This week's Torah portion begins on a positive, confident note. Moses is commanded to transmit the Divine instructions for lighting the oil-lamp menorah to Aaron, and to dedicate the tribe of Levi to the service of the mishkan (Tabernacle). The instructions are clear, simple, and direct, and the imagery is positive--light, bathing, cleanliness, consecration. Yet, by the end of the parsha, the Jewish nation has degenerated to the point that they are punished with mass destruction and burial at Kivrot haTaavah, the Graves of Appetite. The ideal that is symbolized by the lighting of the menorah at the beginning of the parsha, turns into a disastrous failure by the end of the parsha.
Here’s how the parsha enfolds . . .
At the beginning of the second year following the Exodus, God tells Moses that the Israelites are to offer the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight. Hearing this, some men who had contracted ritual impurity through contact with a corpse and could therefore not offer the sacrifice approach Moses and Aaron and ask if there is a way they too could participate. Moses brings their question to God, who says that anyone who is prevented from offering the sacrifice at its proper time for reasons of impurity or distance may do so one month later.
From the time the Tabernacle was set up it was covered by a cloud that appeared as a fire at night. This cloud would lift up to signal the Israelites to break camp and travel and rest over the Tabernacle when it was time to make camp, whether for a few days or a year.
God instructs Moses to have two silver trumpets made. These would be used to send messages to the Israelites, calling them to assemble or to march. In the future, once the Israelites were settled in their land, the trumpets were to be sounded during war and festivals.
Shortly after they set out from Sinai, the people begin complaining. God becomes angry and sends a fire into the camp. The lesson doesn’t take, for soon the people are complaining again, this time about the manna and all the wonderful things they used to eat in Egypt. Moses in turn complains to God, asking how he is supposed to lead the people by himself. God tells Moses to gather 70 elders and officers to whom God will give a share of Moses’ spirit so that they may assist him. Moses also is to tell the people that God will give them meat to eat, so much that it will sicken them. God brings huge amounts of quails but also a plague to punish the people for their ingratitude.
Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses, ostensibly because he had married a Cushite woman. God strikes Miriam with tzara’at – the punishment for lashon hara. Moses prays for her healing.
THE SILVER TRUMPETS: Have two silver trumpets made [literally, make for yourself]; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the community and to set the divisions in motion. (Numbers 10:2)
Our rabbis taught: All the vessels that Moses made were suitable to be used by him and suitable to be used by subsequent generations. The trumpets were suitable to be used by him and forbidden for subsequent generations. Why? The Torah says, “Make for yourself” – for yourself and not for the generations. (Talmud Menahot 28a-b)
This teaches us an important lesson about Jewish leadership. The message of Torah is unchanging and eternal... The leaders of each generation must discover the appropriate means to transmit this eternal message to the people. If contemporary leaders attempt to use a method employed by leaders of previous generations, the message may fall on deaf ears. While the type of blasts of the trumpets remain the same, the trumpets themselves must be new. Future generations may not use those of Moses’.
THE COMPLAINING: In his translation of the Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox introduces this section of Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers) with the title, “The Rebellion Narratives.” The nation, exhausted, hungry (for meat) and thirsty, hurl a series of complaints against their leaders, most harshly against Moses. When the people complain about the quality of the food (since leaving Egypt they had been on a steady diet of manna in the wilderness), Moses loses it:
Where should I get meat to give to this entire people . . . I am not able, myself alone, to carry this entire people, for it is too heavy for me!
