Lessons From the Wilderness

Beha'alotekha By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Jun 13, 2009 / 5769 | Torah Commentary

Powerful images of authority dominate this week’s Torah portion. At the start of B’ha·alot’kha, the priests (and only they) are assigned the task of lighting the lamps in the Tent of Meeting; at the close of the parashah, God reminds Miriam and Aaron that Moses (and only Moses) speaks to God “mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles.” In between these framing images, the priests are instructed to blow trumpets to start the movement of the entire Israelite camp from place to place in the desert journey; God tells the people when to move or stay put by means of a cloud and fire visible to all; and God quells a rebellion caused by the people’s lust for meat—putting it down not only with plague (i.e., power) but by sharing the divine spirit that inspires Moses with seventy of the elders (i.e.,authority). How do these images relate to contemporary readers who—despite our distance from the events in the wilderness—remain part of the people Israel’s progress toward the Promised Land? Three lessons seem especially salient.

First, even in the wilderness, where survival depends entirely on God’s favor and Moses’s leadership, power alone is insufficient to secure the people’s obedience. Authority, too, is needed. Lamps, trumpet, vestments, sacrifices—all mark priests and Levites as guardians of a sacred order that confers a precious sense of rightness and therefore commands respect*. Later generations are reminded by the text that their own rightness and survival depend on participation in this very same sacred order. The trumpets blown in the wilderness to get the camp moving will one day serve in the Land to call troops into battle against aggressors: “They shall be for you as a law for the ages throughout your generations.”

We also depend on authority and chafe at mere power. Those who rule us are not the only ones who benefit when we believe that the order we obey is just, legitimate, right. That sense of rightness helps us too, so long as it is not abused. There is so much wrong in our world and in ourselves. We need things to be right.

What is the source of true authority? This, I think, is the second lesson the parashah wants to teach. It does so via the distinction drawn between the rebellious riffraff on the one hand and those blessed with a share in Moses’s divine spirit on the other. There is truth in the distinction—despite its patent exaggeration. The rebels succumb to “gluttonous craving” and, thinking with their stomachs instead of their heads, yearn for the wonderful conditions of Egypt where they (falsely) remember having feasted on cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic to their hearts’ content. The seventy elders, by contrast, are elevated by God’s spirit. They speak in ecstasy—and we learn something else about the divine gift they have received when Moses, first among God’s prophets, is not at all jealous or anxious upon hearing that two of the elders are “acting the prophet in the camp.” Moses says rather, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!”

We too want leaders like this: so content with their lot, so confident of their authority, so unconcerned with their own power, that they are humble and unafraid. We want wisdom, grounded in ultimate meaning and personal integrity—both for our leaders and ourselves. However suspicious we are of dichotomies between mind and body, between lofty individuals who wield power and base masses meant to obey it, of insiders versus “riffraff in their midst,” we’d still rather be ruled by what is noblest in ourselves and not by low desire. We recognize the difference between the two. The Israelites did not lack for food, remember, but only for meat and, we may infer, for variety in their menu. The image captures the nature of desire, which always wants more, is never satisfied. Wisdom is happy with its portion. We want to be led by those who seek wisdom rather than power. We seek authority that has its source in the Author of our existence, the Holy One who is the source of holiness.

The image that most transfixes me in the entire parashah, key to the third lesson it teaches about authority, is the cloud that covers the Tabernacle by day and appears as fire by night. The sun presumably masks the fire by its light each day, as darkness hides the cloud at night. God is one, unchanging, but human vision of God is twofold, changing with circumstances that alter what we are able to see. Even so, the Divine Presence is so palpable to the Israelites, so utterly dependable, and so close by, that it can guide their collective journey through Wilderness to Promised Land.

The Torah, too, seems to find this account of things remarkable. It lingers for nine full verses over the description of what happened “when the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle” and recounts time after time what happened, time after time, when the cloud and fire lifted. “On a sign from the Lord they made camp and on a sign from the Lord they broke camp; they observed the Lord’s mandate at the Lord’s bidding through Moses.” It is as if the text knows what all its readers know: the idyllic order of cloud and fire narrated in chapter 9 will give way in chapter 11 to gluttony and in chapter 12 to the fateful mission of the spies.

This slide from grace occurred, we should note, long before the so-called “age of faith” gave way to modern skepticism and doubt. The Biblical period was rarely marked by Israelite unity of any sort, religious or political. In the centuries that followed, Jews rarely attained anything resembling perfect sacred order: no movement as one, unless forced into unity by external enemies; no direct apprehension of God’s will in fire and cloud, despite multiple claims of exclusive knowledge of God’s will; no signs by God to distinguish true from false authority, right use of power from wrong—but lots of Jews who read signs nonetheless and sought to silence Jews who disagreed with them.

The Torah seems to prepare us for this. We inhabit a sort of Wilderness but do not march aimlessly through it because we have the Torah—not only the Five Books but a long tradition of authorized interpretation that makes the lessons first taught by Moses applicable in changing circumstances. We do not have one Jewish view of anything, but we do have a remarkable degree of consensus on some matters. We do not have priests or prophets wielding unmistakable symbols of divine favor, but we do have religious leaders and educators who possess authority based on learning, skill, and personal gifts. Among the latter, for professional and lay leaders in our community alike, integrity and kindness still count for a great deal. So does wisdom that is able to discern where the community stands and where it should be going, in keeping with our Torah. At times of crisis, this ability is perhaps valued most of all.

I had the privilege and pleasure this past week of participating in the graduation of a new cohort of Jewish religious leaders at JTS. We have sought to equip them to serve their communities at a time of uncertainty and change, to follow Torah humbly but with faithful conviction and determination, and always to know the difference between power and authority. May the leaders of the Jewish people always know the difference between the two and act accordingly.

*My thinking about the portrayal of priestly authority in the parashah is indebted to the fine study by my wife, Adriane Leveen, Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers (2008), chapter 4, and to conversation with the author.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.