Dvar Torah on Parashat Beha’alotkha
Rabbi Chayyim G.Z. Solomon
The Whispering Campaign
Our sedra gives us three very puzzling vignettes, back to back. Bemidbar chapter 11 begins thusly:
“Vayy’hee ha`am k’mithon’neem, r`a b’oznay Hashem - and the people were like murmurers, evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger was kindled. The fire of the Lord burned amongst them, and devoured (those) at the boundary of the encampment.” (Bemidbar 11:1)
This is remarkable, as generally when such devouring fires issue forth, action and consequence occur somewhat near the center of the camp. Also, when the people complained, how was it that the murmurs were heard by God, but perhaps not by Moshe? Further, the actual complaint is not recorded.
In a curiously connected report, verses 4 and 5, we have more complaints.
“V’hasaphsuph asher b’qirbo, And the ‘asaphsuph’ that was among them had craved cravings; and the children of Israel returned to weeping, saying: Who will provide us flesh to eat! We remember the fish, which we would eat in Egypt for nothing (chinam); the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic...And Moshe heard the people weeping.
The ‘asaphsuph’, frequently rendered ‘mixed multitude’, is a puzzler. So to the complaint of the Children of Israel - first, they ask for meat, but then ‘fondly’ remember the fish and vegetables they ate ‘for free’ in Egypt. What does ‘free’ mean here? The Israelites were slaves, after all! At the end of the chapter, God’s anger is again kindled against the People, and God strikes those that lusted and meat-eaters, all the People, with a very great plague. Interestingly, it is only those who lusted whom Scripture records are there buried.
So ends chapter 11. Chapter 12 picks up straightaway with yet another notable vignette. Miryam and Aaron speak against Moshe. First they complain regarding Moshe’s Kushite wife, though the specific issue is not mentioned. Then, they turn right around and raise a complaint that can really only be taken as criticizing Moshe as arrogant, “Has the Lord indeed only spoken through Moshe? Has he not also spoken through us?” God hears (like the first vignette) and God’s anger is kindled against Miryam and Aaron (as in both previous vignettes). Here though, only Miryam is punished, and even so, only with tsara`at, not death. Why is only Miryam punished? And why is the punishment not death?
The trope ‘yichar aph’, rendered, ‘anger was kindled’ when applied to God with respect to the `Am, the People, appears in Shmot 32 (the Golden Calf), Bemidbar 25 (Ba`al Peor), and foretold in Devarim 6, 7, 11 and 29. In each of these instances idolatry is the relevant transgression. In our sedra, the anger of the Lord is kindled against the people, but idolatry is not clearly the transgression. Our sedra appears to be the only outlier in this pattern, though Moshe applies the trope ‘yichar aph’ to God when recounting in Bemidbar 32 the incident of the Spies (Bemidbar 14). Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 1.36) would have us categorize all such usages of this trope applied to the People as caused by the sin of idolatry. How are we to understand Rambam’s required classification?
In the second pericope we’ve studied, the phrase ‘zakharnu, et haddaga, asher nokhal b’mitsrayim, chinam, we remember the fish, which we would eat in Egypt for nothing’ certainly could do for some unpacking. What is this ‘chinam’, generally rendered ‘for free’, or ‘for nothing’? Sinat Chinam - baseless or causeless hatred, is a phrase with which we are all familiar, unfortunately. What is the ‘chinam’ of our verse meant to inform? Yoma 75a would interpret chinam here as free from the obligations of mitswoth, specifically with respect to physical immoralities, for which ‘fish’ must serve as some manner of euphemism. Sifre Bemidbar 67 is explicit in this regard, that ‘chinam’ in this verse is to be understood as ‘free from the commandments’. God’s anger is kindled against the people, for an act signifying a desire to shake off the yoke of Torah. The implication of Rambam’s classification is staggering.
In the parashah following, Shelach L'kha, Rashi summarizes the Sifre and Sifri on Bamidbar 15:22, which I will bring in full here (translation according to H. Sassoon)
If you unwittingly fail to observe... This speaks of idolatry. You say, "Idolatry, but could it not speak of any commandment in the Torah?" Scripture continues, "If this was done unwittingly through the inadvertence of the community." Here Scripture refers to one single commandment, which commandment must surely be idolatry. You say, "Idolatry, but could it not be any commandment in the Torah?" Scripture says, "If you unwittingly fail to observe all the commandments." All the Commandments must refer to that same single commandment. A person who transgresses all the commandments casts off the yoke, annuls the covenant, and flagrantly defies Torah. Which single commandment would a person, by transgressing it, be also casting off the yoke annulling the covenant and flagrantly defying the Torah? That commandment is idolatry.