God then tells Moses to gather seventy elders and bring them to the Tent of Appointment and there God will “extend from the rushing spirit (ruah) that is upon you and place it upon them; then they will carry along with you the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it, you alone.” So the spirit rested upon them and “they acted-like-prophets, but did not continue.” The reflexive (hitpa’el) form of the Hebrew verb refers to the act of entering into an ecstatic, trancelike state, a kind of religious fervor. But two men, Eldad and Meidad, not among the seventy chosen elders, also entered into an ecstatic state and “acted-like-prophets in the camp.” Perhaps, sensing a challenge to Moses’ prophetic position, Joshua tells Moses to restrain them. Moses offers a soft rebuke to his understudy: “Are you jealous for me? Would that all the people of G-d were prophets (nevi’im), that G-d would put the rush-of-his-spirit upon them!” Moses shifts the focus from the ecstatic (and thus temporary) prophecy to the more familiar biblical word navi, one who, as Moses himself, is in direct face-to-face connection with God. To Moses spiritual leadership is not the exclusive possession of any one individual or group. Rather, this direct relationship with the divine is open to all. The ideal for Israel is that the nation should strive to become a democracy of the spirit, in which every individual has equal access to the sacred. As classical Judaism emerged out of Biblical Israel, with Torah and commandments replacing animal sacrifice in the Temple Service, the process of spiritual democratization became a real possibility. We cannot all be prophets, but we have equal access to the most important sources of Jewish spirituality: Torah in its broadest definition, and a life lived in an intimate, ongoing relationship with the Divine. Through sacred learning and living the ruah (spirit) of which Moses spoke can be upon each of us.
According to contemporary commentator, David Hazony, this week's reading includes what he believes may be the most important incident in the whole Bible addressing the issue of spiritual authority: the story of Eldad and Medad.
He goes on to say, “We don't know what, exactly, prophecy was, or what its equivalent is today. But clearly, according to Moses, the central spiritual truths can come from anyone, anywhere. And so, throughout the Bible, we discover prophets emerging from all walks of life, requiring no official recognition of their qualifications. To the contrary, their importance often lies in their defiance of the conventionally accepted authority of both kings and priests.
Nor do we know the contents of Eldad and Medad's prophecy. What they said was presumably important, but more important was their right to say it—on their own, without the approval of any other human being. Not only does Moses refuse to punish Eldad and Medad, he holds them out as an example, a model.
Why the distinction between political and spiritual authority?
Human beings need law to survive. We need courts and police, we need coercion to enforce a minimal standard of behavior. The talmudic rabbis caution Jews to pray for the welfare of the state, for without it, "man would eat his neighbor alive." Laws, moreover, must be fair and right if we want to create the conditions in which humanity can thrive. And so, God Himself gives such laws through His servant Moses.
But where our spiritual lives are concerned, authority takes a very different form.
Legal and political authority implies deference to an authority. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, all they had was self-abnegation (the setting aside of self-interest for the sake of others or for a belief or principle) in the face of tyranny—authority at its disfigured extreme. The result was a band of sniveling, whining, scarcely-human ex-slaves who kept looking back longingly at the "flesh pots" of Egypt, chafing at the challenge to create a new world, eventually dying in the desert because of their inability to muster the resolve needed to enter the Promised Land.
The whole purpose of the Exodus was to make men out of these mice, a task ultimately left to the next generation. For this they needed laws—laws grounded in God's morality, laws that could make them not only into free individuals but also into a great nation. But to see the point of the Bible as beginning and ending in law is dramatically to distort the text. Why, if the only real issue were law, would we need all those prophecies, psalms, proverbs, and stories?
Moses' dramatic democratization of spiritual truth should not be confused with relativism. (Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception). The point is not that everyone has his own wisdom and his own truth, but that real wisdom and real truth can emerge from anyone. The aim of that wisdom and truth is to enable humans to go beyond the minimal conditions of survival, beyond law, even beyond freedom. The aim is holiness: a respect for what it means to have been created in the image of God.
This duality is the key to understanding the religious whirlwind that began with the Bible and took flight with the ancient rabbinic tradition, where legend and law, aggadah and halakhah, danced together like twin stars spinning around each other in a galactic gravitational fit, generating a swirling sea of opinion, ruling, storytelling, and perception. The same rabbis who transformed biblical law into a vast array of precedent and living legal discourse also taught that the wise person is "one who learns from every man."
