Archive for 4. Numbers

Korach: The Possibility of Conscience

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

“Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who of God and who is holy, and will draw him close . . . .’ “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 16:5)

Greetings! The book of Numbers is full of stories of conflict and competition, and this week’s reading is perhaps the most intense instance of this ongoing theme. Korach, a fellow Levite, challenges the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, threatening them with his sidekicks and a large gang of angry men. Moshe answers their challenge first by “falling on his face”- perhaps as a sign of humility, or frustration, or as an act of prayer- but then tells Korach and his gang to come back the next morning with their incense-pans, used in the religious offerings, so that God may choose one side or the other.

Our friend Rashi brings an earlier text to answer an obvious question: why the delay? Why not make an immediate and decisive demonstration that Korach was not chosen for leadership? The answer that Rashi brings is twofold: first there was a ruse, telling Korach that nighttime is for drinking and it certainly would not be appropriate to appear before the Holy One intoxicated! (Hence, “come morning. . .”) Then Rashi says Moshe’s real intention was to delay so that Korach and his gang might “go back” – that is, have a change of heart about the rebellion and anger they were directing at Moshe and Aharon.

This is a bit strange but also very beautiful. As I interpret it, the midrash imagines Moshe, who is earlier called the most humble man in Israel, portraying himself as a guy who likes to have a drink at night and therefore can’t appear before the Holy One, in order to create a delay and possibly head off the crisis without unnecessary conflict. In this reading, Moshe wants to put off a confrontation more than he wants to preserve his own dignity; he hopes that Korach will change his mind, rightly understanding that sometimes people need time to “cool off.”

Of course, once it becomes clear that Korach and his co-conspirators will not change their course of action, Moshe demands a clear and unambiguous ratification of his leadership- and gets it when the earth opens up and swallows the rebels whole. (I’ve always understood Korach’s fate to be a visual metaphor for the basic truth that those who like to stir up trouble often get “in over their heads,” so to speak.)

Yet at the beginning of the narrative, if we are to follow Rashi’s lead, Moshe is hopeful for a peaceful resolution, even though he’s been publicly insulted and accused of a power grab. To put it another way: Korach and his gang may have lost their faith in Moshe, but Moshe didn’t lose his faith in them, or the power of conscience to turn a human heart. That faith in the potential of conscience and t’shuvah is what allows Moshe to portray himself as drunk in the night- because for a peacemaker and true leader, making peace through peaceful means is more important than honor or status or personal dignity. In this case, Moshe’s hopes for reconciliation were not realized, but as for us- how often do we truly believe that those who hate us might change and repent? What a different world it might be if only we gave each other the chance to prove ourselves better people, as Moshe is understood to have done when faced with the greatest challenge in his long years of leadership.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Shlach-Lecha: Don’t Turn Astray

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. (Bamidbar/ Numbers 15:39)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion starts off with a grand narrative and ends up on with the small fringes on our garments- but these are not unrelated, as we shall see. The grand narrative is that of the spies going up to the Land of Israel, ten of whom came back discouraged and disheartened, and brought the people down with them into despair. Two spies tried to give the people hope, but it was too late, and that generation was condemned to wander until their children were ready to enter the Land.

Fast forward to the end of the portion, and we have the mitzvah of tzitzit, or attaching fringes to the corners of garments. The reason we do so is given in the verse above: these fringes will remind us of the commandments and then we won’t go astray. (Not that any of y’all would do that, of course.)

Now, what’s interesting is that one commentator, Sefer HaHinnuch [a medieval textbook of the commandments] actually lists “not following our hearts and eyes” as a separate commandment by itself. (Others disagree.) That is, rather than just understanding “not going astray” as the reason for the tzitzit, this source understands the tzitzit to represent an intellectual responsibility not to think about or follow false ideas or immoral things, an obligation we have regardless of what we are wearing.

