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Parashat 05/28/2010

Parashat BeHa’alot’cha
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

In honor of the 13th anniversary of Daniel, Eve and Shoshanah’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah

President Obama has just nominated a(nother) Jew to the Supreme Court.  Assuming Elena Kagan is confirmed, the Supreme Court of the US will have 3 Jews and 6 Catholics, and, for the first time ever, no Protestants.  The process of seating the Supreme Court of Israel, as delineated in our Parashah, is somewhat different.  (The process of choosing justices for the Supreme Court of the modern State of Israel is much more convoluted.)

Originally it had been Gd’s plan that Moshe lead the nation by himself.  However when the people clamor for meat and complain about the “insubstantial” manna, Moshe tells Gd (11:11ff):

Why have you done evil to your servant and why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You have put the whole burden of this nation on me?  Did I conceive this whole nation, or did I give birth to it that You should tell me to carry it in my bosom like a nursemaid carries a suckling child, to the Land You promised to their forebears?  … I can’t carry this people by myself, they are too heavy for me!

Moshe Rabbeinu, who transcended the material levels of existence as much as any human being possibly can, is pointing out to Gd that it is simply beyond his ability to relate fully to those who are still much more attached to the material – who demand gross, earthly meat to eat rather than the ethereal, “insubstantial” manna, who are too “heavy” / material for him.  Moshe Rabbeinu needs intermediaries who are spiritual enough that he can relate to them, but are material enough that they can relate to the people.

Gd therefore instructs Moshe (11:16ff):

Gather to me 70 distinguished men from the elders of Israel, that you know are elders of the people and their officers, and take them to the Tent of Meeting and have them stand there with you.  I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the spirit which is upon you and I will place it on them and they will bear the burden of the people with you, and you will not bear it alone.

The word that is usually translated “take” (some of the spirit which is upon you) is difficult.  Onkelos translates it as “to increase,” in the sense that there would now be “more” of the infinite Divine spirit on the people, for, in Rashi’s metaphor, Moshe would be like a candle that can light other candles without itself being diminished.  Other commentators take the word to mean “reduce” in the sense that whatever “spirit” is put on the 70 elders will come at Moshe’s expense; payback if you will for his being unable, or perhaps unwilling, to shoulder the burden by himself.  We will see an echo of this in a few verses when the spirit actually rests on the 70 elders.

Now there are 12 tribes (counting Ephraim and Menashe as 2 and excluding Levi), so if Moshe chose 6 men from each tribe there would be 2 extra.  Not wanting to get involved in voting two of the men off the show, he took 72 slips of parchment, left 2 blank and wrote “elder” on the rest.  He then had a drawing and thereby let Gd select the 70 most suitable men.  He then took them out to the Tent of Meeting (11:24ff):

… and he gathered 70 distinguished men of the elders of the nation and stood them around the Tent.  And H” descended in a cloud and spoke with him [Moshe], and took some of the spirit which was on him and put it on the 70 distinguished elders.  And when the spirit rested on them they prophesied and they did not stop.

In this section the word we have translated “did not stop” (per Onkelos) could also be translated “did not continue.”  In other words there are two opposite traditions: that the 70 elders became permanently invested with prophecy, or the opposite – that it was a one-time, if presumably life-transforming, occurrence.  I believe this echos the two possibilities for the word “take” that we discussed above: Did Gd “take” some of the spirit away from Moshe and put it on the elders, who perhaps were unable to sustain this level of inspiration and only prophesied once, or for a short time?  Or, alternatively, did Moshe’s spirit inspire and ignite the 70 elders so that they became full-fledged prophets in their own right?  I don’t know the answer, but let’s look at one other related incident and then consider some remarkable comments by Malbim that address this very issue.

Two men remained in the camp.  The name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Meidad.  And the Spirit rested on them and they were among the ones who were written, but they didn’t go out to the Tent; instead they prophesied in the camp.  And the youth ran to Moshe and told him: “Eldad and Meidad are prophesying in the camp!”  Yehoshua bin Nun, Moshe’s attendant, spoke up and said “My Master Moshe, shut them up!”

The commentators differ as to why Eldad and Meidad remained in the camp.  The verse notes that they were among those who were “written,” and this is taken to mean they were among the 72 (6 x 12) men selected for the Sanhedrin lottery.  Some say they were the two who were not selected, and some say they were so humble that they selected themselves out and remained in the camp on their own volition.  In any event they were vouchsafed the gift of prophecy, and they continued to prophesy.  The Midrash states in fact that the content of their prophecy was “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will lead Israel into the Land.”  This is in fact why Yehoshua asked Moshe to shut them up (either meaning of the English phrase would be correct – to silence them or to incarcerate them – although generally a different term is used, at least in Rabbinic Hebrew, for “to silence somebody”).

Here is what Malbim has to say about this incident.  The 70 Elders who went out to the Tent of Meeting were able to prophesy, but only because Moshe was, as it were, a pipeline (tzinor) for prophecy.  Their prophecy was dependent on his, and perhaps that is why Malbim appears to favor the translation “they did not continue to prophesy.”  Eldad and Meidad, on the other hand, were at a higher level of prophecy – they had their own “pipeline” and therefore their prophecy was independent of Moshe, at least compared to the 70 Elders.  And this is why, according to Malbim, they were the ones who were able to prophesy about Moshe Rabbeinu’s future.  The principle is that one cannot prophesy about oneself.  Since the 70 Elders were dependent on Moshe for their spiritual gifts, they had the same restrictions as Moshe had.  Eldad and Meidad were not so constrained.  Yehoshua did not recognize this, and therefore asked Moshe to stop them from prophesying.  Malbim explains that since the 70 Elders’ prophetic gift was dependent on Moshe, Moshe could turn the spigot on or off at will so to speak.  Such was not the case with Eldad and Meidad.

Malbim has given us a fascinating insight into prophecy and its interaction with free will.  Each of us is given challenges or tests in our life; if we pass them we move on to higher spiritual levels.  These tests give us the opportunity to bring into actuality various spiritual strengths that otherwise would remain only potentials.  But in order for these challenges to be real tests, we must not know the outcome.  If Abraham had known when he set out to sacrifice Isaac that an angel would stay his hand and that a ram would be provided as a substitute, there would hardly have been any suspense involved.  Abraham would not have developed the quality of strength (gevurah) to balance his giving nature (chesed).  If you bring a crib sheet into a test, it’s no longer a test.  Even the greatest of prophets has areas of potential that have to be actualized, and consequently must face tests and challenges.  We will read about several of Moshe Rabbeinu’s challenges over the next several Parshiot.  If, through his prophetic gift, he knew the result of these tests, they would not have been tests at all, and their purpose would have been vitiated, at tremendous loss to both Moshe personally, and to Israel and to the world as a whole.

Gd has given each of us free will – that is, the ability to make moral choices in every situation.  It is our privilege and responsibility to use that free will to advance the purpose of Creation, by discerning and carrying out Gd’s Will at every juncture.  But this offering, as with any offering in the Torah, must be freely given to Gd; cheating on our tests is not allowed!

Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 4

[Rabban Gamliel] used to say: Make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will. Negate your will before His Will, so that He will negate the will of others before your will.

While we in our generation may be at the level where we have to choose whether or not to do Gd’s mitzvot at all, this is certainly not the level of which Rabban Gamliel speaks.  Rather he is referring to a higher level, a level where we perform the mitzvot because we have totally internalized the idea that it is for this purpose that we were created.  It is almost as if we become an extension of Gd, and it is impossible to transgress anything that Gd wants us to do.  A personal example:  When I lived in St. Louis I had to get up at about 5 AM to make it to the daily morning minyan.  I really enjoyed the davvenning so I got up early and went every day.  One cold winter day I really had to drag myself out of bed and out to the car to get to the synagogue on time.  When I got there I realized that I had reached a different level in this particular mitzvah performance.  Before I had gone to minyan because it was my will.  From that day on, I went because it was Gd’s Will!