The sidra (Num. 11:16) reports God’s command to Moses to appoint seventy elders as an advisory and judicial council.
Yet in Num. 16:2 there is a reference to 250 leaders, so what are we talking about here? Possibly there was a council of 250 and an inner executive of 70.
Calling them elders does not necessarily indicate chronological age but wisdom and experience. In that sense one can be old in years but young in mind, or alternatively young in years but old in wisdom.
According to the rabbis, “zaken” (“old”) suggests “zeh kanah chochmah”, “a person who has acquired wisdom” (commentaries on Lev. 19:32). The halachah asks whether Moses himself was one of the seventy, or was an additional person, making a total of seventy-one.
The halachic principle is that there was a court of seventy-one judges, part of a system in which all courts had an odd number of judges, which ensured that there could never be a deadlock but there was always a majority and a minority.
Since the weekly portion opens with kindling the lamps in the sanctuary (Num. 8:1-2), let us address the broader issue of the lights in the “mikdash me’at” – the “minor sanctuary” which is the home.
Who introduced Shabbat candles? The Mishnah chapter Bameh Madlikin – “What is used for the Sabbath light” – indicates that the Sabbath lamp has ancient origins.
This is not identical with our practice of ritually kindling two or more lights regardless of how light the home is otherwise. The ancient Sabbath lamp lit up the home and provided “Oneg Shabbat” (“Sabbath delight”), as against the sectarian view that because the Torah tells us not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath we must sit in the dark.
Though everyone has to make the home well-lit, the woman of the house has the special responsibility for the Sabbath light.
Medieval people often had a candle with two wicks representing the two commands, “Remember” and “Observe”, which led to the practice of kindling at least two lights.
In normal circumstances, a Jewish person may not remove the candles even if they have gone out. Separate rules govern what to do in the event of a fire.
The question arises of what the Shabbat candles signify. They symbolise the additional soul that the day brings.
In some Reform communities they kindle the lights in the synagogue. Apart from the problem of timing, since the mitzvah applies at the onset of Shabbat (actually 18 minutes earlier) and lighting in the synagogue is generally later time when Shabbat has already commenced, there is the matter of principle.
Judaism is in peril if the home is void of Jewish observance and all is focused on the synagogue.
THE BEST DAYS OF OUR LIVES.
Ask many people to nominate the best days of their lives, and they will pinpoint an episode or period in their past.
The Israelites were like that in the wilderness. All they could do was look backward: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for naught (i.e. cheaply), the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic” (Num.11:5).
Distance made the heart grow fonder. They saw even Egypt through rose-coloured spectacles. Compared to the past, the present was unimpressive.
There is a value in nostalgia. But life cannot be lived backward. Only in your fantasies can you be back again re-living your childhood or any other stage of your life history. And this explains something I said to the children who were interviewing me recently for a “living historian” project. They wanted to know which was the most important day in my life, and I said, “Today… and tomorrow”.
Today, because every today is a new, exciting opportunity. Tomorrow, because if I handle today wisely I can help to shape the future.
I am sometimes jealous of my children and grandchildren, because the likelihood is that they will see wonderful developments in the future which I may not see. But I know that what I do today and tomorrow will lay the foundations for what they are, experience and achieve.
You want to look back? Good luck to you. Maybe the fish really was tastier then, and the cucumbers were better, and the melons, leeks, onions and garlic too. But as Solomon Schechter said, you cannot feel with your grandfather’s heart. You can think of the past, but you have to live your live forward.
The best days of your life? The poet was right: the best is yet to be.