David Fachler\’s Blog

Chazan, Baal Korei & Community Spiritual Leader

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David Fachler’s Divrei Torah

Dvar Torah delivered on Shabbat Evening, 14 Sivan (June 10th) in Alon Shevut

Devotion and Deviation: Individuality and Enforced Unity

Fairly typical for the Book of Numbers, this week’s Torah portion, “Beha`alotkha” is long. Unlike its counterparts there is no central narrative that dominates it; rather it is a collection of mini incidents, each following on the heels of the other. Some of the episodes take on a very public nature and involve the interaction between the People of Israel and Moses, while others deal with the more personal realm. I would like to focus on this latter type. Aside from Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law, there are four other stories that have a personal element to them, two of which appear at the beginning of the portion, two of which at the end.

The Torah reading begins with G-d’s command to Aaron to kindle the candelabrum. Although not explicitly stated in the Torah, our Sages teach us that Aaron was jealous of the other princes of the tribes, each of whom was given the opportunity during the inauguration of the Tabernacle to offer their own personal sacrifice. He felt that the priestly tribe of which he was the patriarch, and prince had been discriminated against. To compensate him, G-d made him the exclusive custodian of the menorah. The idea that this was not a mere command to Aaron, but also a privilege is hinted at in the verse itself. The command is not made in the third person, as it is when introducing the Yom Kippur service (Leviticus 16:1), neither is it made in the plural form, as appears when relaying general priestly laws (ibid. 21:1), but rather in the second person singular, the most personal form possible when addressing someone else. This recalls another incident in which Aaron was addressed in this manner: When the Torah records the death of Aaron’s two elder children, it highlights Aaron’s response which was one of stunned [and acquiescent] silence. This is immediately followed by G-d directly addressing Aaron (ibid. 10: 1-8). Obviously there Aaron needed to be spoken to in a gentle manner, and though the cases are different, G-d is not only sensitive to those who are bereaved of their children, but also those bereft of their dignity.

The second incident involves those who had become impure through contact with corpses, and who were thus unable to join their fellow Israelites in offering the Pascal lamb, in the second year of the exodus. They complained to Moses, asking him that they be given another opportunity to perform this holy command. Unabashedly they asked the rhetorical question “why should we lose out?” (Numbers 9:7 per Aryeh Kaplan The Living Torah (1981) p. 407). Why should circumstances beyond our control prevent us from coming closer to the Divine? After seeking the Almighty’s advice, Moses told the people that their request was legitimate and indeed a day had been set aside, corresponding to thirty days after the Pascal lamb was first offered, on which they may offer this sacrifice with all the laws that pertained to the original sacrifice. All’s well that ends well.

Toward the end of the portion, a third incident is related, which is quite different to the first two. After Moses complains that he cannot single-handedly deal with the grumblings of the masses, he is advised to appoint seventy elders, with whom he is to share his prophetic powers. Two of those who had been initially selected, but whom, according to our Sages, subsequently withdrew were Eldad and Meidad. Independent of Moses’ tutelage these two begin to prophesy in the camp. The content of their prophecy is not recorded, and our sages disagree as to the exact message. Nonetheless when word reaches Moses that these two men have prophesied, his loyal servant Joshua suggests that their impudence be punished by incarceration. “Are you jealous for my sake?” retorts Moses, “I only wish that all of G-d’s people would have the gift of prophecy ” (Ibid. 11:29, per Kaplan p. 414). Moses does not thank his servant for protecting his honor; instead he rebukes him for misplaced zealotry.  In the Torah’s portrayal of Joshua as “Moses’ young attendant” (ibid. see Kaplan’s various translations), I suggest, there is a subtle attempt at characterizing the speaker’s statement as somewhat immature. Were he an “older attendant” he may not have committed the same youthful error.

The last story occurs right at the end of the Parsha, and involves the three siblings who play such a central role in the Pentateuch. Miriam, Moses’ eldest sister, and child minder when he was an infant, speaks to Aaron against Moses about a Kushite woman that the latter took. Our sages speculate as to what the Torah refers to in this very cryptic statement, and most conclude (with a few exceptions) that it refers to the fact that Moses divorced his wife Tzipporah in order to be readily available to receive G-d’s word. It appears then that Miriam was merely concerned with the honour of her [former] sister-in-law, and upset at what her brother had done. However the next verse explicitly tells us that she (and Aaron) had a personal gripe against her youngest brother: “Is it to Moses exclusively that G-d speaks? Doesn’t he also speak to us?”(Ibid. 12:2 p .415). Why, she was asking, does Moses have a free hand to do what he pleases; he is no more special than the rest of his family. G-d’s response is well known, and she is punished with a form of leprosy.

