Friday, June 22, 2018

Athens and Jerusalem / Parshat Chukkat

My husband has somehow gotten me see movies I would never have imagined I would have the slightest interest in seeing. In the past few years I’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface: there are dozens of them out and more being released every month. So I’ve been thinking about the worldview and values that undergird these movies and how deeply they contrast with biblical and rabbinic worldview and so much of Jewish values.

As recounted in this week’s parashah Chukkat, in the aftermath of Miriam’s death, the Israelites find themselves bereft not only of Miriam, but also of the well that followed them through the Wilderness for her sake. They are scared. They panic.

וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן
The community was without water and they joined against Moses and Aaron.  

וַיָּרֶב הָעָם, עִם-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר, וְלוּ גָוַעְנוּ בִּגְוַע אַחֵינוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה
The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of Adonai!” 

וְלָמָה הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-קְהַל יְהוָה, אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לָמוּת שָׁם, אֲנַחְנוּ וּבְעִירֵנוּ
Why have you brought God’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?

וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ, מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּהלֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע, וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן, וּמַיִם אַיִן, לִשְׁתּוֹת
Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”

Moses and Aaron retreat to the Tent of Meeting to ask God to solve things. God instructs them to assemble the people where, in the sight of all, God will produce water from a rock. Moses, however, furious and fed up, accuses the people of rebellion and strikes the rock twice with his rod. Water comes out—plenty of water—but God condemns Moses and Aaron to die in the wilderness and never enter Eretz Yisrael. This, Torah tells us, are the Waters of Meribah, the waters of bitterness.

Here is a story in which Moses stands up for God in the face of the people’s yet-again turning against God. He acts forcefully and decisively to secure for them water to prevent death and destruction. Yet…not only does God not appreciate Moses’ efforts, but God punishes him most severely. What’s going on here?

The late 2nd/early 3rd century Church Father Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertllianus, if you like full, formal names) was the first person to write about the two major streams of Western Thought and compare them. His shorthand, still in use today, was “Jerusalem and Athens,” employing the two cities as emblems of two entirely different cultures, worldviews, and value systems: the Greco-Roman world and the Hebrew world, which some call the Judeo-Christian world.

The 19th century poet-philosopher Heinrich Heine described the different between Athens and Jerusalem this way: For Athens, beauty is truth. For Jerusalem, truth is beauty. The 20th century German-American political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss expressed it this way: Athens represents the life of free intellectual inquiry; Jerusalem represents the life of humble obedience to God’s law. The 20th century philosopher William Barrett expressed it this way: the Greeks idealized philosophical speculation as the height of human accomplishment; for the Hebrews moral and ethical conduct marked the summit of human achievement.

For Athens—the Greco-Roman world—power and conquest are of ultimate importance. The virtues of power, strength, and courage, toughness and righteous indignation were, accordingly, revered. God’s like Zeus and heroes like Achilles embodied these values. 

For Jerusalem—the Hebrew world—what has been termed the “cooperative virtues” are prized: compassion, humility, love, faithfulness, forgiveness. Of Abraham, God says:

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט
For I have singled out Abraham, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to see the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right…

In the world of Athens, heroes emulated gods, gods who were conceived in the human image, combative, competitive, jealous, and violent. In the world of Jerusalem, the righteous emulate God, and the Rabbis are clear about what this means. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a) they ask: What is the meaning of the verse from Deuteronomy, “You shall walk after Adonai your God”? It means you shall emulate God’s character traits. Then the Rabbis supply us with four examples of God’s character: God clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the bereaved, and buries the dead. This is what it means to be godlike, to act in a godly manner. This is Jewish strength, Jewish courage.

The dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem is played out, day in and day out, in our lives. These two sets of values, two sets of virtues, are played out on Capitol Hill and on the Southern Border. Will we put on a show of strength? Or compassion? Will we project toughness and righteous indignation? Or will we exhibit the humility to consider the ideas of others? Is our goal conquest or cooperation? The conflict between Athens and Jerusalem has been playing out day in and day out for two millennia. We, the children of Abraham, who understand our mission to be the priests and teachers of humanity, seek not conquest, but redemption. The world needs our perspective, our values, our world view now more than ever. Shabbat shalom.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Harvest of Hypocrisy / Parshat Shemini 2018/5778

It is like opening an oyster and discovering within a gleaming pearl when  a sublime and profound spiritual lesson springs from the interpretation of a seemingly unrelated matter, in this case, the halakhah of kashut (the laws concerning what is kosher to eat and what is not). Much of Parshat Shemini is devoted to the laws of kashrut. With regard to mammals, Torah’s standards are simple: an animal that chews its cud and has cloven hooves is permissible:
 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, לֵאמֹר אֲלֵהֶם.   דַּבְּרוּ אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹרזֹאת הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכְלוּ, מִכָּל-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאָרֶץכֹּל מַפְרֶסֶת פַּרְסָה, וְשֹׁסַעַת שֶׁסַע פְּרָסֹת, מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה, בַּבְּהֵמָה--אֹתָהּ, תֹּאכֵלוּ
Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the Israelite people thus: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hooves, with clefts through the hooves and that chews the cud—such you may eat. (Leviticus 11:1–3)
Accordingly, cows, sheep, goats, deer, and gazelles are acceptable as food because they both chew the cud and have cloven hooves. However, dogs, which possess neither attribute, are not kosher (I can hear many of you heaving a sigh of relief). 

The criteria—requiring rumination and cloven hooves—seem clear enough, yet Torah proceeds to specify animals that have one of the two attributes, but not the other. 

אַךְ אֶת-זֶה, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, מִמַּעֲלֵי הַגֵּרָה, וּמִמַּפְרִסֵי הַפַּרְסָהאֶת-הַגָּמָל כִּי-מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא, וּפַרְסָה אֵינֶנּוּ מַפְרִיס--טָמֵא הוּא, לָכֶםוְאֶת-הַשָּׁפָן, כִּי-מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא, וּפַרְסָה, לֹא יַפְרִיס; טָמֵא הוּא, לָכֶםוְאֶת-הָאַרְנֶבֶת, כִּי-מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה הִוא, וּפַרְסָה, לֹא הִפְרִיסָה; טְמֵאָה הִוא, לָכֶםוְאֶת-הַחֲזִיר כִּי-מַפְרִיס פַּרְסָה הוּא, וְשֹׁסַע שֶׁסַע פַּרְסָה, וְהוּא, גֵּרָה לֹא-יִגָּר; טָמֵא הוּא, לָכֶםמִבְּשָׂרָם לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ, וּבְנִבְלָתָם לֹא תִגָּעוּ; טְמֵאִים הֵם, לָכֶם
The following, however, of those that either chew the cud or have true hooves, you shall not eat: the camel—although it chews the cud, it has no true hooves: it is unclean for you; the daman—although it chews the cud, it has no true hooves: it is unclean for you; the hare—although it chews the cud, hat has no true hooves: it is unclean for you; and the swine—although it has true hooves, with the hooves cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you. (Leviticus 11:4–8)
We could understand the list as a clarification of the important religious distinction between permissible and impermissible animals and move on. The Rabbis, however, single out the example of the swine to teach an important lesson about hypocrisy.
Just as the swine, when reclining, puts forth its hooves as if to say, “See that I am kosher,” so too does the Roman Empire boast as it commits violence and robbery under the guise of establishing a judicial tribunal. This may be compared to a governor who put to death the thieves, adulterers and sorcerers. He leaned over to a counselor and said, “I myself did these things in one night.” (Leviticus Rabbah 13:5)
Mammals with only one of the two requisite attributes are like hypocrites who cry, “I’m legitimate—see how my hooves are cloven!” or “I’m permissible—see how I chew my cud!” to distract us from the truth of their disqualifying attributes. 

