שוַיְהִ֤י הָעָם֙ כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים רַ֖ע בְּאָזְנֵ֣י ה׳
Va’yehi ha’am k’mit’onenim ra b’oznei YHVH.
The people took to complaining bitterly before YHVH (Bamidbar 11:1)
After more than a year encamped at Mount Sinai, the time has come for the Children of Israel to march to the Promised Land. Transformed from a throng of refugee slaves, they are now organized into tribes and troops, bound by laws, a newly covenanted community. Their task is to follow the protecting Cloud of the Divine Presence. The Cloud lifts, the Children of Israel break camp, and they follow the cloud three days journey.
And then, they begin complaining. This week’s parsha along with the following three parshiyot vividly describe a series of escalating complaints, betrayals and outright rebellions by the Children of Israel against Moses and YHVH. The outcome of this recalcitrance is catastrophic: instead of entering the Promised Land, the Children of Israel are condemned to 40 years of homeless wandering.
There is nothing dry about these portions. They are filled with high drama, pathos and also humor, and the stories are deeply true about the human condition. They are vividly poignant and resonate on every level of experience.
On one level, this is the story of a family. The Children of Israel are literally the children, and Moses and YHVH are the parents. The children are impulsive, they continually fall apart, they fight, they complain. They say they will follow the commandments, then they forget, then they make excuses. I often think of them in the back of the station wagon, while YHVH and Moses take turns driving on this long road trip, made to feel endless by the constant whining and bellowing from the rear of the car…Moses and YHVH alternate losing their tempers, threatening consequences, and calming each other down. Are we there yet?
The journey through the wilderness is a crucible in which the children must grow up. The certainties and constraints and lack of responsibility of Egypt are gone, and they are being forced to enter into adult relationship with the world and with each other. They must learn to control their impulses, to delay gratification, to learn empathy and trust. The journey is not a straight highway, but rather years of wandering, three steps forward, two steps back. And Moses and YHVH, out of their love for their children, hang in there, and continue to forgive the kids and give them another chance. But it is tumultuous, to say the least…remind you of any family you know?
In one of my favorite passages in this chapter, completely undone by the complaining, Moses speaks to God out of a frustration that every parent probably recognizes:
“What have you done to me?…Am I supposed to carry this people on my bosom like a nursing mother all the way to the Promised Land?…I can’t do it. If this is the way it is going to be, just kill me now!” (11:11-15)
YHVH responds with a promise to expand Moses’ leadership circle, or we might say, make sure there is more childcare available!
This is the level on which I explain these stories to children. It is their experience, and they get it, and they laugh, and they love it. Parents do too.
On another level of human experience, Beha’alotcha and the succeeding portions are about political leadership.* From where does Moses draw his authority? What makes him a leader? How can he carry the burden of leadership by himself? YHVH tells Moses to gather 70 elders, and “bring them to the Tent of Meeting, and let them take their place there with you…and I will draw upon the spirit that is in you and put it on them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.” (11:16-17)
All is going well, the spirit rests on the elders and they begin to speak in ecstasy, filled with the word of God. But two others, Eldad and Medad, who are not in the Tent of Meeting but rather back in the camp, also begin to prophesy! This is not authorized; Joshua, distressed, tells Moses to stop them. Moses famously replies: “Are you distressed on my account? Would that all of God’s people were prophets, and that the spirit rested on all of them!” (11:29)
Here we witness Moses as a model of political leadership at its best. He is a true public servant. He does not wish to hoard power, or to elevate himself above the people he serves. His only wish is that every one would be so imbued with the spirit of leadership that Moses himself would not need to wield that authority over others.
Nonetheless, his brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, immediately challenge Moses again: “Has YHVH spoken only through Moses? Has YHVH not spoken through us as well? (12:2) God afflicts Miriam for her challenge – and Moses responds by praying for her healing. Despite his bouts of frustration and despair, and episodes in which he powerfully asserts his authority to quell rebellion, Moses always has his heart with his people. He always keeps his eye on the prize of creating a “nation of priests, a holy people” (Ex. 19:6), a description that could be rephrased as “a society based upon justice, fairness, and human dignity.”
Finally, this story is about each of us on our own spiritual journey. We are the Children of Israel. We sense there is a better way, a way of trust, a Promised Land to which we aspire to merit and to inhabit. Yet our commitment to this path is constantly impeded by our own resistance, our own pettiness, our own learned powerlessness. The path forward is hard, with no certainties or guarantees. We romanticize the past (Egypt?), and wish to abdicate from the present, and from the future. We complain, we cower, we want to bolt. We know that we often seem ludicrous, even pathetic, but we also often can’t help it. Let’s have some compassion for ourselves, and keep a sense of humor! However, in order to pursue our destinies, we have to confront all of these failings. We must stand upright, face the unknown, trust that the manna will be there to sustain us and that the Cloud is leading us in a worthy direction, even though we have never been there before. This battle rages within every single human heart, every day: leave Egypt behind, despite the certainty it gave you in your smallness. Choose trust over fear, choose agency over paralysis, choose courage over cowardice. Choose life.
Fortunately, each of us not only is an Israelite, but is also Moses. That voice resides within us as well. That voice knows that going back to Egypt is not our destiny. That voice cajoles and encourages, demands and nags: You can do this! You can take the next step. You can learn from your mistakes. You can grow in wisdom, no matter what your chronological age. Every moment, this very moment, is an opportunity to look up from your preoccupations and see where the Cloud of the Presence is leading you next on this great and unpredictable journey.
I breathe. I pause. I look out my open window at this beautiful June day. I’m ready for the next step.
- *. See, for example, Moses as Political Leader by Aaron Wildavsky, Shalem Press 2005