This leads us logically into a discussion about why there are so many interpretations of Torah. I studied an essay by a brilliant Rabbi named David Ettengoff. This is what I learned from him:
The Torah is composed of both legal and narrative portions. While most scholars and sages agree that a particular law exists, legal or halachic passages are often the focus of diverse interpretations regarding their application. Thus, an entire genre of Jewish literature has arisen whose sole purpose is to determine the practical ramifications of both Torah and Rabbinic laws. In many ways, the creation of this unique and dynamic body of literature has continued unabated since, our forebears declared “Naaseh v’nishmah” (“We will do and we will accept,” (Sefer Shemot 24:7) at Sinai. In an attempt to capture the divine wisdom of God, narrative passages of the Torah have also been the focal point of intense explanation of the text. In contrast to the sections of the Torah dealing with the administration of justice, our Sages gave themselves license for wide-ranging and often radically different interpretations of this material. Beginning with the Zohar, this idea has become known as “shivim panim l’Torah” (“the 70 facets of Torah interpretation”). One of the clearest presentations of this notion is found in the anonymous 13th Century work entitled “Sefer Hachinuch.” In Mitzvah 95, the author states: It is a known and widely recognized tenet among us, the people who accept the mitzvoth, that there are seventy facets to the Torah; for each one of them there are great and manifold roots, and every root has branches, each of which bears a great cluster of desirable fruit to make hearts wise. Every day they produce blossoms for those who attend them diligently – blossoms of wisdom and good intelligence, bringing light to all eyes. The depth of its wisdom widens and winds about until a man has not the power to grasp its ultimate sense. As the wise king [Solomon] avowed, “I said I will get wisdom; but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23). With all that, however, the hands of anyone who occupies himself with it should not be slackened. For if he eats a little or much of it, it is all sweet. (Translation, Charles Wengrov) Parsha Behalotcha contains a prime example of a pasuk (verse) that is highly illustrative of shivim panim l’Torah. Sefer Bamidbar 10:33 reads as follows: “They [the Jewish people] traveled a distance of three days from the mountain of the L-rd, and the Ark of the L-rd's covenant traveled three days ahead of them to seek for them a place to settle.” Tosafot on Talmud Bavli Shabbat 116a quotes the now lost Midrash Vayachulu (attributed therein to Midrash Yelamdainu) in the following fashion: Vayisu and they traveled – they traveled away from Mt. Sinai in the manner of a journey of three days – just like a young child who runs away from school [at day’s end] – that he flees and travels away. So, too, did the Jewish people run away from Mt. Sinai in the manner of a journey of three days because they had learned a great deal of Torah at Mt. Sinai. The emphasis in this Midrash is unmistakable: Our ancestors failed to live up to their potential to achieve further spiritual greatness. Instead of embracing the opportunity to learn more Torah, in the very place where it was given, they squandered this precious moment. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550–1619), known as the Kli Yakar after the title of his most famous work, elaborates upon this Midrash. He suggests that b’nai Yisrael ran away “out of fear that perhaps [G-d] would add even more Mitzvot to them.” Instead of rejoicing in the words of Hashem and His commandments, they rebelled against Him. Like young cheder students, they attempted to flee responsibility. In sum, a more negative portrait of the Generation of the Desert could hardly be painted.
Rabbeinu Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) adopted a completely different approach in his analysis of our pasuk. In stark contrast to the Midrash, Tosafot, and Kli Yakar, for whom our verse represents consummate failure and rebellion, Rav Hirsch discovered an understated moment of human drama and existential anxiety. In his view, G-d eased our forebears’ fears with His unbounded kindness and mercy: As it does not say “they traveled three days,” but [rather] “a way of three days,” it probably wishes to express the hardship and strain caused by such a three days journey. But “the Ark of the Covenant of G-d went before them for three days journey” [i.e.,] they had the Ark of G-d’s covenant before their eyes during the whole of the three day trek looking out for a suitable place for them to rest, and this constant view could well keep them in the fresh and cheerful mood of knowing that G-d was leading them, as well as the “cloud of G-d” which remained constantly with them and made them feel assured on all their wanderings that they had G-d’s Protection accompanying them. (Translation, Isaac Levy, brackets my own) Aristotle created the principle of logic known as the Law of the Excluded Middle, which maintains that every statement is either true or false, and there is nothing in between. In stark contrast, Judaism embraces a wide-open universe of legitimate Torah interpretation. Consequently, we frequently encounter contradictory analyses of narrative Torah passages that coexist in harmony with one another. Our Sages coined the phrase “elu v’elu divrei Elokim chaim” (“these and those are the words of the living G-d”) to depict the authenticity of this pluralistic approach to Torah explanation. In my view, it is precisely this principle that has kept the Torah vibrant, relevant, and responsive to our people’s ever-changing needs and requirements. Moreover, it may well be the underlying rationale as to why the Jewish people continue to exist and thrive, instead of having become one more nation relegated to the dustbin of history.