Of course, that’s a high bar to set: we spend our whole lives seeking to discern truth and the world is full of distractions and temptations. I don’t believe anybody can “not go astray”- that’s not possible. Rather, I think enumerating this as a separate mitzvah simply means that we should have a spiritual practice of paying attention to what’s grabbing our attention. To wit:: if we’re paying attention to shiny things, we’re paying less attention to love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Rashi makes a wonderful allusion to this when he says that “the heart and eyes are spies for the body: The eyes see, the heart covets and the body sins.” The word he uses for “spies, “ meraglim, is the same as the word for “spies” in the first part of the portion- this can’t be an accident. I think Rashi is implying that just as the spies went up to the Land but got distracted internally (by fear, anxiety, and despair) from the true course of their journey, so too when we go through this life we can get distracted internally by meaningless things which grab our attention and play upon our insecurities. The good news is that we can also go through life with more intentionality ; the tzitzit represent the idea that we can learn to focus on that which is important, rather than ephemeral. Such a reorientation of the eyes and heart is neither easy nor simple, but such is the task of becoming the person we are meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: for a very different interpretation of tzitzit, see this week’s commentary by R. Jonathan Sacks. It’s great.

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Beha’alotecha: Embracing Diversity

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 12:1)

Greetings from the lovely (but soggy) Hudson Valley!

This week’s Torah portion contains all kinds of interesting stories and laws, from the duties of the Levites to a narrative of truly epic kvetching in chapter 11. After the people almost tear themselves apart complaining and challenging Moshe and Aharon, the story shifts into a much smaller scope. Apparently there is some tension among the siblings who lead the Israelites; Miriam and Aharon speak against their younger brother Moshe, perhaps using his wife as a pretext for their resentment.

Traditional commentators are perplexed about what, exactly, the siblings are saying about Moshe and/ or his wife. While the literal meaning of “Cushite” is “Ethiopian,” some commentators understand it to mean “beautiful” and interpolate a midrash in which Miriam was speaking out on behalf of Moshe’s wife, criticizing Moshe from separating from her in order to be constantly available for prophecy. Some believe this wife was Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife from Midian, but others think perhaps he married another woman at some point after the Exodus.

The conclusion of the story is stark: Miriam is punished by God with an outbreak of skin impurity, and banished from the camp for seven days. Moshe prayed for his sister’s healing, but something about what she did was so inappropriate that it caused her separation from the community. With that in mind, it’s hard to reinterpret the story as one of Miriam’s defense of her sister-in-law. While I’m certainly sympathetic to a reading which puts Miriam in a better light, I think the plain meaning of the text imputes a more serious misdeed than a misguided attempt to fix her brother’s marriage.

Perhaps the most salient reading of this text is not through the creativity of the ancient rabbis but its plainest meaning: e.g., that Miriam and Aharon spoke against their brother because he married somebody they didn’t like and didn’t accept. In this view, “Cushite” means just that, an Ethiopian woman, or in other words, somebody whose external features and cultural background may have been different from that of the Israelites. One modern commentator (and former colleague), rejects this interpretation as unlikely given the ethnically mixed background of the group who left Egypt, but I don’t think we’re talking about the larger social condition of the Israelites. Instead, this story focuses on the elite leadership, which could very easily be more susceptible to the idea that others unlike themselves were unacceptable or unfit to join their family.

Perhaps that’s why Miriam drew such strong rebuke from Heaven (we’ll address another time why Aharon didn’t merit the same rebuke): rejecting Jews based on appearances or family background indicates a profound misunderstanding of what defines us as Jews. We are emphatically not a race, nor an ethnic group, but rather a people defined by our religious culture and commitments (understood broadly) and a shared global destiny. We are a people with a mission, not only because of a common history but more importantly because of a shared commitment to live a joyful, ethical Judaism (though there’s more than one way to do that) which binds us in obligations of caring and responsibility.

“That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish” is the punchline of jokes, but it’s a phrase without meaning in a world where Jews by choice and Jews by parentage are of every skin color, cultural background, native language and citizenry. Diversity is our strength and blessing, and embracing every Jew and their family within our communities is a sacred task.

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Nasso: Gifts and Hope

Copyright 2013  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nasso

On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle . .  the chieftains of Israel, the heads of ancestral houses, namely, the chieftains of the tribes, those who were in charge of enrollment, drew near and brought their offering before the Lord . . . .(Bamidbar/ Numbers 7:1-3)

Good morning! I hope everybody who just celebrated Shavuot had a lovely holiday with good Torah learning and the appropriate dairy treats. Ironically, we turn immediately to the Torah portion Nasso, which includes among its various laws the rules of the Nazir, who chose a more ascetic life. . . but we’ll deal with that another day. Today I’m more interested in a little detail at the beginning of Chapter 7, which is one of more unusual chapters of the Torah, in that it repeats the same story 12 times. Each of the tribes of Israel sends a nobleman to offer gifts for the dedication of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary), and as it turns out, each set of gifts was exactly the same, listed identically in the text.

That’s interesting, but even more interesting is a rabbinic understanding of who these 12 princes were, and for that, we need to go back to the book of Exodus, when the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. You might remember that the Egyptians set the Israelites a certain quota of bricks, and held the captains of the people responsible when the people didn’t produce the required amounts:

And the foremen of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten. “Why,” they were asked, “did you not complete the prescribed amount of bricks, either yesterday or today, as you did before?” (Exodus 5:14)

This interpretation, cited in early works of midrash, involves a bit of Hebrew wordplay, the details of which are less important than the narrative idea: that these men, who suffered greatly at the hands of their oppressors, and who were caught between the Egyptians and the Israelites in a morally impossible position, could nevertheless bring notable gifts to the Mishkan. Granted, there is some controversy as to why they brought their gifts last rather than first – that is, back in Exodus when they were first collecting materials for the Mishkan–  but to me, what stands out in this reading is faith in human resilience. After the princes were beaten by the Egyptians, they turned bitterly to Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of stirring up trouble, but here they are, standing together with them to create a Sanctuary in the midst of the people.

There are those who suffer, and withdraw from the world, and there are those who suffer, and learn from that suffering to live life at even higher levels of compassion and generosity. To put it more plainly, what the ancient rabbis seem to be saying is this: the princes of the people had been beaten and morally tormented, and nevertheless had gifts to offer. That is a message of profound hope to all those who have experienced pain, injustice or darkness: do not think that you are broken and shamed, for you too have gifts to offer, gifts which bring the Presence of the Holy One into this world, gifts which are the equal of that which anyone else might offer. Do not despair- you have gifts to offer, and the world needs you.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bamidbar: Balancing the Camp

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Happy Rosh Chodesh Iyyar!

On the south: the standard of the division of Reuven, troop by troop. . .  Camping next to it: The tribe of Shimon . . . . And the tribe of Gad. (Bamidbar 2: 10-14, abridged.)

We’re starting a new month and a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” and which tells the story of the Israelites on their long journey from Sinai to the Promised Land. The book, and our weekly reading, begin with a census of the people (hence the English name “Numbers” and then describes how the 12 tribes would camp in a certain formation around the Tent of Meeting, 3 tribes on each side.

The famed rabbi and Torah commentator S. R. Hirsch notes in the first above that Reuven, the firstborn, was paired with Shimon and Gad, who were later on in the line of Yaakov’s descendants. It’s a common theme of traditional commentary that the tribes reflect the character of their ancestors; Hirsch notes that Reuven, the eldest, was not given the right of leadership, perhaps because he lacked the force of character to stop his brothers from harming Yosef (cf. Genesis 37). Reuven later shamed his father by sleeping with Yaakov’s concubine (ibid 35:22) which earned him rebuke even when Yaakov was on his deathbed. (49:3-4)

Shimon, on the other hand, was half of the pair (with his brother Levi) who deceived and slaughtered the men of Shechem in retaliation for abusing their sister Dinah (see this chapter); even years later, they were called cruel men of vengeance by their father. (49:5-7) Of Gad we know little, except that Yaakov predicted that his descendents would be a victorious military force.

Hirsch sees the placing of Reuven with Shimon and Gad as a way to balance out the tendencies of their ancestors: Reuven was merciful in intent but ineffective in action during the rupture between Yosef and his brothers, while Shimon was quick to strike bloody vengeance after their sister was taken without thought to the consequences. The mercy and mildness (to use Hirsch’s phrase) of Reuven has to be a counterweight to the strength and righteous fury of Shimon and the prowess of Gad. Without that balance, strength will be used for cruelty and good intentions will mean nothing in a world which often requires us to stand firm.

Of course, the Tent of Meeting is no longer something to be protected out there in the world; it is symbolic of that point of the holy we each bear internally. Our own souls need a balance of mercy and strength, kindness and outrage, for how else can we move forward in this world, and even more, move the world forward?

Shabbat Shalom


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Balak: Hatred Twists the Soul

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

In the morning Bilaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 22:21) 

Good afternoon! Many of you know the story of Bilaam, the sorcerer hired by Balak, the king of Moav, to put a curse on the Israelites as they traveled through the land. (If you don’t know the story, or how it turns out, there’s a summary here.) While the text of the Torah seems to portray Bilaam as motivated more by greed than animus, the ancient rabbis clearly thought he wanted to curse Israel out of ill-will towards them. 

In fact, our old friend Rashi quotes an earlier text on the verse above, noting (by way of comparison to our father Avraham) that “getting up in the morning” seems to connote a special zeal for the task at hand. Rashi also notes that Bilaam saddled his donkey  himself, and comments that “hatred spoils the standard,” meaning, he was so consumed by hatred for the Jews that he disregarded the protocol due a man of his rank and saddled his own donkey, rather than having a servant do it for him. 

Now, I don’t have a servant to saddle my donkey (ok, truth be told, I don’t have a donkey either), but I’ve seen many times how resentment and negativity causes people to act in ways unbecoming their dignity. In fact, I might even propose that remembering that you and I and every person is created in the Divine Image is a way to regain the composure and thoughtfulness which resentment “spoils,” to use Rashi’s image. If we remember not only that the person or people towards whom we have anger, frustration or ill-will are children of God, but so are we, then perhaps a desire to live on that spiritual level will enable us to re-center and remember that anger and hatred rarely solve our problems, nor leave us feeling any better. How should we behave? Not like Bilaam, who gave up his dignity out of hatred, but like Aaron, who spent his live seeking peace and pursuing it. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Beha’alotecha: Keep Asking


Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

“But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moshe and Aharon,  those men said to them, ‘Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?’ “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 9:6-7)

Good afternoon! This week’s Torah portion contains the commandment of Pesach Sheini, or “second Passover,” which is given to the people after a group of men who were ritually unclean- and therefore unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time- approach Moshe and Aharon and ask them what to do. (Cf. the verse above.)

Our friend Rashi says that the men approached Moshe and Aharon as they were sitting and learning Torah, but Rashi can’t believe that the Torah is reporting the sequence of events exactly as it happened. He asks: “if Moshe didn’t know [the answer], would Aharon know?” That is, the verse could be understood as:  they asked Moshe and then Aharon- but Rashi has a problem believing that they asked them in that order.

From the standpoint of traditional rabbinic understandings of the roles of Moshe and Aharon, I fully understand Rashi’s question: Moshe was the teacher and prophet, and if Moshe, the source of the teaching, didn’t know the answer to the men’s question, how could Aharon, the student, know the answer?

On the other hand, doesn’t the Talmud tell us that the one who is most wise is the one who can learn from any person? Perhaps the Torah is, in fact, implying that the men sought their answer first from Moshe and then from Aharon; after all, perhaps Moshe forgot, or was preoccupied, or didn’t pick up on some nuance that another understood. None of us can predict exactly where wisdom can be found, and indeed, an aspect of humility is the realization that learning can happen at the most unexpected time and places.

Seen this way, Rashi’s question- “if Moshe didn’t know, how could Aharon know?- begs another question: “if Moshe doesn’t know, why not ask Aharon?” Judaism admires an inquisitive mind, and surely the greatest teachers are most delighted when their students seek the truth with resolve.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bamidbar: To Teach Torah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Bamidbar / Shavuot 

“These are the descendants of Moshe and Aharon on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:1)


This weekend we have the unusual circumstance of the holiday of Shavuot  falling immediately after Shabbat and falling over the two days of the Memorial Day long weekend. The theme of the Torah portion is counting and organizing the Jewish people for their long journey to the Land of Israel; there is a census and each tribe is set in a certain place in the camp. After a general census by tribe, and a reporting of the numbers, the descendants of Aharon are named as priests, and the tribe of Levi is set apart for religious service, and some of their duties are enumerated. 

Our friend Rashi points out a glaring problem in the verse above: the sons named were not, in fact, the descendants of Moshe and Aaron, but only of Aaron, the High Priest. Rashi then goes on to make a point which indirectly links our Torah portion to the upcoming holiday, the remembrance of the giving of the Torah: 

“But only the sons of Aharon were mentioned! They are called descendants of Moshe because he taught them Torah. This shows that whoever teaches another person’s child Torah, it’s just as if they were your own child.” 

On Shavuot, we recall the centrality of Torah, in all of its manifestations, to the life of the Jewish people, but here Rashi is saying something about the power of Torah for individuals. When we share the deepest principles of our life, we give birth to something real and important in the world. Who among us has not had a mentor, teacher or role model who has profoundly affected the course of our character development? We teach Torah by the way we live, as well as by sharing knowledge. I know in my own life, I would not be a deeply practicing Jew- and never mind a Conservative rabbi- were it not for the teachers of Torah who showed me the possibility of a joyful Jewish life. 

Torah is not a history book that recounts the past, nor is it esoteric knowledge reserved for a few. It’s a text which only matters when it becomes a conversation- a conversation between its students from across the ages as well as across a table today. That greater sense of Torah, rooted in the most basic questions of how we shall live and for what purpose, is what’s so precious and important to share. When we bring people into a Torah-rooted conversation about the very purpose of life itself, we change lives, and by changing lives, we change the world. That’s what Rashi means when he says that Aharon’s sons were like Moshe’s sons because he taught them Torah- it means that Moshe, through his example of a covenanted life, changed the lives of those around him. 

Such is the challenge before each of us- to become exemplars of a holy striving, to be teachers of Torah through all our ways. 

Shabbat Shalom, and a happy holiday to all, 


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Pinchas: No Envy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Pinchas


Before we have a quick Torah thought for the day, a few brief announcements: 

1) Rabbineal-list is going on vacation for a couple of weeks but will be back soon! 

2) I’m very excited to have a great goal for the end of the summer- I’m going on the Hazon  Hudson Valley – NYC bike ride to raise money for Jewish environmental organizations. 

I’d be so proud if you would consider sponsoring me and being part of this effort. Just click here for more information. You can be the first to sponsor me- I just committed to the ride ! 

Now, on to a brief Torah thought. 

A famous passage from this week’s portion, Pinchas, relates that Moshe had to give over his authority to Joshua, the next leader, in a commissioning ceremony in the presence of the High Priest and the entire community: 

“Moshe did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community. He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him—as the Lord had spoken through Moshe. . . “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 27:22-23)

The commentary Torah Temimah brings a teaching from the Talmud which notes that Moshe placed both his hands on Joshua during the leadership commissioning- but a bit earlier, in verse 18, God only tells Moshe to place “his hand” [singular] on him. The Talmud teaches that this shows that a man is not envious of his disciples- that is, Moshe “grabbed it with both hands,” as it were, and did not hold back from raising Joshua up to the level of leadership which Moshe was about to relinquish. 

A small detail- two hands versus the commanded one hand- but it shows an orientation to which most of us can only aspire. It’s so hard to take true joy in the accomplishments of others, without any jealousy, envy, coveting, griping, or gossip. It’s so hard to put ego aside for another- yet here was Moshe, after 40 years of service to his people, ready to see Joshua taking up the mantle, knowing his disciple would achieve what Moshe could not. 

Humility is not thinking “I’m a nothing, others are better than me.” Humility like Moshe’s is knowing that each of us has a unique capability to do something extraordinary to heal this broken world – usually one interaction at a time. Moshe could empower Joshua with both hands when the time was right, setting an example for each of us to rejoice and be grateful for those moments when we can raise up others, and in doing so, be truest to ourselves. 

Shabbat Shalom, 



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Balak: Moshe’s Tears

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak 

Good morning! 

Our Torah portion this week has two famous stories; the shorter one may be harder to understand than the longer one. First, we have the story of Balak and Bilaam, the former being the king of Moab who hires Bilaam, a sorcerer, to put a curse on the Israelites. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, and Bilaam ends up blessing Israel instead, but at the end of the chapter, the narrative turns ominous once again: 

“While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. . .  Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. . . . . Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 25:1-6, abridged.) 

It’s a bloody story, with Moshe receiving orders to have the idolaters killed, with the end result that Pinchas, one of the priests, publicly slays a Moabite woman and her Israelite paramour. 

For today, let’s leave to one side the apparent endorsement of religious violence after the Israelites started worshiping the idol Baal-peor. That’s an important topic, and we’ll return to it in future years. For now, let’s just take it at face value that the Israelite men were doing a bad thing according to the norms of the day, and ask a different question: why did this episode cause Moshe to weep along with the other Israelites? After all, he didn’t cry after the Israelites built the Golden Calf, and he didn’t cry when the spies came back with despair over entering the Land, and he didn’t cry when Korach raised his rebellion. 

Now, please note, the Hebrew is ambiguous and it’s possible that only the Israelites were weeping at the Tent of Meeting when the idolatry and immorality came out into the open- but that’s not the way our tradition seems to read this. Many commentators assume that Moshe was weeping, and base themselves on a midrash, or commentary, pertaining to the sin of the man who cavorted with the Moabite woman. 

In this rabbinic expansion of the narrative, Zimri (the man with the Moabite woman), asks Moshe how it is that he can condemn intermarriage with the Moabite women, given that Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife, is herself a Midianite. Not only that, but we just learned in the first few verses of the Torah portion that the nations of Midian and Moab were collaborators in trying to curse Israel- so how can Moshe condemn in others what he himself has done? The midrash says that when asked this cutting question, Moshe forgot the relevant laws, and so  he and the people weep- apparently more for Moshe’s waning powers of leadership than for the actual problem in front of them.

This midrash leaves to the imagination why, exactly, Moshe forgot the law; perhaps he was overwhelmed by the accusation of hypocrisy, or perhaps on a deeper level he wondered if indeed such a charge was true. Perhaps he was simply exhausted from the realization that 40 years after the Golden Calf, the people still didn’t understand what it meant to turn from idols; after all, most leaders begin with big dreams but eventually realize that human nature reasserts itself against all ambitions to create perfected societies. Perhaps the people cried because they saw Moshe vulnerable and ineffective, nearing the end of his term of office, and the thought of traveling on without him evoked fear and anxiety- or perhaps they cried because Moshe’s paralysis was the surest sign of a deep and painful division in their community.

To me, the image of Moshe and the people weeping together during the crisis at Shittim also reveals that Moshe finally trusted the people- at least the ones by the Tent of Meeting- more than he knew. To weep together is to surrender the strict hierarchy of leader and follower or prophet and ordinary people; weeping together suggests that Moshe and the people joined their hearts in sorrow when recognizing the tragic divisiveness among the people. It is a mark of Moshe’s greatness that at this crucial moment, after decades of being the man with the all the answers, Moshe cries when he realizes that no one person can know it all, remember every law, have every answer, and offer guidance for every problem. After decades leading the people, he was still learning humility, and in that image of growth and learning over a long lifetime, provides an example for us all.

Shabbat Shalom,


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