella writes: “Filmed during a rocket attack in Israel last week, the video shows the moments when an air raid siren is sounding and an explosion is heard in the distance. During that time, five female elephants move towards little Pele (meaning wonder in Hebrew), a 14-month-old elephant calf, and form a protective circle around him, facing outwards in all directions to ward off any threats.

“Ramat Gan zookeeper Guy Kfir explained that the behavior during the siren is likely due to elephants having much better hearing than people, and their ability to detect seismic vibrations through their feet. He continued to explain that it’s very common for elephants to respond this way when facing danger… When recognizing a high risk situation, elephants gather their young and form a protective shield around them. This also happens when an elephant is giving birth. What a moving demonstration of love and commitment as well as courage!”

Those of us who are parents can certainly relate to the elephants’ instinct to protect their young. When our children are in danger, we take extraordinary measures to keep them safe. Or, at least, we should.

But unlike the elephants who form a protective shield around someone else’s baby, we aren’t always so good at caring for other people’s children. In fact, sometimes we are so focused on our own needs and desires that we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, regardless of who those “others” might be.

The challenges of ego-centrism, self-interest and rugged individualism that pervade our society today are not unique to our day and age. Wandering through the wilderness toward the land that God was to give to them, the Israelites imperil their very lives when they start focusing on their individual needs at the expense of the greater good.

Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’s leadership. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:2). Hungry for a share of Moses’s leadership, Miriam and Aaron initiate a rebellion against him. For her role in demeaning Moses, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease, for which she was shut out of the Israelite camp for seven days. Meanwhile, Moses, the epitome of humility, pleads to God to heal his sister.

Perhaps Miriam and Aaron had gotten caught up in the popular revolt that we read about several verses earlier. There we find the people were complaining bitterly against God. They objected to the structure of the camp, which was designed to ensure the safety of all the people. They separated themselves from God. They, too, challenged Moses’s leadership. 

What’s more, we read: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Num. 11:4-6)

They’re objecting to the very sustenance that God had miraculously provided them! They grow nostalgic for their days as slaves when they had more variety in their diet.

For thinking only of themselves, God sends them more quail than they could possibly eat on their own and they stuff their faces. And while they still have quail between their teeth, God causes a fire to break out in their midst and strikes them with a severe plague (Num. 11:33). 

The Israelites had lost sight of the calf, if you will. Perhaps the calf was the Ark that moved with the Israelites in the center of their camp. Perhaps the calf was God, the one who had freed them from Egypt. Perhaps the calf was the Israelites themselves, the collective, the People who had recently united around Mt. Sinai and made a covenant with the Holy One, vowing to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. All of a sudden, the higher cause for which God brought them together was being neglected.

We can sympathize with the people’s desire to want something new and interesting. We can relate to Miriam and Aaron’s envy of Moses’s exalted place among the people. Yet, Torah demands that we curb our appetites and appreciate what we have. We are to practice self-restraint and cultivate an attitude of gratitude every day.

Just imagine what the scene would have been like if the Israelites in our story this week were more like elephants. They would have accepted their responsibility for one another. They would have circled around God, Torah and Israel. They would have protected the proverbial calf.

In today’s world, we, too, need to do a better job of protecting the calf, of setting aside our individual wants, our personal liberties, which we mistake for God-given rights. What a world it would be if we thought about the common good, if we went to extraordinary lengths to protect the most vulnerable in our midst. 

May we strive to be more like elephants. Though we might not be endowed with the qualities that make elephants such magnificent creatures, we can, at least, choose a life of community, covenant and courage. Imagine what the world would like then. We have the power to bring that world about.

Partings Then and Now

Parashat Beha’alotcha / פרשת בהעלתך

Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Thus far in the Book of Numbers, Israel has remained stationed at the base of Mt. Sinai, where Moses has taken a number of censuses: the men of fighting age; those from the tribe of Levi who will serve in the Tabernacle; and the firstborn of all Israelites, who are to be redeemed from a life of service to God. In addition, God has ordained where each of the tribes is to be situated in the camp in relation to the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle has been dedicated for use, and the Israelite’s prepare to begin their march from Mt. Sinai to the Holy Land. It is in this latter moment that we find one of the Torah’s most poignant, yet enigmatic, moments.

Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the LORD has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the LORD has promised to be generous to Israel.”

“I will not go,” he replied to him, “but will return to my native land.”

He said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the LORD grants us.”

They marched from the mountain of the LORD a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the LORD traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them. (Numbers 10:29-33)

Just before God gives Israel the signal to begin their march, Moses invites his father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, here named “Hobab”, to join the Israelites as they set out for the Land of Israel. Jethro’s response is to say that he plans to go back to his native land. At that, Moses implores Jethro to come with them and to serve as their guide. Moses even promises Jethro that he will share in the bounty that God had promised for Israel.

But then… nothing. And then the sound of hundreds of thousands of Israelites moving forth. We’re left with a cliffhanger. Did Jethro go home or join the Israelites? We can’t know the answer to this with any certainty.

One midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 81:1) suggests that, at least, Jethro’s sons entered the Land. Once in the land, Israel apportioned the “choicest land of Jericho” to sons of Jethro as a holding until the tribe of Benjamin later inhabited that parcel of land following the construction of the First Temple. Perhaps Jethro was with his sons as they journeyed with the Israelites toward the land. It is also possible that his sons remained with Moses as he returned home.

What is clear from this midrash, however, is that Jethro was far from forgotten. Jethro is remembered as the father of a group of righteous gentiles who aided Israel in conquering and settling the Holy Land. Perhaps, he was also instrumental in guiding Israel safely through the perils of the wilderness. Regardless, the Israelites owed Jethro and his kin a debt of gratitude.

Whether Jethro remained with Israel in the desert or returned home is less important than the fact that Israel carried with them a memory of Jethro. The Torah recounts Jethro’s sage advice to Moses to set up a system of courts to handle all the cases that Israel would eventually bring to the Moses. The Torah recounts how Moses valued Jethro’s knowledge of the wilderness and his ability to guide Israel. And then the rabbis tell us that even in the Land of Israel, the descendants of Jethro held a privileged place. Jethro may have been gone, but he was not forgotten.

This Shabbat is my last as the visiting rabbi for Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, OR. Over the past three years, this community has become like family to me in many respects. During my monthly visits from Houston, congregants have graciously hosted me in their homes for the weekend. In times of need, such as following the floods in Houston on Memorial Day in 2015, my TBS family supported my family and me morally and financially. These are people I can count on. That’s what family is all about.

In many ways, I see myself as the Jethro of TBS. I’ve been among the community these three years, but not wholly of the community. Time, distance and my family’s circumstances have dictated that we not move on with TBS into the next phase of the community’s life. Despite these realities, TBS and I have fully embraced each other just as Israel and Jethro had embraced each other.

As I now return to Houston, and TBS marches forward, I will cherish the memories of my time here and remember all that this community has done for me and all they have accomplished. I pray, too, that my memory will endure with TBS long after I have departed. If I’m lucky, I’ll be accorded even a fraction of the lasting affection that our tradition still extends to Jethro.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan