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Parashat beHa’alot’cha 5772 – 06/06/2012

Parashat BeHa’alot’cha

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Hashem said suddenly (pit’om) to Moshe, to Aharon and to Miriam… (12:4)

And the sense of the word pit’om is that they were not, at that moment, concentrating their thoughts and directing themselves for prophecy … For in the opinion of the commentators [pit’om] refers to something that one did not think about, from the root peti / fool. … our master  Moshe was fit for prophecy at all times, and his mind was prepared to become attached to the Glorious Name at every moment… (Ramban ad loc, Artscroll translation)

If your prophet shall be, Hashem, in a vision I make myself known to him, in a dream I speak with him.  Not so is My servant Moshe; in My entire house he is the trusted one.  Mouth to mouth I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles, at the image of Hashem does he gaze. (12:7-8)

Our Parashah contains quite a bit of interesting material regarding prophecy.  There is the passage where Moshe’s level of prophecy is contrasted with that of Aharon and Miriam, and by extension all other prophets, from which I have quoted above.  In addition there is the passage of the naming of the 70 Elders of Israel (the Sanhedrin), and their level of prophecy, and in the same passage, Eldad and Medad, two Elders who were not selected for the Sanhedrin nonetheless prophesy “in the camp.”  This particular passage concludes with Moshe’s fervent wish that “would all the people of Hashem would be prophets and that Hashem would put His spirit on them [all].”  So what is prophecy that it should be “a consummation devoutly to be wished”?  This fool will rush in where angels have feared to tread; please bear with me.

First, some background.  The incident where Aharon and Miriam speak against Moshe immediately follows the passage about Eldad and Medad.  What is the sub-plot?  The Midrash fills us in: Tzipporah, Moshe Rabbeinu’s wife, was observing Eldad and Medad and offhandedly comments to Miriam that she felt sorry for their wives – now that the men were prophets they would no longer be having marital relations.  Miriam goes to Aharon and says “Wait a minute – you and I are prophets just like Moshe, yet we still have marital relations!  What’s with him?”  Then Gd speaks to them “suddenly,” that is, when they were unprepared for prophecy; they then have to hurry up and purify themselves in order to receive the Divine Presence.  That such preparation is necessary, in particular after marital relations, is derived from the instructions given to the nation immediately before the Revelation at Mt. Sinai (when all were raised to the level of prophecy): Keep yourself in readiness for three days.  Do not come near a woman. (Shemot 19:15)  Since a man’s seed makes both himself and the woman tamei (ritually impure), abstinence from this most intense bodily sensation appears to be a requirement for the purest spiritual experience.  However after the Revelation, Gd tells Moshe to instruct the people to return to their tents (i.e. resume normal family life), while Moshe himself was to come up, alone, to the top of the mountain, where he would receive the Torah from a position closer to Gd than anyone before or since.  He concluded that while the rest of the people were free to resume a normal routine, he was to remain in readiness to receive the Divine Presence at all times.  Hence Tzipporah’s lament, hence Miriam and Aharon’s lashon hara, and hence Gd’s lesson to Miriam and Aharon.

Now Ramban, in analyzing the term “suddenly” focuses on the issue of preparedness.  Apparently all prophets except Moshe Rabbeinu had to go through some process of preparation before they were able to receive prophecy.  In the prophetic books of Tanach there are some hints as to what kind of preparations might be required.  Thus, there are some cases recorded where music was used to create a settled atmosphere for the prophet.  There were definitely schools of prophecy (b’nei han’vi’im lit. “sons of the prophets”) and there may have been individual and/or group meditative exercises (some of which may have been preserved in our esoteric tradition).  According to Ramban, the purpose of this preparation was to “attach [oneself] to the Glorious Name.”  I won’t be such a big fool as to try to define what this means, but it must have something to do with letting the mind settle down and expand, until it is identified with Gd in some way, presumably having to do with the Attribute of Mercy, with which Gd’s Glorious Name is associated.  Since we are finite creatures, this identification is normally foreign to us; if we very occasionally have what has been termed a “peak experience,” where all of a sudden our mind is as if floating in a state that transcends ordinary consciousness and we can do or know or experience anything with crystal clarity, this may be something like what Ramban is talking about.  Those experiences are very rare for most of us, if we have them at all, because our generation is not blessed with schools of prophecy which allow us to “tune up” the functioning of our minds to make the experience common.

