Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And Yehoshua Bin Nun, the attendant of Moshe, answered and said:  ‘My master Moshe, shut them up [kela’em].’ (Num. 11:28).

The negative attitude and the stiff-neckedness of the Israelites was one of the greatest challenges faced by Moshe.  It began early, when the Israelite slaves lamented that he had aggravated their already intolerable situation.  Even after the miracle of the ten plagues, when the Egyptians pursued them to the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites complained bitterly.  Then, following their miraculous passage through the parted waters, they complained about the bitterness of the waters at Marah.  On the eve of their planned entry into the Promised Land, ten of the twelve spies fomented revolt.   His flock’s constant, bitter complaining ultimately led Moshe to strike the rock in anger and thus forfeit his role of leading them into the Promised Land.

 The poignant description of Moshe’s frustration with the chronic discontentment of his flock is one of the major themes of parashat be-He’alotekha.  He had followed the advice of Yitro, his father in law, and decentralized the nation’s judiciary, substantially easing his burden of leadership.  But this delegation of authority was insufficient: 

And the mixed multitude that was among them began to lust greatly:  And the children of Israel also wept along with them and said: ‘Would that we were given meat to eat:  We remember the fish that we used to eat in Egypt for naught; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic:  But now our soul is dried away: There is nothing at all:  We have nothing but this manna to look to’… and Moshe heard the people weeping, family by family, every man at the door of his tent:    And Moshe said to the lord:  ‘Wherefore have you dealt ill with your servant?  And wherefore have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of this people upon me?  Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth, that you say to me:  ‘Carry them in your bosom like a nursing father carries the sucking infant, onto the land which you swore unto their fathers’?  From where should I have meat to give to all this people … I am not able to bear all this people myself alone because it is too heavy for me.  And if you treat me this way, kill me, I pray you, out of hand-if I have found favor in your sight:  And let me not look upon my wretchedness.’ (Num 11:  4-6; 10-11; 12-15).

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the Netziv, comments on Moshe’s despairing response with remarkable psychological acuity:  “This was on account of the pain he felt in his heart …  He saw that he would die of a broken heart in just a few days.  Therefore he told God: ‘if you don’t kill me now, I shall experience the agony of the anticipated symptoms of my impending demise.  Spare me from this anguish [and take me now] while I am still healthy.’”  This observation accurately expresses the profound sense of hopelessness and unspeakable pain of one who is suffering from deep depression.

God responds to Moshe’s pain and despair, providing a practical solution: 

And the Lord spoke onto Moshe: ‘Gather onto me seventy men of the elders of Israel; whom you know to be the elders of the people, and their officers… and I will come down and speak with you [im’kha] there, and I will take of the spirit which is upon you and put it upon them:  And they shall bear the burden of the people with you and you shall not bear it alone’…And the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke onto him [eilav] and took of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders; And it came to pass, that when the spirit rested upon them they prophesized, but they did so no more [ve’lo ya’safu]. (Num 11:16-17; 25).

The Netziv notices that the Torah employs two different dative forms—with and to-- in describing God’s communication with Moshe—“I shall speak with you [imakh]” (verse 17) and “He spoke to him [eilav]” (verse 25).  He points out that God communicated with Moshe in two distinct ways.  The first [imakh] was dialogical.  There were two participants in the dialogue--God and Moshe.  This is the basis of the Oral Torah, in which there is a human partner.  The second form of communication was non-dialogical.  God was active.  Moshe was merely a channel through which God transmitted His Torah.  This second form of communication [eilav] connotes direct prophecy, the basis of the Written Torah.  In the context of the report of God’s placing Moshe’s spirit upon the seventy elders (Verse 25), this meant that they prophesized exactly what Moshe prophesized.  They transmitted the pristine divine message without any personal input.  Unlike subsequent Biblical prophets, whose prophecy was shaped by their own personalities and spiritual energies, the seventy elders were the prophetic clones of Moshe.

The Netziv supports this thesis in his interpretation of the phrase ve-lo yasafu:  “The meaning of ve-lo yasafu was explained in the Sifrei, Talmud (B.T. Sanhedrin 17a) and Onkelos’ [Aramaic translation] as: ‘And they did not cease from prophesying’. But the plain sense of the text appears to relate to the general rule that no two prophets articulated their prophetic message in exactly the same style (Sanhedrin 89a).  Therefore, if two prophets prophesy the same thing, they each necessarily add something to what the other says.   The Torah informs us [by saying lo ya’safu] that these elders prophesized exactly what Moshe would have said in the name of God, but they did not add [yasafu] anything at all. This was because their prophecy derived exclusively from the spirit of Moshe that devolved upon them”.

The Netziv’s astute grasp of the nuances of the text demonstrates how God’s solution for easing Moshe’s unbearable burden was to create prophetic clones.  By distributing the spirit of Moshe among the newly minted prophets, each was recast exactly in his image, thinking exactly what he thought, saying exactly what he would say, and thus making them into his perfect agents. 

But the solution seemed flawed.  The miracle appeared to be incomplete: 

And there remained two men in the camp.  The name of one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad; and the spirit rested upon them:  And they were of them that were recorded but had not gone to the Tent. And they prophesized in the camp. (Num. 11:27)

According to the Netziv, because they had not initially come into the presence of Moshe when his spirit devolved on the assembled elders, they did not become his clones, but prophesized independently.  The sages surmise that their prophecy was not popular.  They foretold the death of Moshe and the succession of Yehoshua as the leader of the people.  Not surprisingly, Yehoshua, ever the faithful servant, ran to Moshe and declared:  “My master Moshe, shut them up,” (Num 11:28).  Moshe’s response to Yehoshua’s concern about the effects of the independent thinking of Eldad and Medad was majestically noble: 

And Moshe said to him: ‘Are you jealous for me?  Would that all the lord’s people were prophets, that the lord should put his spirit upon them [directly].

This analysis of the text highlights the tension between uniformity and dissent.  Yehoshua feared the corrosive effects of independent thinking upon authority.  Although he was motivated by the loftiest of sentiments, the type of concern that he demonstrated has always characterized authoritarian political systems.  Dissent is repressed, politically and theologically incorrect opinions are muted and dissenters silenced or imprisoned.  This is true of totalitarian groupthink on both the left and right.  Sadly, not even Judaism is completely immune to this tendency.

But Moshe’s response to Yehoshua’s outrage at the potential erosion of his monopoly on inspiration is truly characteristic of the authentic Jewish tradition. Unity of commitment to the Halakhah has never demanded uniformity. Of the 523 chapters’ of the Mishnah, only five are without dissent.  The record of powerful dissenting voices (like Ra’avad and Rambam, Ramban and Ba’al ha-Me‘or, and down the centuries, to the recent responsa of such rabbinic giants as R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Eliezer Waldenberg) has enlivened the Jewish religious tradition.

Dissent is often uncomfortable, but groupthink is both dangerous and paralyzing.  The enduring message of our text is that, properly motivated, dissent is but healthy and holy.    


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