Numbers 8:1 to 12:6
The Israelites leave Mt. Sinai and begin their journeys to the Promised Land. But they don’t proceed with a common voice. There are many complaints against Moses and God for which the people are severely punished.
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.’” (Num. 8:1-2) Rav Kook (1865-1935 – First Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel) asks what is the significance of the “seven lamps” of the menorah? He answers: The Sages wrote that “the Menorah represents wisdom and enlightenment (Baba Batra 25b). All wisdom has a common source, but there exist different approaches to wisdom….
“The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:7) compares the seven lamps of the Menorah to the seven planets in the solar system …. Many of the ancients understood that the planets and constellations influence our nature and personality traits…. Just as each planet symbolizes a distinct character trait, each branch of the Menorah is a metaphor for a specific category of intellectual pursuits. God prepared a path for each individual to attain wisdom according to his own character and interests.
However, we should be careful not to follow our natural intellectual inclinations exclusively. The Torah stresses that “when you light the lamps” — when we work towards that individual enlightenment that suits our particular character — we should take care that this wisdom will “shine towards the center of the Menorah.”
“In truth, the seven branches of the Menorah are not truly distinct, separate paths. All seven receive light from the unified wisdom with which God enlightens His world. For this reason, the Menorah was fashioned from a single piece of gold, mikshah zahav.… (R. Abraham Kook, Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 239-240. Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 53-55.)
With these words in mind, we view the Israelites as they leave Mt. Sinai. But, mentally, the people are marching in many directions. There is mumbling, complaining, kvetching … and lots of it. So much so, I am inclined the give the Book of B’midbar/Numbers a third name… The Book of Kvetch.
Almost as soon as the Israelites started moving “the people took to complaining bitterly before the Eternal. The Eternal heard and was incensed; a fire of the Eternal broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to the Eternal and the fire died down.” (Num. 11:1-2) No reason is given for the complaints, just that they occurred.
Then the people complained about a lack of meat…. Even though they had meat from the animals (cattle, sheep, and lambs in their camp) and enough manna to fill their needs. At this time, Moses complains to God that the people have become a burden, they are always complaining and asking for more.
To ease the burden of governing, God tells Moses to select seventy of Israel’s elders to share his governing chores. In response to the request for meat, God sends a multitude of quail to the Israelite camp…. In some places the quail are “two cubits deep on the ground.” The people ate … and ate … and ate. “The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the Eternal struck the people with a very severe plague. That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah, because the people who had the craving were buried there.”(Num. 11:4-34)
Many commentators (R.Samson Hirsh, R. Pinchas Peli, R. Meeir Simcha Ha-Cohen) noted that some meat was present in their camps. These rabbis stated that the cry for meat was more of a symbolic reaction against all the rules that Moses had set down including those dealing with specific foods not to be eaten and sexual rules that differed from what they were used to in Egypt (Specifically a ban on sex out of wedlock with other family relations including in-laws, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, etc.. This behavior was common in Egypt.) They demanded a life of “instant gratification.” … And they kevtched … and God became angered with their complaints. (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, v.3, p. 29-30; Lawrence Kushner/David Mamet, Five Cities of Refuge, p.109)
Then, there were the complaints from Miriam and Aaron. They “spoke against Moses because of a Cushite woman he had married. ‘He married a Cushite woman!’ They said ‘Has the Eternal spoken only through Moses? Has [God] not spoken through us as well?’” God heard their words and called Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to the Tent of Meeting. The Eternal spoke: “Hear these My words: When prophets of the Eternal arise among you, I make Myself know to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Eternal. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” Then God departed and Miriam was struck with snow-white scales… similar to those described in Leviticus as Leprosy. (Num. 12:1-9)
In regards to the kevtching from Miriam and Aaron, both are important leaders of the community. Although Miriam is only mentioned in five places in Torah:
- Exodus 2:4-8 – Miriam watches the baby Moses in the Nile as the basket is seen by the princess.
- Exodus 15:20-21- Miriam, “the prophet,” leads the women in song and dance after they cross the Sea of Reeds.
- Numbers 12 – Miriam and Aaron complaining about Moses.
- Numbers 20:1 – A single sentence notes that Miriam dies.
- Numbers 26:59 – Miriam’s name is mentioned in the census.
…Even with this scant mention, Miriam is considered a powerful factor in the community. Whether her story was written out of the Torah because she was a woman … or because her views differed from the mainstream … we will never know.
Back to the kevetching of Miriam and Aaron… the first kevtch – “He married a Chushite women!” is not addressed in the response from God. It is not clear if this statement refers to Tziporah, Moses’ wife, or a second wife that is not mentioned in Torah. It should be noted that Tziporah comes from Midian, and is not a “Cushite” women who would have come from Sudan. However, Cushite also refers to dark-skinned people … Maybe the term “Chushite” was a slur directed at Tziporah. If this was the case, the curse upon Miriam (stricken with snow-white scales) could have been in response to her slur relating to dark skin…. Now the accuser has snow-white skin.
The Eternal is very clear in the response to the second kevtch. However, Rabbi Ruth Sohn, (Ordained at HUC, Jewish Institute of Religion in 1982, currently teaching Jewish text study in Los Angeles) states that this complaint may have been fragment of many different traditions that are pieced together in God’s response. “The response from God never mentions Miriam or Aaron by name and could well have been uttered originally to a whole group of people including Korach who we will read about in a few weeks.”
So what are we to gain from all this kevtching … and the punishments that follow? We all complain, whether mentally or through actual words. However, every society has rules to be followed. In the case of this week’s parsha, the rules of God, that should be more important than individual wants and desires. Whether it’s a desire for more meat, an end to rules we don’t agree with, or a change in the leadership… if we go against the established rules, there will be consequences. That applied during the times of Moses …. And, that thinking applies today as well.