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.