The news headlines today are ominous. It seems wherever one looks, there is cause for concern and fear. We are living through a difficult time, where many things that we once believed to be certain now seem to be shifting under our feet. Anyone who has lived through an earthquake knows that this can be scary. Yet, one antidote that we have as a people is hope, and the story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness can provide us with this hope.
At the end of B'haalot'cha, this week’s portion, there are three different scenes that raise an overwhelming number of difficult questions. The first scene has the Israelites complaining and God responding with a fire that ravages the outskirts of the camp and is only abated when Moses advocates on behalf of the people. In the second scene, the complaining is focused on the Israelites’ boredom with a diet of only manna and their desire for meat. Moses doesn’t want to intervene between God and the people, and the scene ends with a gluttonous feast resulting in plague. In the third scene, Aaron and Miriam speak out against Moses, resulting in a stern talking-to from God and a physical affliction for Miriam.
The number of serious issues and fundamental questions that these two chapters raise is incredible. I feel there is a parallel to these chapters in the world today.
Reverend Cameron Trimble, speaking at the URJ’s Leading Change Summit in May, outlined that in the last 15 years, the kinds of changes that we have lived through include: “financial meltdown, climate breakdown, COVID lockdown, racial throwdown, religious letdown, and technology showdown.”
Thinking about this exhaustive list, I believe that we can find parallels to most of these changes within these two chapters of Numbers.
Let’s start with religious letdown. Arguably, in the Torah portion, God and Moses are the two main religious leaders. And I think they both let down the Israelites.
Moses offers a dramatic speech where he tells God that he can no longer lead this people:
Did I produce all this people, did I engender them … I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me … kill me rather and let me see no more of my wretchedness. (Numbers 11:12-15)
Moses’ frustration is understandable as we read about the Israelites' constant complaining, yet it is also a letdown from the person who has been the spokesperson for God throughout the Israelites’ journey thus far.
There is also religious letdown from God in this section. In each of the three scenes, God acts out of anger:
Adonai heard and was incensed (Numbers 11:1)
When the anger of Adonai blazed forth against the people (Numbers 11:33)
Still incensed with them Adonai departed (Numbers 12:9)
It is hard to comprehend how God could respond to the Israelites, Miriam, and Aaron with such anger. Recognizing the many attributes of God, it is hard not to feel let down when God’s actions don’t favor compassion and mercy.
What about “climate breakdown”? In Chapter 11 alone, a fire ravages the outskirts of the camp and an unnatural sea wind deposits enough quail in the camp for more than 600,000 people to eat quail for a month. These are only two examples in the Torah where God overturns the laws of nature. It is hard to not compare these with the fires that we are seeing today in the western United States, or the extinction of species as their natural habitats disappear.
If we think of technology as the way we communicate, we can also see in this portion a “technology showdown” regarding who speaks for God. Following Moses’ desperate plea for help, God decides that 70 representative elders will receive God’s spirit and therefore be able to serve as prophets. This would seem to be a democratization of who can speak for God. But when Joshua expresses concern, Moses responds:
Would that all Adonai’s people were prophets, that Adonai put [the divine] spirit upon them (Numbers 11:29)
Contrast this with what happens a few verses later when Miriam and Aaron complain, “Has Adonai spoken only through Moses? Has [God] not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:2)
God’s response to this is to explain what makes God’s relationship with Moses different from all other prophets. Thus we see a showdown between Moses and the other prophets.
In Chapter 12 we have a “racial throwdown,” when Miriam speaks against Moses marrying a Cushite woman. According to the Women’s Commentary, in the Bible, Cush seems to be located in the south of Egypt, east of Sudan. The term “Cushite” is also used to describe being dark-skinned.
And finally, how does this portion connect to the “COVID lockdown” we have lived through? Miriam is struck with a scaly affliction and forced to leave the camp. The Israelites halt as they wait for her to safely return to the community:
So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. (Numbers 12:15)
So what can be learned from this? There are seismic shifts happening in our world right now, including things that are believed to be unprecedented. There is collective trauma, and in many cases, people are experiencing multiple traumatic changes simultaneously. So did the Israelites. No one would say that the journey through the wilderness was an easy one, and there were unfortunately tragedies along the way. But ultimately, as a people, the Israelites did reach the Promised Land. In this, I find hope that the many challenges that seem insurmountable today will lead us to a better future.