My Rambling Take on Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

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‘Numbers’ is a really unfair title for this book. In Hebrew, we call it Bamidbar, ‘In the Desert,’ which captures all the wrenching desperation out of which some of the great spiritual gems of Torah emerge.

There’s also a pun, a typically biblical one which plays midbar ‘desert’ against m’daber ‘speak.’

This diary is kinda all over the place, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.

If Torah teaches us anything, it’s that winning our freedom is easy.

It’s learning to live in freedom that is hard. It feels unbearably hard sometimes, like now.

Israelites in the DesertWe’re two years into our sojourn in the desert, and we have lost simplicity. The baked dirt beneath our feet is stained with the blood of our brothers murdered in the first religious purge (Exodus 32:27-28) and the first gruesome public execution (Leviticus 24:23).

We are utterly reliant on a violent supernatural being whose promises of a peaceful, prosperous home for us all are vague at best. This being has already murdered thousands of us out of sheer anger (Numbers 11:1), and all we have to eat is the same flaky white substance, day in and day out.

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at. (Numbers 11:5-6)

It’s Too Much. It’s Just Too Much.

This is the portion where even Moses loses it.

Moses heard the people weeping with their families, each one at the entrance to his tent. YHWH became very angry, and Moses considered it evil.

Moses said to YHWH, “Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers? Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat.’ Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me.

If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune. (Number 11:10-15)

In the story, G-d talks Moses down by temporarily bringing seventy elders into the sphere of direct divine influence. G-d’s spirit (ruach) settles on them, and they bubble over with the ecstatic, otherworldly kind of speech associated with the Hebrew hitnava’, which is usually translated as ‘prophesying’ but has always been more about truth telling than fortune telling.

A little of that spirit settles unexpectedly on two regular guys, Eldad and Medad, who are living in the vast encampment, and they engage in some ecstatic truth-telling from far outside the Israelite hierarchy.

The text leaves open for us what they said. It leaves quite a bit open. Did G-d mean to make prophets out of them, or was it just spillage? Did they go on prophesying or did they go back to normal like the elders eventually did?

What’s telling is Moses’s reaction when Joshua, his eventual successor, breathlessly tattles on the two quasi-accidental prophets (Numbers 10:29).

Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”

Progressive Jews read this one sentence as a call to radical spiritual egalitarianism, as a clear sign that the age of prophesy couldn’t possibly have ended in biblical times, as our more traditional brothers and sisters insist.

But It’s More Than Just That

As wrenching as it is, with all kvetching and anger and divine temper tantrums, I think this portion, along with all the other stories from the desert, are central to who we are as Jews.

We are the people who bargain with our G-d, who interact with our G-d as co-creators, as crucial players in realizing G-d’s hope for a just, prosperous, and peaceful world.

In story after story, Torah shows us a G-d who needs human beings to talk G-d down from anger, to question G-d’s judgments.

And I’m Just Going to Say It.

I think Torah teaches us that G-d needs us in order to fully understand what love is.

Bamidbar, in the desert, we are at our worst, and G-d is at G-d’s worst. And only when a relationship bottoms out, when we think we are ready to walk away and we don’t, do we understand love’s true dimensions.

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