Monday, June 15, 2009

Parhshat B'Haalotecha - Be sure you know the entire story, as much as possible

This writing is the result of specific shiyurim I was privileged to share with a Ninth Grade Tanach class (love you guys!); my son, Brian, and a friend, Hannah; and a group of friends and family during a Tikkun Lail Shavuot.

So, here is my question: Do we all accept and agree with the bad rap that Miriam, Aharon, and Eldad and Meidad get in this narrative?

This Parsha is one of those that is the stuff of which amazing stories are made – it has it all, personal vignettes, follow-up information to an earlier hanging story, information about members of the Jewish nation, stories of unrest and rebellion, and so forth. Drama, tension and suspense – what else could one want?

The texts of interest for this particular writing are BaMidbar, Chapter 11, verses 26 – 29 and Chapter 12, verses 1 – 3. These two stories or vignettes frame a continuation of the frustrating situation with the manna and the nation’s request for meat, as well as G-d’s resulting anger. On both sides of the text of this profound national crisis, we confront two stories that seem to convey one message on the surface, but a completely different one upon closer examination. Often, these stories as well as the one that begins the next Parsha, the account of the scouts sent to examine the land and resources of Eretz Yisrael, are used to teach important lessons about not using improper speech, Lashon HaRa. So now for that closer look….

In the first story, the new round of choosing of 70 elders/designated leaders who were to assist Moshe is indicated and during this process, we read that two of the designated leaders, Eldad and Meidad, remain behind in the camp. Further, we are told that they are prophesizing (“Va’yitnabo B’machaneh”). A boy runs (who though is not identified in the text of the Torah, is suspected to be Gershom, Moshe’s son by many as reported by Rashi) to inform Moshe about this occurrence. In the next verse (11:28) we read that Yehoshuah ben-Nun, who had served Moshe since his own youth says “My Master, Moshe, imprison them” when referring to the actions of Eldad and Meidad. The final passuk/verse of this narrative states that Moshe said to him, “Are you jealous/zealous for my sake, would that all of the people be prophets for G-d, for G-d gives G-d’s spirit to them.”

Clearly, this story leads many to presume that Eldad and Meidad are involved in some type of attempted mutiny or overthrow (a natural conclusion to draw in the midst of so many stories of major rebellion, so many say) and are engaging in some type of evil activity. The general assumption is that they are talking about the coming death of Moshe Rabbeinu and are to be discredited for doing so.

However, there are other voices to add to this discussion and I would like to propose that in looking at some of these other interpretations, a wholly different understanding of the events that transpire and the people who are involved will result. Rashi cites Sifre in which we see that it is suggested that in Moshe’s choosing the 70 advisors, there was a problem regarding mathematics and equal representation (my words, not Rashi’s). The explanation that is given cites that there were twelve tribes and if there were to be six representatives from each tribe/shevet, the total would have been seventy two, two more than needed, as directed by G-d. If there were only to be five representatives from each shevet, then there would be ten too few. Therefore, a system had to be devised to insure the resulting number of 70 as dictated, for the Sanhedrin, or ruling body of elders/leaders. The explanation provided is that all designated leaders, among whom Eldad and Meidad were clearly included, would draw lots, of which 70 would indicate “elder” and two would be blanks. These blanks would be included in the last round, so that two tribes/ shevatim would randomly have five representatives, not six. Rashi goes on to explain that Eldad and Meidad were so modest and unassuming that they stayed back in the camp so that no blanks would need to be drawn and all of the other designated leaders would in fact be chosen. In this context, their prophesizing activity was to provide continuity and a sense of confidence in the rest of the camp.

This is a far different picture than the one popularly taught that they were speaking of Moshe’s impending death and that lesser students should not speak as such while their teacher or leader is still alive. Doing so would indeed instill uncertainly and potentially devolve into panic.

Yet another picture is provided in the Gemara, Sanhedrin 17a, in Rashi’s comments on the text. Here it is suggested that they might have been afraid of drawing blank lots and being humiliated. However, the two blank lots were still in play and were drawn by others, so Eldad and Meidad were included in the 70 elders by default, that is, by their absence. According to other readings, G-d did indeed insure their inclusion as a reward for the humility they exhibited by staying back.

So which reading is correct? Needless to say, we cannot know with certainty. At best, we can learn the various options and choose the one that makes the most sense or leave the question open ended. Often the one we individually choose to accept will be reflective of our own understanding and leaning regarding such matters more than an objective perspective (if there is such a thing) on what occurred.

As the text continues and Yehoshuah is so protective of Moshe, wanting to imprison Eldad and Meidad, Moshe responds by challenging Yehoshuah’s claim, explaining that it is G-d who metes out prophetic skill, and that in G-d doing so, Moshe does not suffer in the least by others having and using these G-d given powers and capacities. In this reasoning, Moshe clearly comes to the defense of Eldad and Meidad, confirming and strengthening some of these commentaries cited in this examination of the narrative.

There is clearly an important lesson here. How many times in our lives do we pass judgment on what we hear or see regarding something, while not knowing the entire story, what led up to it, various possibilities regarding motivations, and the such? Do we stop to ask for the back story or just react? This is so human – to pass such judgment --- it’s the way we humans are made. Yet we learn in our Jewish texts, specifically Pirke Avot, 1:6:

ו.... יְהוֹשֻֽׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר: עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת.

Yehoshua son of Pirchiah said, Do a lot, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person by giving them the benefit of the doubt.

