Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat, 12th Sivan 5776, 18th June 2016
The tribes are ready to rumble. It is two years and two months since the exodus from Egypt and finally, finally, the caravan is actually headed toward the ultimate goal. In terms of our Torah readings, we have had a break from any untoward behavior on the part of the Israelites since the golden calf fiasco, way back near the end of the book of Shemot. And now, we return to the foibles of the Israelites in the desert with full force.
At the center of the parsha we find three related events. We start with the first outbreak of dissidence in the book of Bamidbar. The nation is complaining. About what? All it says is, And the nation was like complainers. Rabbi David Stav makes a brilliant observation. They were LIKE complainers, he said, because they didn’t have anything to complain about! All their needs were being met. They just felt miserable, perhaps because they were now embarking on the real trek. This meant leaving the vicinity of Egypt and civilization as they knew it, and having to bear the hardships of the real desert.
Now they were being provided for, with water and food (tofu or manna as it was called then), and they had protection from marauders in the form of the holy cloud in the day and the pillar of fire at night. Perhaps, like certain countries where there is cradle to grave socialism and concomitant high rates of suicide, here too, things were too easy. Their complaint upset Moshe terribly.
But he was even more upset by the next round, when the hoi polloi, the nogoodniks who joined in the exodus, began to reminisce about their wonderful life in Egypt. Fish – free! Watermelons, squash, onions, garlic. What’s missing now? Meat! They want meat!
Moshe cannot take it. He has three problems: one, he alone must deal with a bunch of ingrates; two, he alone must deal with the demands of God; and three, he has to deal with the demands of these ingrates! The fact that they’re complaining upsets him, of course, but here we get a lesson in how totally committed to serving the people he was. He feels inadequate because he cannot satisfy their unjustified demand for meat!!! And just to make matters a little worse, this occurs right after Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law (who was of great help earlier), informs Moshe that he is going back to Midian. Moshe really is alone.
The divine response is interesting. God tells Moshe to choose 70 of the most dependable elders and they will be invested with some of Moshe’s holiness and insight. They can now prophesy and they will now bear some of the weight. How much? Not much. So, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that Moshe will no longer feel alone. He FEELS that he can share the burden with others, even though we never see that he does.
At this point we see how wise this decision was. The 70 elders begin to spout prophesy, perhaps a one-time event. But two others who were not among them, Eldad and Medad, also catch a whiff of the spirit and begin to prophesy in the camp. Joshua, Moshe’s aide de camp, is horrified and wants to have them shut up because they are undermining Moshe’s position. Moshe says, What, are you jealous on my behalf? If only all of the people would have God’s inspiration upon them.
I understand and don’t understand Moshe’s reaction. This is Moshe, who just a few paragraphs early was asking God to kill him because he couldn’t bear the weight of this nation – and, subtext, the weight of God on him – and now he is so relaxed that he wants everyone to be a prophet. It’s as though he had some medicinal cannabis in the meanwhile.
Something has changed in Moshe. This seemingly superfluous act of allowing 70 people to prophesy has a strong placebo effect on him. He no longer feels alone. He no longer feels that he is the only one to deal with the problems of the nation – and also the problems of dealing with God!
But what he is proposing with this statement is pure anarchy. Everyone a prophet? Everyone receiving God’s word and relating it to others, who don’t hear because they are receiving their own messages?
Perhaps he is just exaggerating in his statement because he feels so good. But sometimes I feel we are seeing the realization of Moshe’s wish in our lives. How many people in our little country seem to have direct communication with God? According to their statements, God is a regular visitor in their homes and heads. And they preach and they preach and they do not listen to the other prophets who are saying different words of God. Or the words of a different God.
I can’t understand why anyone would want to be at the top of the leadership pyramid in times like ours. In this country, being thanked is often the exception rather than the rule. More worrisome, the people at the top today seem more concerned with keeping their seats than actually doing the right thing for us. And we don’t even know who the gods are from whom they receive their prophecies or directives.
We don’t even have the ability to determine who of these prophets are real and who are false, and which of these prophecies will come true. That’s why we have history – to be able to look back with perfect 20/20 vision and say, Aha! It’s so obvious they should have listened to HIM and not to the others. It was all written on the wall. Where is Daniel when you need him!