Contrast this with Moshe Rabbeinu who lived this kind of “peak experience” 24/7!  Although Ramban says that Moshe’s soul/mind was constantly cleaving to Gd’s Glorious Name, apparently he did have to keep away from activities and perhaps emotions that would disturb this cleaving.  Thus he abstained from normal family life, and one might speculate that at the Waters of Strife (Mei Merivah), where he hit the rock instead of speaking to it, that perhaps his anger disturbed his soul’s equanimity to the point where he lost the full intensity of his connection to the Divine, and therefore couldn’t find the rock to speak to (as the Midrash tells us), and wound up hitting it and therefore not being able to enter the Land of Israel.

Ramban associates the word pit’om / “suddenly” with the word peti, which is usually translated “a fool.”  This is because just as a fool acts without thinking about what he is doing (i.e. without planning ahead and without giving thought to the consequences of his action), so something that “happens” suddenly is done, or is reacted to, without thought or preparation.  Now in our normal state of consciousness this is not a good thing.  If we don’t think about what we are doing we are certainly not going to have, in general, positive outcomes, either for ourselves or for those around us.  However there is another aspect to the idea of not thinking.  We all know people who “think too much.”  We are sometimes made quite aware that there is a limit to our ability to anticipate what is going to happen in the future and to plan for it.  In fact, there is a great value to spontaneity as well as to sober planning, as long as we don’t ”spontaneously” break the boundaries of what is “right and proper in Gd’s eyes.”

“Aye, there is the rub.”  How are we going to avoid acting improperly?  I believe that looking at the word peti from a different angle can give us an idea.  When we become very skilled at something – a sport, a craft, even driving a car, we find that we can perform that skill without much, or any, conscious thought.  I remember driving between Ft. Collins, CO and Fairfield, IA, about 13 hours depending on the traffic (NOT!), and getting out of the car with no memory of the time in between.  My mind was completely elsewhere, yet I was always quite aware of all aspects of the road conditions, the condition of the car, the other traffic (OK, there wasn’t a lot of other traffic in Nebraska), etc.  While the trip might have taken some planning, the driving did not.  I was operating at the peti level, in a good sense. 

I think the same kind of situation obtains when we have truly internalized Torah, when our consciousness has risen to the level Torah observance is supposed to bring us to.  At that point all our action is spontaneously in accord with Torah, in accord with Gd’s Will, of which Torah is the expression.  We no longer have to think about what is right, which in any event is impossible on a moment-to-moment basis.  The Babylonian Talmud has 2711 folio pages, and commentary upon commentary on it.  The greatest Rabbinic scholars have the corpus of Rabbinic literature memorized and more or less at their fingertips, but if they had to reason out each decision from first principles they would be paralyzed completely and unable to accomplish anything; the rest of us would be completely lost.  If this were the case, Jewish Law would be precept upon precept, line upon line (Isaiah 28:13) – in other words, almost totally useless.  As the Bard put it: And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.

Rather, what Torah is asking us to be able to do is to be able to handle any situation, even when it catches us pit’om, with no chance to prepare.  How do we do this?  We do it by preparing ourselves in advance.  This means intensive study until our intuition is attuned with Torah’s sense of right and wrong, but, perhaps more to the point, it means expanding our consciousness so that our individual will is aligned with Gd’s Will.  As long as we see ourselves primarily as separate and individual, our own personal agendas take over and lead us down the path to their fulfillment.  As we grow out of our own small ego-driven mentality and appreciate our infinite underlying nature, our mind spontaneously begins to function from a cosmic perspective, rather than strictly an individual perspective.  At this point we are living Torah, and this is truly A consummation devoutly to be wished!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 1

Rebbe (R. Yehudah haNasi) said:

Which is the straightforward path that a person should choose for himself?

All that is Truth for himself and is acknowledged as Truth by others.

I have translated the Hebrew yashar as straightforward; it has the connotations of honesty and perfection that “straight” by itself doesn’t have; Bereishit is called Sefer haYashar, as it deals with our Patriarchs.  I have translated tiferet as Truth; it is often translated as beauty, and it is the name of the third of the seven “lower sefirot” (Divine emanations) as is associated with Ya’akov, whose characteristic is Truth.  It is the blending and harmonization of the characteristics of Chesed / lovingkindness / Mercy (associated with Abraham) and Gevurah / strength / Judgment (associated with Yitzchak).  As Keats put it, Beauty is truth, truth beauty that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.  Rebbe is not telling us that we need to know Truth – he is telling us that we need to live Truth.  That is all we need to do on earth, and the reward will be both on earth and in heaven.