Rabbi Ephaim Shlomo of Lutzshitz (1550–1619, author of the commentary K’li Yakar, whose title became his sobriquet) takes the midrasnhic lesson one step further, revealing in Torah’s seemingly unnecessary listing of animals a pearl of sublime truth and deep wisdom. The K’li Yakar observed that Torah might have more efficiently noted the missing attribute that disqualified the animal and left it at that. Yet it includes the seemingly superfluous information concerning the “kosher” attribute each animal does have.
The camel that chews the cud. The text should just have said, “it has no true [i.e., split] hooves" since this is the real principle of its impure status, and so, too, for the daman and the hare. This is a difficulty. Also, too, with the swine it says, “although it has true hooves" but it should just have stated "because it does not chew the cud.” Why does the text begin regarding all these animals with the signs of possibly being kosher, and then add later the sign of their non-kosher status? This is because both signs add to its non-kosher status. This is like what [the Rabbis in the midrash Leviticus Rabbah 13:5, cited above] said: the pig is a symbol for Esau [i.e., the Roman empire] in that the pig extends his hooves as if to say it is kosher, while inside it is filled with deceit and fraud, and this teaches applies to everyone whose insides are not like their outsides, such as the hypocrites that pretend to be kosher but are without doubt worse than the complete scoundrel, since [the scoundrel's] insides are like his outsides, all devoted to evil… And so the split hooves of the pig are a sign to its impurity since because of those hooves it can mislead people, pretending it is kosher…
K’li Yakar goes so far as to say that people who make no effort to hide their dishonesty are in some regards more trustworthy than people who pretend to be honest although they are not. The latter—hypocrites—are far more dangerous because their modus operand is fraud and deception. As Nobel laureate André Gide pointed out in his novel The Counterfeiters, “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.”[1]

The world abounds in hypocrites. The latest “pig” who “puts forth its hooves as if to say, ‘See that I am kosher’” is Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who began her journalistic career at Dartmouth College by outing gay students in her role as editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth Review. She sent a reporter undercover to a confidential LGBTQ meeting to secretly record the conversations. As The New York Times  reported in 1984 shortly after the incident, Ingraham outed them, publishing excerpts of the conversation at the Gay Students Association meeting and even printing their names.[2] Ingraham claimed that “freedom of the press” trumped the oath of confidentiality everyone present at the gathering had pledged. She went on in her career to 
    • compare same-sex marriage to state-sanctioned incest
    • mock migrant children fleeing violence in Central America
    • claim that Mexican immigrants “come here to murder and rape our people”  
    • suggest that those who reenter the country after being deported should “be shot crossing the border” 
    • attack civil rights leaders and organizations
    • claim that the NAACP is “a push organization for racist sentiments” 
    • counsel us all to wear Depends rather than share bathrooms with transgendered people 
    • exhort Muslims to “stay in the Middle East” 
    • criticize voter registration as “the politics of division.” 
(To hear audio for all these and more outrageous claims, click here.)

Apparently, once a troll always a troll.[3] Recently, Ingraham revealed in a tweet that David Hogg, a Parkland survivor and leader of the student protests, was rejected by four colleges to which he applied (despite, by the way, a 4.2 GPA). It was a malicious ad hominem attack, typical of a troll. Hogg called on Ingraham’s advertisers to boycott her show to demonstrate that her behavior was unacceptable. The response was swift. Bayer, Nestle, Wayfair, Hulu, Johnson & Johnson, TripAdvisor, Nutrish pet food, Stitch Fix personal style service, Expedia, and Atlantis Paradise Island all announced that they had pulled their ads. While I am not a fan of boycotts, I understand the desire to exert pressure. In this case, Ingraham’s response reveals the depth of her cynical hypocrisy.

What did Ingraham do? Just what you would expect a “pig" to do: She proffered a public apology, the hypocrisy of which she did not even attempt to conceal: “On reflection, in the spirit of Holy Week, I apologize for any upset or hurt my tweet caused him or any of the brave victims of Parkland.” How many ways is this apology wrong? It’s clear that her “apology” was a business move to lure back her advertisers. It was not a sincere apology. Want more proof? She did not apology for her behavior, but rather for any “upset or hurt” her words caused. In other words: Those who are offended are the problem, not me. A sincere apology notes what the one offering the apology did wrong. Next: She offered her so-called apology “in the spirit of Holy Week,” which has absolutely nothing to do with the need to apologize when one has offended. Were it not Holy Week, would she not need to apologize? The mention of Holy Week was a slick and slimy attempt to suggest to those who read her tweets that the onus is on Hogg to forgive her, forgiveness being a major theme of the Christian Holy Week. Furthermore, Ingraham extended her “apology” by public tweet, not by calling Hogg and talking to him directly and privately, which a sincere apology would require.

