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Torah Sparks

June 2, 2007 – 16 Sivan 5767

Annual: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 816; Hertz p. 605)
Triennial: Numbers 10:35 – 12:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 826; Hertz p. 613)
Haftarah: Zekhariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 837; Hertz p. 620)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

As our parashah opens, Aaron is commanded about the placement of the seven-branched menorah in the sanctuary. The balance of Chapter 8 is devoted to the purification of the Levites and their initiation into serving in and around the sanctuary.

The Israelites are told that each year, on the anniversary of the first Passover, they are to bring a sacrifice similar to the one brought in Egypt. A question arises about people who find themselves ritually impure – for example, from touching a corpse – and therefore precluded from participation in the ritual of this sacrifice; an alternate procedure for them is outlined.

The Israelites in the desert are to be guided in their travels by a cloud by day; by night a pillar of fire will hover above their encampment. An auditory system for communicating with large numbers of people using trumpets is developed. We read an example of the Israelites’ travel in concert with the cloud. The sanctuary and the ark are always at the center of the camp, whether the Israelites are traveling or at rest. Of special interest are verses 10:35-36, to be proclaimed when the ark was transported. These verses have become a regular part of our liturgy in the Torah processions before and after we read from the Torah.

The Israelites complain about the monotony of their diet of manna; they want meat, and Moses is bitterly disturbed by their constant complaining. God asks Moses to gather 70 elders from among the people, who can help Moses shoulder the load of leadership. These 70 people are endowed with a measure of the divine spirit.

Miriam and Aaron slander Moses in private and a divine punishment ensues. This episode is explored in further detail in Topic #2 below.

Topic #1: Access to the Divine

When Moses found the burdens of solitary leadership difficult to bear, God directed him to gather 70 elders from among the Israelites. These people had a divine experience of some kind, at a location slightly removed from the people at large. However, two of them, Eldad and Medad, had such a contact in close proximity to the people.

Moses was asked about this seemingly scandalous behavior. (Ecstatic religious experience was not expected to take place in the midst of the camp. Moreover, some perceived that this behavior implied that Moses was not uniquely qualified to relate to God in special ways.) Moses responded calmly:

Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them! (Numbers 11:29)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) says that Eldad and Medad were allowed the gift of prophecy because of their modesty. “‘We are not worthy of such greatness.’ God responds, ‘Because of your humility, I shall increase your greatness.’”

In what ways should religious experience be reserved for the select few? In what ways should intensive religious experience be available to all? Are there any prerequisites that might reasonably need to be fulfilled before people can expect to participate in peak religious experiences? Are there qualifications necessary for someone to become a prophet?

In this day of websites and instant video, should we be more leery of people who claim to be prophets? Should a high level of modesty be a requirement of prophecy?

Topic #2: An Incident of Slander

The incident of Miriam and Aaron slandering Moses (12:1-16) is as complex as it is troubling. Although the Torah does not say exactly what was said or the exact nature of the slander (and should we really be so curious to repeat its substance?), nonetheless it is clear that the Torah is not prepared to gloss over this incident. Although the personal dimension of their slander is not clear to us, we do know that Aaron and Miriam were upset that Moses, their younger brother, became known as an outstanding prophet, while they seem barely to merit a footnote.

They said: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:2)

(Note the contrast with Moses’ position on widespread prophesy, quoted in Topic #1 above.) God then addresses Aaron and Miriam directly, making it abundantly clear that his relationship with Moses is far more extensive than anything that they had ever experienced themselves.

The divinely administered punishment for slander was understood to be tzara’at, a skin disease. (Although tzara’at is often translated as leprosy, many scholars today think that a different skin disease is involved.) In the midst of other crises that had befallen the priesthood, it might have been a crushing blow to the institution if Aaron, the high priest, had been stricken with such a disease. While Miriam indeed was stricken, it appears that Aaron’s punishment was that he had to stand by ineffectually and watch his older sister’s suffering. Could it be that with a touch of irony, it was Moses’ concise prayer that brought healing for Miriam, not any action or words by the high priest?

We tend to look at the Torah as a series of self-contained weekly readings. But if we view a larger slice of text, we realize that Chapter 12 (the incident of slander discussed here) is followed immediately by Chapter 13 (which involves the slandering of the Promised Land by 10 of the 12 scouts / spies). We are tempted to ask: Did anyone learn a lesson in Chapter 12? If so, how could the events of Chapter 13 have taken place? (Hint: how might the scouts have rationalized to allow themselves to believe that their slander against the Promised Land bore no resemblance to the slander against Moses?)

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