The implication of Rambam’s classification: Just as in Sifre, that Idolatry is made equivalent to casting off the yoke and denying Torah, so too the converse: casting off the yoke of the commandments, denying Torah, these are acts to be understood as one and the same: as Idolatry.
1.(idiomatic) A method of persuasion in which damaging rumors or innuendo are deliberately spread concerning a person or other target, while the source of the rumors tries to avoid detection.
In our third pericope, the exact subject of Miryam’s calumny is almost immaterial. That Miryam could be criticizing Moshe for separating from his wife, on account of concerns over ritual purity vis a vis a perceived requirement for prophesy, well, that would be a textbook example of lashon harah. Onqelos’ understanding of the word ‘Kushite’ as ‘beautiful’ is in consonance with Chazal’s interpretation of Miryam’s actions as in sympathy with a neglected wife, as the excuse for this criticism. On the other hand, the possibility that Miryam is exhibiting color-consciousness would be even worse. What is curious and quite material is that it is clear from the language that Miryam was the primary speaker of the first complaint (vat’daber, not vay’dabru), and that it was God, not Moshe, that ‘heard’ (parallel to the first pericope).
1. An onomatopoeia is a word that imitates or suggests the source of the sound that it describes.
So now, what do we make of the ‘asaphsuph’? The difficulties with identifying asaphsuph as ‘elders’, ‘strangers’, ‘foreigners’ has been dealt with elsewhere and need not be repeated here. We merely must construct an alternative hypothesis. For that, though, we have really no guidance from Tanakh itself, for this is an example of a hapax legomenon, a word that appears in Tanakh only this once, so no contextual hints as to its meaning may be drawn from other instances. The word itself is perhaps a quadriliteral, with a root samekh-peh-samekh-peh. ‘Saph-saph’. Even if not, it is still very similar to such words as
gimgum (גמגום) stuttering
tzichtzooach (צחצוח) polishing
tiphtooph (טפטוף) dripping
shifshoof (שיפשוף) rubbing, and of course
baqbooq (בקבוק) a bottle (what is the sound of liquid pouring from a bottle?)
We’ve a word in English
1. The sound of whispering
Perhaps the very word used to label these pestiferous miscreants itself is an onomatopoeia?
The pattern begins to come together. These three vignettes, though not a re-telling of the same story, use several similar devices to tie them together. In the first pericope, no one really spoke out loud, and the complaint itself was so immaterial it wasn’t even recorded. It was those who were not central to the camp, those on the ‘outskirts’ bore the brunt of God’s kindled anger. These, perhaps, were the people on the edge, whispering. Whatever they were whispering, it was evil enough to warrant death. In the second, the asaphsuph, the whisperers, goaded the People into their weeping. The People’s complaints themselves seem logically unconnected, as if the first was merely a pretext for the second. In their complaint, however, they rebel against God, throwing off the yoke of Torah in a baseless act of disloyalty. God’s anger is kindled, yet the worse punishment seems to be attached to the whisperers. In the third and final pericope, Miryam goads Aaron with a primary complaint that seems unspecific as to its nature (parallel to the first vignette) and unconnected to the secondary (parallel to the second vignette). The secondary complaint does itself smack of an act of disloyalty against Moshe, the most humble of men, though it is God who seems to take it personally. And who is punished? It is Miryam, the whisperer, the instigator.
So now what is left to us is to understand the severity of God’s response in the first two pericopes. The third is easily understood as a lesson against one of several possible variations of lashon hara; Chazal and later commentators all seem quite comfortable with tsara’at as the appropriate punishment. Miryam as the whispering instigator gives us a key to understanding the first two. (Perhaps as a tool to strengthen the connection between the second and third pericopes Scripture uses as a play on words the root asph, gather, to describe how Miryam is to return to the camp after her seven day exile, instead of several more natural words, e.g. ‘return’, ‘enter’, ‘come in’.) Rambam would have us interpret these first two pericopes as instances of idolatry. How so? Our other clue is the Report of the Spies. A principle message of the spies was that of God’s implied inability to see the People of Israel successfully through the settlement of Canaan. Indeed, echoes of ‘Who can provide us meat’ are heard. The message is clear. Denying the omnipotence of God, ‘shorting his hand’ and through that pretext seeking to divest oneself of the yoke of Torah is no other sin than that of idolatry. Underhanded disloyalty towards Moshe is bad enough to warrant tsara`at. Whispering others into disloyalty towards God will surely bring the severest consequences as the instigation of idolatry.
There is no middle ground between the genuine faith of Caleb and Yehoshua and the rebellious idolatry of the spies, whisperers and goaders. Ours is to choose the path of genuine faith and loyalty to Torah.
Rabbi Chayyim G.Z. Solomon, Ph.D.