What do we learn here about the snap judgments we make every day in so many cases? How much of the story do we really know? Specifically, what were the motivations of Eldad and Meidad? How will you choose to read this situation and others that occur? This is undoubtedly why this passuk from Pirke Avot is my daughter Talie’s theme in going through life.

Now, we turn our attention to the second story. Miriam speaks out first (according to the commentaries’ reading of the first word of the story, Vatidaber) and complains to her brother about Moshe and the situation concerning his wife, Tzipora. In reading the first three verses of BaMidbar, chapter 12, there is not an English teacher I know who would not seriously red pen this narrative as not making any sense. The verses appear and are translated as follows:

א וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַֽהֲרֹן֙ בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָֽאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח כִּֽי־אִשָּׁ֥ה כֻשִׁ֖ית לָקָֽח: ב וַיֹּֽאמְר֗וּ הֲרַ֤ק אַךְ־בְּמֹשֶׁה֙ דִּבֶּ֣ר יְהֹוָ֔ה הֲלֹ֖א גַּם־בָּ֣נוּ דִבֵּ֑ר וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יְהוָֹֽה: ג וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה עָנָ֣ו [עָנָ֣יו] מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה: ס

And Miriam spoke out, and Aaron (joined her) against Moshe, about the situation regarding the Kushite woman that he took because Moshe took a Kushite woman as a wife. And they said (Miriam and Aaron), Does G-d speak only with Moshe, doesn’t G-d speak also with us? And G-d heard this. Now, the man Moshe was the most humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth.

As the narrative continues, G-d calls all of the sibs together and explains that G-d’s relationship with Moshe is indeed different than any other. G-d goes on to explain to Aaron and Miriam that they may not have the entire story and therefore should practice a bit of “giving the benefit of the doubt” because Moshe indeed is more involved in his relationship with G-d than any other person.

So, now we need to return back to the beginning of this narrative. Miriam complains and then Aaron joins her (note the use of the singular “she spoke” in verse 1 and the plural “they spoke” in verse 2. Many looking at this text assume that Miriam is crying out about the woman that Moshe marries. Could this be an indictment against intermarriage? Here is a great example of drawing conclusions in one context through the lens of another context. Clearly, one can understand how one could arrive at this possible option living in today’s reality. However, the commentators move in a completely different direction and in so doing, help us make sense of these three disjointed statements. Let’s try to look at this story again, adding some contextual comments according to the commentaries that help us through this text:

And Miriam spoke out, and Aaron (joined her) against Moshe, about the situation regarding the Kushite woman that he took because Moshe took a Kushite woman as a wife and Miriam felt that Moshe was not treating his Kushite wife properly.. And therefore they said (Miriam and Aaron), Does G-d speak only with Moshe, doesn’t G-d speak also with us? After all, we too have family obligations and we treat them well even though we also have a relationship with G-d. Who does Moshe think he is, ignoring his wife like that? And G-d heard this and had to set Miriam and Aaron straight by explaining, “Now, the man Moshe was the most humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth.”

So, claim the commentaries, the problem is the situation of the marriage and Moshe fulfilling his responsibilities to his wife, not the matter of who he married and her grouping. In supporting this reading, Rashi claims that the word Kushite referred to the incredible beauty of Tzipora, and is repeated to indicate that she was indeed both a beautiful woman physically, and even more important, her beauty was inside as well, regarding her wonderful personality. So Miriam knows, as only a woman would in those days given their social structures and circles, that Moshe is neglecting his duties as a husband in caring for and being affectionate with Tzipora. How does she know this? Clearly the text does not give us any information regarding this.

So we turn to the commentaries and the Midrash. In the Midrash, we read that Miriam noted that Tzipora was not wearing the bracelets that women were often given by their husbands as a token of affection. Further, Rashi amplifies the point that Miriam was speaking in a corrective manner to Moshe because during the incident with Eldad and Meidad, Miriam and Tzipora were standing together and Tzipora, according to Rabbi Nathan, bemoaned the potential lot of Eldad’s and Meidad’s wives if in fact they were to prophesize, based on her own experience of so little contact with Moshe. Miriam, according to this reading, saw and related to the pain of her sister-in-law and did not mean to disgrace Moshe in any way, but to help rectify a potential problem in his home life. So Rashi proceeds to explain that the use of this story as a lesson in Lashon HaRa is as follows: If Miriam is punished in spite of her positive intentions (she does get that attack of leprosy, you know!) then even more so, when one causes harm and disgrace through their intentional use of words, they are to be harshly punished.

Now, in the third verse above, G-d comes to Moshe’s defense (and will continue to do so as the narrative moves on) and explains that Miriam and Aaron may not understand the full nature of G-d’s relationship to Moshe. In other words, there is more to the story than one might think at face value.

So, how do we address this problem? We can ask if there are other things that are important to know in a given situation. We may not always understand how and why one acts a certain way, but there may very well be compelling reasons of which we may not be aware. My daughter would say, give everyone the benefit of the doubt and judge them favorably… if we get to judge them at all, that is.

Certainly this sounds great. So in the practical lane in which our lives progress, how do we give others the benefit of the doubt without causing harm to ourselves, enabling destructive behaviors, allowing reasons to become excuses, and so on? Not to mention… we all follow different codes of “what is right” by which we do give the benefit of the doubt…. Clearly a complex situation!

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