Ingraham’s coldly cynical hypocrisy is the sort K’li Yakar had in mind. Recall André Gide’s words: “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.” These are the most dangerous liars and hypocrites. Sadly there is no shortage of them today. There are, happily, legions of people—from superb journalists to idealistic high school students—who ferret them out and reveal them as the hypocrites they are, helping us all see through the thick much of their lies. Our job is to keep our antenna tuned to the truth-tellers.

[1]  André Gide, The Counterfeiters, trans. Dorothy Bussy (1973: Vintage Books), p. 427.

[2] Also

[3] See Rabbi David Seidenberg’s piece in “Dorf on Law” at

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sharing Power / Parshat Tzav 2018-5778

Do you know how to sing shalshelet? When my eldest child was twelve, she and I signed up for a 
class in ta’amei ha-mikra, the cantillation signs for chanting Torah and Haftarah. Also known as trop, the signs specify the musical phrases for chanting sacred texts.  I had never been able to master trop before then, but with a reliable study partner and a teacher who was prepared,  pleasant, and patient, I finally succeeded. The most difficult trop to master was shalshelet, which means “chain.” It is a long and complex series of notes—a pazeir on steroids—that lengthens the word to which it is applied, drawing it out to convey that the subject of the passage is hesitating and wrestling mightily with conscience or an inner urge before acting. 

Shalshelet occurs only four times in the Torah. One of the four is found in this week’s parashah, Tzav, in Torah’s description of the sacrifices Moses brought to be slaughtered on the occasion of the anointment of Aaron as High Priest by his brother, Moses.

 וַיַּקְרֵב אֶת-הָאַיִל הַשֵּׁנִי, אֵיל הַמִּלֻּאִים; וַיִּסְמְכוּ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, אֶת-יְדֵיהֶם--עַל-רֹאשׁ הָאָיִל.
  וַיִּשְׁחָט--וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה מִדָּמוֹ, וַיִּתֵּן עַל-תְּנוּךְ אֹזֶן-אַהֲרֹן הַיְמָנִית; וְעַל-בֹּהֶן יָדוֹ הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן רַגְלוֹ הַיְמָנִית
 [Moses] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head. Moses slaughtered [the ram] and took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. (Leviticus 8:22-23)

The moment Moses sacrifices the ram and daubs its blood on Aaron’s ear, thumb, and toe, ordaining him ever after as the High Priest of Israel, the balance of authority and power shift. Moses has held the reins of leadership from the first moment he approached Pharaoh. Aaron has been by his side to help, support, and assist—but Moses possessed the authority and direct connection with God. Now Moses is transferring divine authority to his brother, Aaron, who will act in the realm of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) without consulting Moses. Aaron will herewith wield power and command respect not merely as the brother of Moses, but in his own right as the High Priest. What is more, Aaron will hand down the office of High Priest to his own—but not Moses’—progeny. The shalshelet on “he slaughtered” gives voice to Moses’ hesitation, to his inner struggle in the moment he slaughters the ram, ordains Aaron, and thereby transfers a large measure of his authority: there is no going back. Moses and Aaron have embarked on a new power sharing arrangement. 

Sacrificing the ram mirrors Moses’ sacrifice of a significant measure of his own leadership authority. Moses sacrificed the ram, acting in the role of the High Priest, at the inauguration of Aaron and his sons—this is the last time he does so.

The Talmud imagines that Moses’ experience of loss is magnified by having nearly become the High Priest himself. The Talmud recalls that when Moses encountered God at the burning bush, Moses expressed reluctance to lead Israel, claiming he was unfit and asking God to assign someone else as God’s agent. God’s frustration and anger were evident at the time.

וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה בְּמֹשֶׁה, וַיֹּאמֶר הֲלֹא אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ הַלֵּוִי--יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-דַבֵּר יְדַבֵּר הוּא; וְגַם הִנֵּה-הוּא יֹצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ, וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ
 Adonai became angry with Moses and said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you.” (Exodus 4:14) 

The Talmud interprets God’s words to mean that originally God intended Moses to be the High Priest and Aaron to be a Levite.

ר"ש בן יוחי אומר אף זה נאמר בו רושם שנאמר (שמות ד) הלא אהרן אחיך הלוי והלא כהן הוא הכי קאמר אני אמרתי אתה כהן והוא לוי עכשיו הוא כהן ואתה לוי
 R. Shimon b. Yochai said: …it is said, There is your brother Aaron the Levite. Now surely [Aaron] was a priest? Rather, this is what God meant: “I had intended that you would be a priest and he would be a Levite. Now, however, he will be a priest and you will be a Levite.” (BT Zevachim 102a)

As a result of Moses’ reluctance to lead Israel, God had a change of heart and designated Aaron to serve as Israel’s High Priest—which meant that all descended from him would be kohanim—in place of Moses. Moses, who could virtually taste the priesthood, felt he had forfeited what might have been his.

There are many times in our lives when we surrender authority we feel ought to have been ours, or might have been ours, or could have been ours—or truly was ours. Our family and personal relationships, as well as communal endeavors and professional partnerships, require us to share power and authority, give in to the needs, desires, and talents of others, shift our expectations of how things will be, and often reshape our self-image. Like Moses, we may hesitate, perhaps experiencing regret, reticence, fear, or even loathing. Moses’ hesitation, his inner struggle, not only mirrors our own, but affirms how natural the reluctance is to hand over the reins to another. But so too is Moses a wonderful model for carrying through with power sharing, a leader who puts the needs of others ahead of his own ego needs.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, June 9, 2017

Power & Prophecy / Parshat Be-ha'alotekha 2017-5777

Yesterday, James Comey testified in open session before the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning his interactions with the most powerful political figure in America, and arguably the world, President Donald Trump. Jeffrey Toobin[1] stated that firing Commey was a “grave abuse of power.” He reminds us that in 1974, two Republican senators and one Republican representative visited Richard Nixon in the White House to inform him that the party would no longer support his egregious abuse of power because “they chose to put the interests of their country ahead of the partisan concerns of the G.O.P.” Toobin asks whether any Republican today will place country above party. Toobin addresses the firing of James Comey, former director of the FBI. There is far more to consider now that Comey has testified. Nicole Serratore, writing on the op-ed page of today’s New York Times,[2] begins:

As I listened to James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, tell the Senate Intelligence Committee about his personal meetings and phone calls with President Trump, I was reminded of something: the experience of a woman being harassed by her powerful, predatory boss. There was precisely that sinister air of coercion, of an employee helpless to avoid unsavory contact with an employer who is trying to grab what he wants.

I recommend reading her piece. If nothing else, it will help people understand the experience of far too many women. She concludes:

Victims of sexual harassment often face skepticism, doubts and accusations when they tell their story. That’s part of the predator’s power. But I’m here to tell James Comey, and all the women and men who have suffered at the hands of predators, I believe you.

Many people see power as the engine that powers, well, just about everything. The use and loss of power, not to mention the distribution and concentration of power, are summoned to analyze history and politics. Literature often focuses on power relationships (our most recent festivals of Purim and Pesach—consider the Book of Esther and Exodus—are prime examples). Even marital and family dynamics are often (insightfully) viewed though the lens of power. Power is a recurrent theme in the Book of Numbers and this week’s parashah, Be-ha’alotekha, delves into a biblical expression and manifestation of power: prophecy.

Torah recounts that in the second month of the second year out from Egypt, the Israelites once again complain bitterly to God. Torah places much of the blame on the “riffraff,” but the discontent was widespread.

