By Stephen Berer
This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotecha, Numbers 8:1 – 12:16.
The Israelites have now been in the desert for one year. The people complain about missing the good food of Egypt, so God punishes them with a glut of quail which sickens them and ends in a plague.
Moses questions whether God can provide such a quantity of quail. As a partial response, God shows his power by giving 70 elders the capacity to prophesy. Then Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses and his exclusive access to God.
What is prophecy, and why is it withheld from us?
Those two questions have been troubling us since at least the time the Torah was composed. We read that Miriam and Aaron were envious of Moses’ ability and authority (prophecy withheld). And yet the text seems to make clear that prophecy is not utterly beyond our capacity.
With a wave of God’s hand, as it were, 70 pairs of eyes are opened. Yes we
assume God can do anything, yet we don’t see some dramatic transformation in
personality and behavior. Eldad and Medad, who prophesied among the Israelites but were not among the 70 elders, go about the camp as formerly.
Perhaps the problem is just one of clarity, not withheld capacity. Rashi says Eldad and Medad were given the gift of prophecy because they were so humble. And in direct response to Aaron’s and Miriam’s envy, the Torah describes Moses as “more humble than any other person on earth” (Numbers 12:3). So perhaps one of the primary impediments to our own prophetic abilities is simply our egotism.
While the gift of prophecy may require more than controlling our ego, we can be fairly certain that ego blinds our spiritual eyes. This may not be news, but who of us is working on it? And indeed, it takes ego to work on ego, so it’s a knotty problem.
As for why this anecdote is placed here in the narrative, perhaps it is used as a subtle precursor to the Korach rebellion, which is just two parshiot up the road. Eldad and Medad’s prophesying greatly disturbs Joshua, Moses’ understudy, and he goes running to Moses, asking him to stop them.
Moses famously answers, “Would that all God’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 11:29). But why is Joshua upset? Perhaps, because he lives among the people, unlike Moses, and he sees how they are responding to alternate voices of authority. He senses rebellion in the air. Moses is clueless and dismisses Joshua’s concerns. Prophet though he is, he will soon receive a rude awakening.
Stephen Berer is a writer, working on the epic story of the Eternal Jew. He is education coordinator at Shirat HaNefesh and a teacher at Tifereth Israel Congregation.