All of the above incidents share three common features. An individual feels that his rights have been infringed; this then leads him to air his grievance, which in turn is responded to in a prompt and fitting fashion. Yet if we compare the first two incidents with the last two, we notice the grave contrast in the way that they are concluded. In the former case the grievances are legitimated by the full recompense that the players receive; in the latter the grievances are called into question and those airing them are rebuked or punished. What differentiates these two halves of our Torah portion? I would like to suggest three answers, all interrelated, with the third, having arguably the most contemporary relevance.

In Aaron’s subtle and unarticulated protest, one senses his jealously for the honor of his tribe, and the need for him to personally express his devotion. The Torah acknowledges this desire and sees nothing wrong with people standing for their rights so long as they do so honestly. The impure group similarly makes no bones about their desire to have the same rights and duties as their brethren and thus they push for the equal opportunity at fulfilling their spiritual needs. In both cases G-d affirms this right, and validates their claims. In contradistinction Joshua and Miriam couch their arguments in a manner as to suggest that they are fighting for the rights of others, that they are merely protecting the honor of their fellow. Clearly it is their own needs they seek to advance. However, instead of Joshua asking Moses to open to him the powers of prophecy he seeks to shut it off from any competitor. Instead of Miriam seeking a private audience with Moses, and expressing her hurt at what he did, she acts as if she is concerned with the honor of others, and yet her inability to simultaneously conceal her resentment of his special position merely proves her disingenuousness. The Torah does not condone such dishonesty, and the consequences are severe.

Following on from the above observation, a more obvious but as yet unarticulated distinction can be detected. While asserting their rights, Aaron and the impure group do not trample on the rights of others. They may, understandably, be envious of the opportunity afforded to their contemporaries, but all they seek is equilibrium. Equality, being a noble goal, is thus granted to them. In order to achieve their aims, Joshua and Miriam must harm others in their way. Joshua seeks to lock up his opposition, to attain the lofty aim, in his mind, of protecting the honor of his master. Miriam, who cannot comprehend the mind of her brother, and who seems offended by his actions, must undermine him in order to feel that she is his equal. The Torah perhaps is warning us that the means do not justify ends, and even more than that, that if the means are invalid, the ends are not so kosher either.

Most important, however, is the basis for their respective grievances. Aaron and the group want to express their potential, but see obstacles in their way. Life is not meant to be without challenges, and the challenger thus has a legitimate mission to seek to overcome those hurdles that are blocking his physical, psychological, and spiritual advancement. When Moses expresses his desire to Joshua that all the people have the gift of prophecy, he is telling him, as Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains, that there is no monopoly on prophetic powers. Joshua could accept the fact that he was not endowed with this gift, but only as long as no else was. So long as the status quo ante remains intact, and his weltanschauung is left undisturbed, everything may be tolerated. The moment questions are raised as to the validity or feasibility of his worldview those responsible have to be stopped. “Not so”, says Moses, the mainstream view cannot be maintained by force, but by persuasion, and the basis for your claim is an invalid one. Likewise, Moses had disturbed Miriam’s image of how a prophet should conduct him/herself. Substituting her subjective worldview for the objective Torah’s worldview, she felt justified in airing her criticism, regardless of the tone she employed or the manner of conveying her disapproval. “Not so” says G-d, Moses is my most humble creature, and you are not the arbiter of other people’s behaviour. Have your views, but do not lose your sense of balance when expressing them, challenge Moses, but do not slander him.

Too often in our zeal to establish our view of how our world, our environment, our educational institutions, and our home should be run, we forget the other. Our child, neighbors, and fellow human being should not have to be sacrificed on the altar of our opinions. We have every right to articulate our views, to convince and to persuade, but not to coerce or impose. And even if at times we do get carried away, that would be acceptable. Human beings however are more sophisticated than that. They are too subtle to tell those surrounding them, that they are too left wing, too right wing too religious, not religious enough etc. Rather they blame the other for sowing disunity and separateness. Difference is scorned, and everyone is required to unite under the same banner. As social commentator Dennis Prager pointed out: “when people call for unity, they usually do so on their own terms”. The lofty ideal of unifying forces is too often used as a weapon to stifle independent dissenting voices. We may require a framework for conducting disputes, and red lines may have to be drawn, but never should the cry for unity come at the expense of individual expression.

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One Response to “David Fachler’s Divrei Torah”

  1. […] David Fachler’s Divrei Torah […]

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