So, to get back to the parsha and its themes. Let’s talk about complaining . . .
To crave meat was not a sin. To indulge gluttonously without acknowledging the Creator or the limits of Creation was an expression of contempt for all that God had done for them. Such behaviour leads to disaster. Indeed, Rashi points out that the demand for meat and other food was a mere pretext to complain. To complain about what? Rashi's comment seems to reflect the Talmud's suggestion that the complaint was not about substance, but an expression of frustration at living under the mitzvot. The language--hit'avu ta'ava--"they cultivated a craving"--evokes a group that dwells on its own frustrated desires. A generalized dissatisfaction, expressed in endless demands for more material things that do not bring happiness, can never be satisfied. Rashi calls this a pretext for complaint. Today, we would call it insatiable consumerism. We are told that the Israelites collected enormous quantities of quail that they would never be able to consume, decimating the birds.
A desire that can never be satisfied consumes resources to the point of destructiveness.
Rashi explains further that the deaths at Kivrot haTaavah continued until the quail had been provided for a month, demonstrating that this miraculous provision was indeed possible, though it did not satisfy the complainers.
What is the alternative to seeking solace in destructive, unbridled consumption? Commenting on the instructions for the lighting of the menorah at the beginning of our parsha, Rashi explains that its lamps did not face out to maximize the illumination. Rather, they were turned inward toward the menorah's center, as if to indicate that we should cultivate an inward light, not an attitude of entitlement or superiority. This is the key to avoiding Kivrot haTaavah. Crass, self-seeking consumerism and over-consumption lead us and all around us to a bad end. The menorah and the shulhan remind us that Heaven provides all things, good and ill. Understanding that everything in our world proceeds from God, both when it serves our desires and when it does not, leads us to appreciate and express gratitude for what we have. Humble and prudent stewardship of our limited resources will ensure a future for ourselves and our descendants. As the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot reminds us, "Who is prosperous? One who is content with his portion “.
Another Lesson in Lashan Hara
Miriam and Aaron question Moses’ judgment on his choice of a wife. For this questioning of God’s humble servant Moses, God punishes Miriam with tzarat – the leprosy-like skin condition (notice that Aaron is not punished). What's the connection between speaking badly - gossiping about another, and contracting this skin disease? Speech is the tool of creation - through it we can build individuals and the world. We can praise, encourage, and give others confidence. Ancient Biblical Judaism, was acutely aware of the power of speech and of the harm that can be done through speech. The early sages and Rabbis note that the universe itself was created through words consisting of the Hebrew alphabet. The Talmud tells us that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse. It also teaches that the harm done by lashon hara is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harm done by an evil tongue can never be repaired. By making others feel important, we build them up, as if to say, "Your existence is necessary." This is life giving and life- affirming. One of the great American rabbis of the past generation, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, was known to have brought a neighbour back to G-d and to Torah observance simply by caring enough to say "good morning." On the other hand, speech can also be used to destroy. Words like "you're worthless" wipes out a person's self-esteem. As King Solomon says, "Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it (lashon hara) will eat it's fruit." (Proverbs 18:21). The Talmud (Arachin 15b) explains that negative speech is even worse than a sword - since it kills many people, even at great distance. From here we can understand a section of the Torah portion, Tazriah, found in Leviticus 13:45-46. The Torah says that when someone has been diagnosed as having Tzarat, they must go outside the boundaries of the city and shout "Contaminated, Unclean!" to warn anyone who approaches. The punishment is measure-for-measure: If you promote divisiveness amongst others, then you will suffer divisiveness yourself.
Connections to our lives
[if !supportLists]· [endif]From the two trumpets we learn the importance of making Torah relevant to our lives.
[if !supportLists]· [endif]From the story of the complainers, we learn how important it is to be happy with and grateful for what we have and not lust after what we don’t have.
[if !supportLists]· [endif]And we again learn the ramifications of lashon hora and how important it is to fight our nature to engage in it.