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Parashat B’ha’alotekha

May 30, 2007

Parashat B’ha’alotekha
By Rabbi Aryeh Meir

In his translation of the Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox introduces this section of Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers) with the title, ‘The Rebellion Narratives.’ The nation, exhausted, hungry (for meat) and thirsty, hurl a series of complaints against their leaders, most harshly against Moses. When the people complain about the quality of the food (since leaving Egypt they had been on a steady diet of Manna in the wilderness), Moses loses it:

Where should I get meat to give to this entire people . . . I am not able, myself alone, to carry this entire people, for it is too heavy for me!

God then tells Moses to gather seventy elders and bring them to the Tent of Appointment and there God will ‘extend from the rushing spirit (ruah) that is upon you and place it upon them; then they will carry along with you the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it, you alone.’ So the spirit rested upon them and ‘they acted-like-prophets, but did not continue.’ The reflexive (hitpa’el) form of the Hebrew verb refers to the act of entering into an ecstatic, trancelike state, a kind of religious fervor.

But two men, Eldad and Meidad, not among the seventy chosen elders, also entered into an ecstatic state and ‘acted-like-prophets in the camp.’ Perhaps, sensing a challenge to Moses’ prophetic position, Joshua tells Moses to restrain them. Moses offers a soft rebuke to his understudy: ‘Are you jealous for me? Would that all the people of YHWH were prophets (nevi’im), that YHWH would put the rush-of-his-spirit upon them!’

Moses shifts the focus from the ecstatic (and thus temporary) prophecy to the more familiar biblical word navi, one who, as Moses himself, is in direct face-to-face connection with God. To Moses spiritual leadership is not the exclusive possession of any one individual or group. Rather, this direct relationship with the divine is open to all. The ideal for Israel is that the nation should strive to become a democracy of the spirit, in which every individual has equal access to the sacred. As classical Judaism emerged out of Biblical Israel, with Torah and commandments replacing animal sacrifice in the Temple Service, the process of spiritual democratization became a real possibility.

We cannot all be prophets, but we have equal access to the most important sources of Jewish spirituality: Torah in its broadest definition, and a life lived in an intimate, ongoing relationship with the Divine. Through sacred learning and living the ruah (spirit) of which Moses spoke can be upon each of us.