Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
July 12, 1997 7 Tammuz 5757
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
I much regret my inability to offer you some comments on the parasha over the last few weeks. My mind has been elsewhere, absorbed in correcting the Hebrew translation of my book, Text and Context, which will come out next year in Israel, and in preparing for a session devoted to it at the World Congress of Jewish studies in Jerusalem at the end of July. In fact, I shall soon be leaving for Israel with my wife, and when we return we shall once again retire to Vermont for the month of August.
I value my international congregation and thank you for your lively interest and constant encouragement. Jews are best defined as students of Torah. As long as that relationship lives we are firmly planted in the same soil, no matter what we may believe or practice. So I hope you will persist in the study of the parasha in my absence over the rest of the summer.
With high regard and warm good wishes.
Death hangs heavy over this week's parasha. We are nearing the end of Israel's forty–year trek into the wilderness. In quick succession, Miriam dies without forewarning or fanfare, God judges Moses and Aaron as unfit to bring Israel to its promised destination and Aaron expires after transferring his priestly authority to his son Elazar. The proximity of these related stories inspired the midrashic imagination to join them into a conception of integrated leadership.
R. Yossi the son of R. Yehuda, a contemporary of R. Yehuda the Prince, the editor of the Mishna, speculated that in the wilderness Israel enjoyed the combined leadership of three exceptional people, each one of whom delivered a single great good to the national welfare. Moses did not govern alone, but in close collaboration with Aaron and Miriam. Says R. Yossi: Moses was responsible for providing Israel with its food (the manna falling each night), Aaron for the cloud covering necessary to shield the Israelites from the sun and Miriam for the well that was ever present in the camp. In short, God chose to distribute the blessings of nature through three separate channels. As each leader died, the gift associated with his or her name ceased to appear.
The interpretive underpinning for this midrash is drawn from our parasha. We learn of Miriam's role through linking her death to what follows immediately thereafter. After she dies, the story line shifts to an uproar over lack of water, the incident in which Moses and Aaron forfeit their leadership (Numbers 20:1–2). Indeed, Rashi, basing himself on the midrash in the Talmud (Taanit 9a), identifies the well with the rock which always accompanied Israel on its journey and which Moses, distressed by his sister's death, struck rather than addressed.
Similarly, Aaron's death is followed directly by an unprovoked attack on Israel by the King of Arad, who even gains a preliminary victory (Numbers 21:1). R. Yossi conjectures that he had heard of Aaron's death (vayishma) and noticed the absence of any protective cover, a perfect time to crush a newly–vulnerable Israel. Thus in both cases, by reasoning backwards, R. Yossi affirms what each leader brought to Israel. Briefly, Moses is able to fill the gap. The well and cloud cover are restored by God on the merits of Moses alone, at least till his death, which is imminent.
But what is the deeper meaning of this arresting midrash? I choose to read it as a meditation on the nature of good leadership. Despite the towering stature of Moses and his intimate relationship with God, he is denied the power to exercise authority absolutely. The midrash exudes skepticism about human nature. No one is beyond error or temptation. The best way to avoid the abuse of power is to divide it. Accordingly, each member of the ruling troika is indispensable; none performs the tasks of the other. And together they embody an elegant balance of power.
Nor does the midrash run counter to the portrait of Moses as outlined by the Torah. He is not consumed by ambition or a sense of infallibility. When the Torah singles out the most noteworthy trait of his character it stresses his humility: "Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth (Numbers 12:3)." At no time does he betray any design to take over the cultic domain of Aaron and the priests in order to concentrate all cultic and political authority in his own hands. Repeatedly, he acknowledges publicly his inability to answer matters of religious law without God's help (Numbers 9:8, 1:34, 27:5). And he is the first to recognize that his task has grown too burdensome to carry out alone, responding with alacrity to God's proposal to share power with a council of 70 elders (Numbers 11:16, 29).
A midrash on the haftara for our parasha offers a stark contrast to leadership marked by humility and collaboration. We read the story of Jephthah because it focuses on the same enemies as confronted by Moses in our parasha years before. Little more than a freewheeling condottiere, Jephthah comes to power as commander and chief of the tribes of Israel in an age of national disorder and defeat. As hoped for, he delivers Israel from the oppressive rule of the Ammonites, but not before making a vow to God that would forever haunt him and later generations.
How interesting that the Rabbis in selecting this haftara intentionally omitted its tragic denouement! Prior to doing battle, Jephthah had made the following reckless vow to God: "If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30–31)." Alas, what greets him first upon his triumphant return is not an animal suitable for sacrifice but his unmarried daughter, turning his moment of glory to grief. Though the biblical narrative ends in studied ambiguity, the Rabbis had no doubt that Jephthah's daughter paid for his vow with her life (Judges 11:39–40).
What they failed to comprehend is why she had to die. Why did Jephthah not have his vow annulled by Pinchas, the high priest? To account for the tragedy, they posited a psychological explanation: Arrogance immobilized both men. The Rabbis imagined Jephthah saying: "I am a king and I should go to Pinchas?" To which Pinchas responded: "I am the high priest and the son of a high priest (Aaron) and I should go to this ignoramus?" Caught in the middle, the young woman perishes needlessly. The midrash condemned high priest and father alike. Pinchas lost access to God's holy spirit, and Jephthah dies slowly, literally one limb at a time.
The warning is clear: effective leadership must retain a sense of proportion and inadequacy. To listen, to work together, to compromise are habits of the heart that spring form a modest disposition. Fortunate is the nation whose leaders can own up to their mistakes. For Jephthah, strength and humility were utterly incompatible. Not so for Moses of whom we can say what R. Yohanan once said of God: "Whenever the Torah speaks of His greatness, it also makes mention of His humility."
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,