 Destination Torah, Isaac S.D. Sassoon, pp 221-223
For immediate release - March 25, 2010
Passover Program at the W. T. Bland Library
If you have ever wondered what goes on at the Seder dinner and why it is important to the Jewish faith than plan to come to our library’s Passover Program on Thursday, March 25 at 4:00pm. Rabbi Geoffrey Solomon of the Traditional Congregation of Mount Dora will be conducting as he calls it “Seder as dinner theatre”. You will get to taste some of the traditional Passover foods and find out why and how the tradition started.
Passover, the Jewish festival in celebration of the Jews’ freedom from slavery and flight from Egypt, begins this year on March 29 at sundown. Although traditions vary throughout the world, the basics are as follows. The holiday lasts a total of seven or eight days (depending on where it’s being celebrated) and the first night of Passover begins with a ceremonial dinner, called a Seder, where the story of the exodus is told. The food and wine customs of a given Seder are elaborate, and differ between regions and families. Fundamental to the Seder table is the Seder plate. To find out what is on a Seder plate, show up at the W. T. Bland Public Library in Mount Dora on Thursday, March 25 at 4:00pm.
The Passover Program will be held at the W. T. Bland Public Library located at 1995 N. Donnelly Street in Mount Dora. All Library programs are free and open to the public. For additional information, call (352) 735-7180 option 5.
Why the Jew Believes, and Why the Jew studies
Message from the Rabbi
Why identify oneself in a religious context? Why profess a belief in God? Why limit one’s freedom voluntarily by submitting oneself to laws and morals, secular or religious? Why pay any attention to, let alone study, ‘sacred texts’?
We identify ourselves as Jews. Exactly what that means in anyone’s personal context is, of course, highly subjective. Aspects of this self-identification include identification as one who has faith in the existence, beneficence and justice of the God of Israel, a universal, transcendent and immanent God. Also, one might identify with the history of the People of Israel, from our father Avraham to the modern State of Israel-the sweep of history, the stories, the struggles, all these as part of one’s mental and emotional landscape. The culture might be informative - one is enlivened by the music (even Klezmer), food, dance, language... The liturgical and ritual life of the synagogue gives to some the ultimate expression of who they are as a Jew. Many of our greatest minds defined themselves through study of Torah and Talmud. For them, service to God and living the Jewish ideal meant mastery of our canon.
What justification, then, for religious expression, adherence to external legal and moral dicta, and study of texts?
All of us live according to some value system, whether derived from our parents, our peers, our religious institutions, or even the media, TV, movies, pop music. We might not even know why we think something is important, or something to be avoided. Certainly, modern secular culture has provided us with an individualistic, self-driven value system. A sad result of this system is seen in the rampant misogyny and misanthropy in the music culture - hip hop, rap, and the pop culture as a whole have been targeted constantly by bloggers, columnists, analysts and academicians for the violence, homophobia and objectification of women they promote. Our movies, TV shows and video games provide examples of violence and crime, with little if any discussion of the ramifications; these will by necessity provide models of behavior, shaping our opinions on what is, and is not, acceptable.
Those whose morals and ethics are informed from a religious perspective, are sadly, not free of value systems replete with denigration of women and violence towards one’s fellow. ‘Religious’ men murder ‘abortion doctors’, use rape as tool of war, murder innocent people by blowing themselves up as if they were ‘martyrs’, assassinate heads of state (Sadat, Rabin) whose only crime was to make peace with implacable enemies, march into mosques and gun down those in prayer.
There is a disease shared by both syndromes, Secular and Religious, and that is the objectification and identification of one’s fellow human as ‘other’, as ‘not-oneself’. What is missing, and tragically so when evaluating from the perspective of the Jewish ethos, is the realization of ‘tselem Elohim’, or the image of God, in our fellow human. That this identification could be missing in a ‘religious’ Jew, or any Jew, for that matter, given that the knowledge of Man as created in the image of God, a fundamental, bedrock principle applied to every human, not just ourselves, is shocking and tragic. That this principle should be missing from a secularist creed should not be surprising; this is a Jewish ethic. Even Jews for whom their Judaism is enlivened solely by cultural or ethnic concerns understand ‘tselem Elohim’ at a gut level. So how can a Jew be involved in murder (Amir), fraud and larceny (too much of this coming from up North these days), violence against women - yet be self-identified as ‘religious’, nay, even ‘Orthodox’ (whatever that means) and sometimes claiming that not only does the faith system allow for such, but even demands it?
One key to this deplorable puzzle is the methodology applied to the study of our history, and especially, our canonical texts. Dominant modes of understanding and interpreting our Torah and our Talmud seem to revolve around two distinct and opposing poles. The one, that Torah and Talmud represent the unerring word of God. They are to be studied as a religious duty, and as a source of instruction for correct behavior and belief. Woe to the student, though, who thinks that there is a ‘reason’ implicit in any of the teachings or instructions of Torah or Talmud. For no less a luminary than Rabbi Soloveichik (the Rav), icon of Modern Orthodoxy in the 20th Century, abnegation of self in relation to God is the desired outcome. The act prescribed by Torah is good because God said so; proscribed, because Torah said it was bad. The only moral norm is the obedience to Torah dictates. No other norm exists. According to such doctrine, it is this surrender of the will and intellect that is the ‘holiness’ we are enjoined to attain.
The other pole removes all divine imprimatur from the Torah. Moral norms and ethics contained therein are the product of human reasoning and subject to human critique and modification, if they are to be adopted at all. There is no ‘absolute’ right or wrong, all ethics and morals are situational and subject to alteration as needs see fit. Holiness, if such a term could be used in this context (meaning only, in parallel to the previous, that ultimate state to which Man must strive to attain) is to see the ascendancy of individual human reason and autonomy to the position hitherto reserved for godhead. With no sacred calling, the floodgates of human choice burst open, and by definition there is no ultimate limiter on human action. Duty and obligation are foreign to this paradigm.
That either system can rapidly degenerate into objectification, alienation and violence is left as an exercise for the reader. History and current events provide abundant evidence in this regard.
Sadly, the cure for this syndrome, at least in the realm of Jewish philosophy of ethics, was given explicitly in that self same Torah which the former camp reads without understanding, and the latter, without obligation. For we are commanded, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” What remains to be seen is exactly how this commandment is to be followed.
Kant hints at the solution. “When, therefore, it is said, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ it is not meant, thou shall love him first and do him good in consequence of that love, but you shall do good, to your neighbor; and this your beneficence will engender in you that love to mankind which is the fullness and consummation of the inclination to do good.” And to borrow a trope from Kant, we might also add, “Obedience without understanding is blind, but understanding without fulfillment of duty is empty.”
I will not here debate the merits of ascribing to Torah divine imprimatur. This, to me, is self evident. That such a law code could have been promulgated, where justice is not a function of social standing, where the care of the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger are duties elevated in importance beyond any cultic, ritual, or purely religious requirement - an ethic completely alien to the historical socio-political environment in which it was born, a personal and social system of morals unsurpassed for 3000 years, and unequaled by any other system independent of its influences, smacks of no less than divine inspiration.
Nehama Liebowitz wrote, “do the commandments and study, and you will come to see the pattern and believe...” What is demonstrated here is the need for a ‘spiritual suspension of disbelief’, the modern equivalent of the Na’ase v’Nishmah, “We will Do, and then we will Learn”, that the Nation of Israel so famously promised at the foot of the mountain.
Our Sages of Blessed Memory, all the while they were fulfilling the dictates of Torah, were using hermeneutics and ethical logic to understanding the moral principle underlying each commandment in Torah (a process called Darshina taame lmikra, a processes completely antithetical to the former method of understanding Torah discussed above). Only by understanding the principle behind the law and applying logic and hermeneutics, can the student make determinations on ethical and moral issues not explicitly referenced in the canon.
The other side of the coin is worse than the mere (albeit tragic) incapability of extrapolation to novel situations. Religious obedience as an end to itself opens the door to extremism, fanaticism and violence. Rabbi A.J. Heschel wrote, “Religion is a means, not the end. It becomes idolatrous when regarded as an end in itself. Over and above all being stands the Creator and Lord of history. He who transcends all. To equate religion and God is idolatry. Rabbi E. Shafir once commented in my hearing, “any ritual that does not have a moral dimension leads to avodah zarah (idolatry).”
In order to be ‘holy’, we must have understanding. Rambam wrote, "Holiness is a specific state for which mitswoth driven morality is the basis." Holiness comes with mindful, understanding fulfillment of Torah commandments. Only with understanding can we hope to emulate the patterns of holiness given us in Torah.
Torah wanted us to use our sechel - our smarts and our sense, and to struggle – that is the mitswah – following perfect lines without need for thought merely makes us into angels without free will, or demons plaguing the earth. If we are afraid of hell, then being perfect is necessary. If struggle and comprehension are the purposes, this underlies the system where all comes out well anyway. Mindfulness! And, by the way, since we have Torah, that cannot be a hell.
Morals are not an individual survival trait. Rather, they are a survival trait for a culture or society - morals have no individual context. If we are to have a moral society, however, as it is that human societies are in a constant state of flux, the ethical system it uses must be adaptable.
Holiness is on an individual level, and the moral and ethical function on the communal level. For us, achieving holiness and morality requires identification with God, acceptance of Torah, and understanding of the principles therein. Through the methods that blend faith and logic, as used by our Sages of Blessed Memory, can we avoid the twin evils of fanaticism and social chaos.
That is why we believe, that is why we acknowledge God in our lives, and that is why we study.
Rabbi Chayyim G.Z. Solomon, Ph.D.