Prophetic Qualities (5774/2014)
“My Lord, Moses! Stop them!” says Yehoshua, when he learns that Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the Israelite camp. But Moshe sees things differently. He says, “I only wish all of God’s people would have the gift of prophecy!” (Bamidbar/Numbers 11:28-29)
Here, Torah speaks of the ruach, spirit, that makes prophecy possible. But it offers no details about the spirit. We do not know if it inspires ecstatic prophecy, or carries specific messages from God. The details must be sought elsewhere, perhaps using the midrashic technique of semichut parshiyot. Literally, information from one section “spreads over” another, filling in gaps.
A few verses earlier, Torah lists the names of twelve generals who will lead Israel in battle. Three of them will stand at the front of every formation, and their names express spiritual qualities. Nachshon ben Aminadav is the Intuitive Diviner born of Humility. Netanel ben Tzuar is the Gift of God born of Trouble. Eliyav ben Cheilon is the Divine Child born of Valor. In Jewish tradition, prophets often appear at times of upheaval and change, times that may be metaphorically connected with the front lines of battle. Perhaps the generals’ names teach about the spirit needed to prophesy at these times.
Nachshon ben Aminadav teaches us to trust the intuition that comes all at once, but receive it with humility. Sometimes “gut-knowing” tells us about the world; sometimes it tells us about ourselves. Humble discernment helps. Netnael ben Tzuar teaches the importance of taking a risk with the faith that even if a plan fails, unexpected learning and grace may result. Eliyav ben Cheilon reminds us of good old-fashioned values that provide grounding in any situation: courage, strength, wisdom, hard work, and helping others.
Which qualities will lead as you move forward?
The people complained negatively in the ears of God. God heard and became angry. Within them, a fire of God burned and consumed the edge of the camp. The people cried out to Moshe; Moshe prayed to God; and the fire was extinguished. (Numbers-Bamidbar 11:1-2)
Here is a beautiful example of the Torah’s ability to speak on multiple levels with a single expression.
On the simple level, Torah describes physical events in the Israelite camp. Camped in the desert, people find themselves hungry and thirsty. They become angry and blame Moshe for the environmental conditions. A fire breaks out in the arid camp, and Moshe extinguishes it.
On the mythological level, in which all events express God’s hand in history, the complaints anger God. God sets fire to the camp. Moshe, God’s trusted right-hand man, asks God to stop, and God listens.
On the psycho-spiritual level, Torah describes a subjective experience of anger. The anger of the people consumes the edges of their inner lives. They cannot perceive, think, or feel clearly about their situation. Only Moshe, an external advisor, can calm them.
Readers familiar with Torah stories will remember two sides of Moshe’s character. Sometimes Moshe calms God down; sometimes he himself is overwhelming angry. The two-sided Moshe represents all of us. Inter-personally, sometimes each of us is angry; sometimes each of us calms another down. Intra-personally, sometimes anger and reason debate within us. Each side has its place. For example, our anger can help us recognize injustice; calm planning can help us address it.
How can we find the right inner balance, allowing the two sides of ourselves to dialogue? How can we learn to balance one another?
Mixed Multitude (5772/2012)
The beginning of the Book of Bamidbar describes an elegantly ordered society – too elegantly ordered. The layout of the Israelite camp is geometrically precise. Men are battle-ready, organized into regiments with distinguished leaders. Troubled people have access to spiritual rituals to soothe their hearts. The cohanim can place God’s peace on others. Each Levite family has a specific job. Everyone recognizes the signals to assemble and break camp. When the group travels, everyone marches with their paternal family. Moshe says, “we are now on our way!”
Everything is done exactly according to the blueprint Moshe received from God.
Until…the crowd begins to complain. The asafsuf, “mixed multitude,” within it craves and cries and demands meat. Moshe, triggered, complains to God, “Why me?” God encourages the complainers to eat themselves sick, and grants the spirit of prophecy to seventy elders. Yehoshua becomes upset. Miriam and Aharon speak with Moshe on behalf of his wife. God angrily takes sides and makes Miriam sick too. Moshe cries out, “God, please heal her!”
