In this week’s Sedra the people craved meat and made a negative comparison between the conditions in the wilderness and those in Egypt especially when it came to food. In Egypt they moaned that they had had fish and enjoyed the melons, leeks, onions and garlic of that land. While in the wilderness all they had to eat was manna. Their negative attitude caused Moses to despair and he complained of having to look after the whole people as if they were infants.
‘Did I conceive this whole people or did I give birth to it, that You should say to me, ‘carry them in you bosom, as a nurse carries a baby’ (Numbers 11:12).
God responds to Moses by sharing his gift of prophesy with the seventy elders at the Tent of Meeting, however this did not last, because although they prophesied once they did not do so again. However two, Eldad and Medad, prophesied in the camp. Matis Weinberg has pointed out that their names mean ‘to the nipple’ and ‘from the nipple’ which is another indication of the infantile requirements of the people.
Joshua wanted to imprison them, but Moses responded by expressing the desire that the whole people could be prophets, that is that they could be guided by their God-given awareness and understanding and not always come to him for guidance and to complain. As matters stood at this point the people were like suckling babies, totally dependent on Moses and his direct access to God. From now on the theme of the people being able to cope without Moses is played out in a series of leadership struggles and challenges. And in the Book of Deuteronomy a system of self-regulating justice is set up for observance of the laws and tithes as well as a national system of leadership which was designed to enable the people to stand on their own feet, just as we have to.
God responded to the people’s cry for meat and gave it to them but in such a way that it became nauseating to them and an illness resulted, so that people who had been craving meat died.
This seems like a very harsh response unless the negative comparison between their circumstances in the wilderness and those they had experienced in Egypt are taken into account. This concern undermines their role as the people of Israel and appears to be echoed in Aaron’s and Miriam’s speaking out against Moses when he married a Cushite woman. They said, ‘was it only to Moses that God spoke? Did He not speak to us as well?’ (Numbers 12:1-2)
It is not clear what their objection was based upon, and what was wrong with Moses’ marital relationship is not important and is best left unclear. The real problem in the comparison made between Moses and his siblings when they ask ‘has not God spoken with us as well’ is that they imply that they are significant in their own right and should not from this failings.
In this act of negativity, even spite Aaron and Miriam express a sense of their own superiority over Moses, just as the people expressed a belief in the superiority of Egypt over the wilderness.
The three siblings, Moses, Miriam and Aaron were then suddenly told by God to go to the tent of meeting: and God descended in a cloud and called Miriam and Aaron outside. Rashi comments that this was in order that he should not hear his praises. God tells them that no other prophet is comparable to Moses. So we appear to be being told that although short of the standing of Moses the two siblings are indeed prophets.
When the cloud lifts Miriam is revealed to be effected by the Biblical condition of tzarat. At this point the purpose of Moses being on hand becomes apparent. Aaron appeals to his younger brother to heal Miriam, and Moses in turn asks God to heal her. ‘Please, Lord, heal her now’. Miriam was healed but had to wait for seven days of purification and healing to pass outside the camp before she could re-enter it. And we are informed that that the people did not move on until Miriam was gathered in; since we learnt earlier in the Sedra that the people journeyed whenever the cloud was lifted it must also be the case that God waited until Miriam was able to rejoin the community.
Although both Aaron and Miriam were prophets neither of them spoke to God, neither of them asked for healing. Miriam had been totally silenced not only here but also thereafter in Torah. (We only hear later a brief half verse reference to her death). And Aaron only feels able plead for his sister though Moses and not directly with God.
Perhaps this is a measure of the extent of their, and especially of Miriam’s, humiliation.
It gives us pause to consider the dangers of making negative comparisons in our speech, either against ourselves or against others. Such speech is injurious not only because of the substance of what is said but also because it diverts us from our own purposes and activities.
In his tales of the Hassidim Martin Buber tells the story that soon after the death of Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn the rabbi of Kotzk asked one of his disciples, ‘what was most important to your teacher?’. The hasid thought for a moment and then answered, ‘whatever he was doing at that moment’.
It is impossible to be fully engaged with what you are doing if you are busy looking over your shoulder at what others have or might be doing. Making such comparisons prevents us from growing into what we might otherwise become.
Student rabbi Adam Frankenberg, to be ordained in July 2015
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.