The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:4–6)

The trop of the Israelites’ complaining is well established. Similarly, God’s reaction. Torah is clear: Adonai was very angry, and Moses was distressed (v. 10). Things unfold in a pattern we have seen before: the Israelites complain; Moses appeals to God; God responds but also interprets the people’s complaint as a rejection of God, gets angry, and punishes the Israelites. God’s response to the people’s craving for meat is tantamount to saying, “You want meat? Be careful what you ask for!” Quail blow in from the sea and rain down on the Israelites until they are three feet deep in quail. And when the people have eaten as much, and often more, than they wanted, God strikes them down with yet another plague.

In his distress, Moses beseeches God to relieve him of the burden the Israelites have become. In addition to what has come to be a recognizable pattern of events, we find something entirely new and rather peculiar: In response, God instructs Moses to gather seventy of Israeli’s elders and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, where God transfers some of the holy spirit to the elders so they can carry the burden along with Moses.

Moses went out and reported the words of Adonai to the people. He gathered seventy of the people’s elders and stationed them around the Tent. Then Adonai came down in a cloud and spoke to him; [God] drew upon the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it upon the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue. Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them—they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent—and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” And Joshua bin Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, My lord, Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all Adonai’s people were prophets, that Adonai put [the holy] spirit upon them!” Moses then reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel. (Numbers 11:24–30)

What is happening here? Moses finds the burden of leadership overwhelming so God determines to share the gift of prophecy—the ultimate mantle of leadership and God’s imprimatur—with the seventy elders. Whether God endows the seventy elders with the same holy spirit Moses has, or whether God siphons off some of the holy spirit that resides in Moses and distributes it among the elders is unclear, but the text seems to suggest the latter: the elders now share the burden of prophecy with Moses, at least temporarily.[3]

What are we to make of Eldad and Medad? They don’t appear at the Tent as directed, yet are endowed with the power of prophecy nonetheless. When it fades from the elders, Eldad and Medad retain the capacity for prophecy. Joshua, offended by their behavior, urges Moses to restrain them, but Moses says he wishes all the people could be prophets.

Prophecy is power: it reflects the transfer of God’s authority to a human being. According to Rashi, Eldad and Medad remained behind in the camp out of humility. They said, “We are not worthy of this greatness.” Torah imagines the ideal: Eldad and Medad, who most respect the power of prophecy and feel least worthy to possess it, are the ones who retain it.

The hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav (1772–1810, Ukraine) understood this story to teach us that positions of public power tend to cause a person to lose their capacity for prophecy, which we might understand as vision.

Be wary of [public] appointments. One who has attained a high spiritual level will develop a craving for such positions because then people will accept their teachings, and once their teachings are accepted, they begin to desire public responsibility. You must guard yourself carefully against these positions of responsibility, for they cause a person to lose the medium of prophecy—sometimes called an angel—that is created through a high spiritual level. This is the meaning of Joshua’s words to Moses, when two people were seen prophesying in the Israelite camp: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” [And Joshua said,] “My lord Moses, restrain them!” (Numbers 11:27-28). Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 17a) explains what Joshua meant by “Stop them!”: Burden them with the community’s needs, and they will stop all by themselves. From this you can see that communal needs and public responsibility destroy and banish prophecy. “Angel” (מלאך) turns into “stop them” (כלאם). (Likkutei Moharan II 1:7)

It may be that Rebbe Nachman had himself in mind when he wrote this, given that among his followers he held a position of public authority and hence power. The burden of responsibility can erode the capacity for prophecy, for vision—this seems to be something that worried him. This sounds like burnout, doesn’t it?

But there is another way to understand Rebbe Nachman’s words: as a cautionary note concerning public leaders invested with power. What may begin as a reasonable and even admirable vision of the community’s needs, and a sincere desire to serve, can far too easily and quickly devolve into a craving for power for its own sake that obscures whatever vision inspired the individual’s attempt to acquire a position of responsibility in the first place. Power can be an opiate and history has shown us many who cannot control their addiction.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[3] Their ecstatic behavior signals their capacity for prophecy. According to Sifrei, “but did not continue” signals that it was temporary—they prophesied only that one day. But Onkelos understands the same words to mean the opposite: “but did not cease.” Accordingly, Onkelos explains that the elders retained the capacity for prophecy.