Who is this asafsuf that upsets the delicate balance? Keli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon Luntschitz) says, it is “those who did not practice musar [ethical self-reflection], thus speaking and acting out every thought stirring inside them.” In Keli Yakar’s view, the unexamined “mixed multitude” of thoughts and feelings within each of us upsets our balance. A chain reaction begins as we trigger the unexamined “mixed multitude” within others.
Sometimes our attempts to order our lives are unrealistic; no wonder we fail. Other times we sabotage ourselves with an inner “mixed multitude.” This week, try to practice a simple musar: as you think, feel, and speak, try to notice both your unrealistic expectations of order and the “mixed multitude” they provoke.
The Spirit of Prophecy (5771/2011)
Eight dedicated Or Shalomniks have been attending our Thursday evening seminar on the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel led by John Fuerst. This week we discussed Heschel’s view of prophecy. Prophets are needed to lift us out of a self-centered funk in which we care only about the satisfaction of our own needs. Biblical prophets respond to their own self-shattering experiences of being addressed by God. We readers can encounter their words in the Tanakh, and follow the hints to our own self-shattering experiences.
Parshat Beha’alotecha offers an extended reflection on the nature of prophecy. Two stories interweave, alternating scenes. In one story, the people complain to Moshe that wilderness food is boring. They prefer eating meat, even if it’s in Egypt. God tells Moshe to tell the people that God will give them so much meat they will get sick. An unusual wind sweeps in a flock of quail, and people eat so much meat that many people die.
Meanwhile, Moshe asks God for help bearing the burden of leadership. God sends the spirit of prophecy to seventy elders. Moshe approves, saying, “Would that everyone could be a prophet!” But when his siblings Miriam and Aharon say, “God speaks to us, too!” God gets upset and says, “But not in the same way I speak to Moshe!”
Food for thought: When vision narrows, and people see only their own material desires, more prophets arise. But what kind of prophets are needed?
Marriage Mending (5770/2010)
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe on behalf of the Cushite woman he had married.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 12:1)
Midrash teaches that Miriam was a mender of marriages.
When Pharaoh decreed that Israelite baby boys were to be drowned, Midrash teaches, Israelite families separated. Young Miriam, however, foresaw that her parents could give birth to an amazing baby who would lift the Israelites from their gloom. She insisted that her parents remarry. They listened! As the children Miriam and Aharon danced in front of their parents’ chuppah, they saw their mother shed years of worry, transforming back into the young woman they knew.
When Moshe became so involved in his leadership responsibilities that Tzipporah left him, he got married again, to a Cushite woman. Midrash teaches that Miriam saw the late-night lights burning in Moshe’s tent as his new wife waited, every night, for his return. So she spoke to Moshe on behalf of his wife. God took Moshe’s side in this family spat, but Moshe recognized Miriam’s insight, and prayed for healing for an unnamed female – perhaps his sister, perhaps his wife, perhaps even his marriage.
As summer wedding season begins, we have much to learn from Miriam about married life: Don’t let fear come between you. Don’t let work – even holy work — take over all your time. If you are blessed with children, listen to their wisdom. And, best of all, a loving marriage keeps you young.
When the Torah Arises… (5767/2007)
“When the Israelites began traveling from the camp by day, God’s cloud remained over them. When the Ark went forth, Moshe said, ‘Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before You!’ When it came to rest, he said, “Return, O God, to the myriads of Israel’s thousands.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 10:34-36)
What did the cloud of God’s Presence look like? Midrash teaches that the radiance of the Cloud and Fire was a brilliant purple that shone like the sun and the stars. Everyone who saw it was moved to praise God.
Did God’s Presence really need to wait for instructions from Moshe? No, midrash teaches. But as a courtesy to Moshe, the Cloud would stop in front of him and await his actual call to depart or to return.
Did the Presence arise and return for reasons we could understand? Yes, midrash teaches. The Fire and Cloud Themselves waited while Miriam recovered from her bout with tzara’at, requiring the Israelites to wait for her.
The traditional Shabbat Torah service opens the with Moshe’s call to God to “Arise!” and closes with Moshe’s call to “Return!” Because the Torah scroll represents God’s Presence, we call to it as it travels around the room. Radiance, courtesy, partnership, caring, healing – these are the qualities midrash invites us to recall as we line up to greet the Torah scroll.
Inspired by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson