Prophecy and other themes in the Portion of Behaalotecha
There is a story told of a great preacher who comes to the middle of the town square, sets up his pulpit and begins preaching to the passersby.
“ This is the word of the lord and I am his prophet.” He concludes after all his preaching is over.
Most of the crowd has by now dispersed, except for a youngster staring at him. He turns to him and asks,” Please tell me, young man, what is the way to the train station.?”
The kid looks at him and says, “ Mister, you ain’t no prophet. You don’t even know your way to the train station!”
There are several intriguing themes in this weeks reading, and , following on the heels of Shavuot, and the central theme of revelation, prophecy appears in a very unusual format in this reading.
This reading starts out very dramatically and on a high note, or on a loud trumpet blast.
There is the final act of preparation of the portable Sanctuary and the last acts of dedication of Kohanim. We are then given the orders to march and the trumpets blast to give orders to start. We are ready to march on to the Promised land.
And for the next several chapters, it is all downhill from this point!
The people complain and plague breaks out, They complain again about food and they get too much food until they are sick. Moses appoints Seventy leaders, but two are left in camp, who begin to prophecy and Joshua now thinks it is a rebellion. Finally even Miriam and Aaron give Moses their share of complaining about his new wife, an Ethiopian. That is all only in this portion. We still have to deal with the spies and with the rebellion of Korach. Oh My!
Up to the middle of this portion,at the end of Chapter 10. the Book of Numbers is all sweetness and light up to this point; from this moment on, it is 38 years of turmoil in the desert.
Why the drastic change?
The verse that describes the start of the march mentions that the children of Israel march away from Sinai for three days before they take a rest. Three days—no stop.Why so fast? Why so far?
What are they leaving? Mt Sinai. After two years, they want to get away as fast as possible. As they move away from Sinai, what do they recall ? The fish and leeks of Egypt.
What does Egypt mean? Indulgence. Egypt is also, in Biblical imagery, a land of sexual indulgence--all is permitted. True, we were slaves, but we could do anything we wanted in our spare time.
What do the children of Israel say of Egypt," We could eat Hinam--free of charge. " Could they mean literally “for free”? Afterall, they were slaves—they worked hard for their living. Rather, they meant, free of paying the price of Torah, free of obligations, free to live without any bounds or rules.
Mt Sinai is obligation, it is self-discipline. Is it any wonder that the children of Israel marched three days running without a break to get away?
That is what a child does, when he is afraid of being caught by his parents.
Now, a little aside. What marks this break. Just as the march begins, we are introduced to the words recited as the ark is moved forward in travel and then , as it is returned to the ark at the halt.
“Vayehi binsoa haron”- when the ark moved forward read it and " Uvnucho yomar"-- when it comes to rest.
These is a call to arms, and clearly, in ancient times, when the children of Israel went to war, they took the ark into battle with them- hence- vayafutzu oyvecha--may your enemies be scattered. In common practice, this is universal--that a model or representation of the gods is taken into battle.
In antiquity, these were words of war. From antiquity onward, however, it has been used to accompany the Torah around the congregation. The battle is no longer one of swords, but one of spirit, the word of the Lord against the idolatry of society.
Now, I want to draw your attention to one unusual note.
To mark the text, we have 2 inverted nuns—נ נ . It is like a " parenthesis" . The Talmud informs us that these letters ( parasimana) were placed here to indicate that this is not the original position of this verse. It is there to divide the two halves of the book of numbers, which are so different in tone.
The Rabbis long ago suggested that our Sefer Torah did not include all of the wisdom of ancient Israel, that perhaps , instead of the Five Books of the Torah, we should speak of the Seven Books of the Torah. The book of Numbers and other books make reference to books lost to us--" Book of the wars of the Lord": or the Book of Yashar. This phrase, like several others recorded in the Bible , is a remnant of lost works of the children of Israel.
So it is clear that we have here the true start of the book” Bamidbar”-in the Wilderness, the accounts of the actual; trek across the Sinai whereas up till now, it has been the Book of Numbers—counting and accounting , positioning and preparation. The inverted nuns served to highlight the break of the themes.
Now as to my preacher in the very opening comments. Where does a prophet come in to this portion?
Moses sets aside 70 elders to held in leading the people. While he is with them, they are in a state of prophetic trance, which then ends as abruptly as it starts. Two others had not gotten to join with Moses at that time, yet they simultaneously begin to prophecy. Joshua would have them arrested--they are potential rebels--but Moses declares, would that all the children of Israel were prophets so that the spirit of God rests on them.
The 70 elders are prophets, but there are prophets, and then there are Prophets.
The Bible describes different types of prophets.
There is an ancient kind of prophet, similar to the Shaman in other societies, or like an Oracle at Delphi, that enter into a trance and mumble strange predictions. They are often called “ Ecstatic” prophets, like these seventy, or like King Saul-- mumbling and dancing in a trance. They are in a state of ecstacy, but we have no content, no teaching , no moral or mystical message for the people. Very often, the word used in this regard is " Hitnabey" to put oneself into a state, in order to receive a prophecy. These prophets appear in the very early periods of ancient Israel. That is what we had with the 70 elders, including the two outside. Moses wishes the people could all be like them ,but we see that Moses is very different—For them , the spirit of God appears and then, disappears. Moses is different.
In the early years of the Kings of Israel, we have Action-prophets-- types like Elijah, or Elisha. They are movers and shakers, they are involved with intrigue in the court, they make and break kings and priests, they engage in active battle against idolatry, they advise the kings. However we know little of their message. There are short quotations of belief and faith, but their main stay is action. In this sense, Moses is the prophet of action, but he is more so.
In none of these cases, however, is the prophet a fortune-teller. There is a different word used for what we think of as prophet, on who foretells the future or the unknown—that is a “ Roeh”, one who sees.
Finally, the prophets that we call our “Neviim” , come to replace the prophets of action. As the kingdoms mature and decline, we have the prophets as the teachers and thinkers of Israel, the prophets we call the “Literary prophets”. True, they feel a spirit resting on the them, true, they take action, but they are now, first and foremost, the teachers of Israel. They put down in writing their visions and concepts. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 , the lesser prophets, not because they were inferior, but because their writings were much shorter. Each one is very different from the other and each one preaches according to his background and personality.
Now, the last section comes to clarify why Moses is Moses.
Miriam and Aaron complain to Moses about “a Kushite Woman”. It is unclear what it means and Moses is unnerved by the complaint. He has been bearing the burden of a nation of “kvetches” and now his own brother and sister let him have it Moses is too modest and God must intervene.
It is hear that we have a definition of Prophet in its highest format. To others, God may speak in a vision or a dream. Moses is “God’s faithful servant.: “ I speak to him person to person, not in visions, not in riddles. "We have a definition now, of the ultimate prophet who is in direct communion with God. We are now defining the teachings of Moses as the foundation of all the prophets and teachers to come.
Now, I would like to ask, what has happened to the spirit of prophecy? The Rabbis defined it as ended with the Bible. In their day, the only prophets left were fools and children. Authority is now given to the teacher of wisdom and no one is to speak for God, not even if a voice calls out from heaven.
However, there is a statement by Hillel, that now gives us the insight in to the idea of prophecy. He is asked a difficult question, and he answers, "Let us see what the people do. For if they are not themselves prophets, they are themselves the descendants of the prophets."
Being attuned to the will of God Is not something reserved for one or two, but an inheritance of the entire community of Israel.
Our challenge for ourselves, as Jews today, is to ask ourselves, are we still the children of Prophets, are we still the community of vision that we at one time hoped to be?