Ways People Improve the World

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat BeHa’alotekha

Bamidbar 11 relates the story of the Jews’ longing for meat, instigated by the asafsuf, the troublemakers among the people. In verse fifteen, Moshe asks for death rather than be forced to face a challenge he is not equipped to meet. His phrasing catches Kli Yakar’s eye, im kakha at oseh li, if thus You are doing to me, the “You” in the feminine.

Rashi said Moshe used the feminine because he, Moshe, was weakened by the episode, made more of a woman [Rashi clearly means strength in the usual physical sense, where men in general and on average are stronger than women.] The obvious problem with Rashi, raised by many before Kli Yakar, is that Moshe refers to Hashem in the feminine.

As Moshe Goes, So Goes Hashem

Kli Yakar’s answer works off of a fascinating Midrashic assertion about the relationship between God and the righteous. Yalkut Shimoni 945 says the righteous strengthen God’s power, based on Bamidbar 14;17, where Moshe prays for God’s power to grow. Devarim 32;18 speaks of evildoers “weakening” God, as it were.

Kli Yakar is sure “stronger” or “weaker” is in terms of how much beneficial influence of the Divine Presence reaches the world. The righteous increase it, “easing” God’s ability to give all the good that is ideal, the evil the reverse, making it “harder” for this world to be given what God would like. From our perspective, it will look like God is weakened, because we will be getting less of what we know God wishes to give.

When the Jews frustrate Moshe to the point he would rather be relieved of duty than contend with them, he is weakened in his ability to bring God more into the world, meaning God’s impact will be weakened, metaphorically the lesser strength of a woman.

Kli Yakar comments (as he does many times), ve-zeh perush yakar, this is a valuable interpretation. I mention it because it’s fun to see a Torah great take pleasure in an idea he had.

The Right Tools Matter

I also like his follow-up. He calls our attention to verse twelve, where Moshe complained about God making him bear the Jews as an omen carries a suckling. Omen means a nursemaid, using the masculine form of the word. The gender was deliberate, Kli Yakar says, Moshe complaining he is being asked to nurse the Jewish people when he was a man, physically unable to do so.

If so, he referred to God with the feminine not as weakness, but because of God’s clear capability to nurture the people as they needed, where Moshe—who could not provide the meat they were demanding—could not.

God is feminine here either because Moshe’s problems are sort of God’s, in terms of our ability to benefit from God’s abundance, or because this situation required nursing, in a way God could and Moshe could not. Not that Kli Yakar needs me to say so, but I find both to be perushim yekarim, valuable and stimulating insights.

Independence Fosters Growth

After the Torah describes the movement of the nation in the desert, 10;29 relates a conversation between Moshe and his father-in-law. Moshe invites Yitro to go with them to Israel; Yitro demurs, in verse thirty, says he will return to his own land. Chatam Sofer shares an insight of his father’s, students do not reach their full potential until they have left the presence of their teacher. (While still in the teacher’s ambit, they operate within his world, I think he means, and cannot develop their own identity.)

The idea offers one explanation (there are others) for why Bereshit 25;11 says God blessed Yitzchak after Avraham passed away, why Ya’akov has the prophetic ladder dream after he leaves Be’ersheva, and more.

Here, too, Yitro is telling Moshe he feels it is time for him to go on his own way, grow into who he is meant to become. To stay would stifle his development.

Better to Be With Our Betters

Chatam Sofer thinks Moshe counters that there is more value in staying in the presence of greatness for as long as one can. Avot 4;15 has R. Matya b. Charash’s advice to be a tail to lions rather than the head of a pack of foxes, and Berakhot 8b advises to always live near one’s teacher, as long as one is able to be properly subordinate.

As Yitro was, Chatam Sofer thinks Moshe was telling him in verse thirty-one, Yitro had borne their encampment in the desert, enjoyed and not chafed at his lesser role. Chatam Sofer contrasts this to the Jewish people, whom tradition thought fled Sinai, unable to bear the necessary self-abnegation of proximity to the Divine.

Wanting to Feel Great

In verse thirty-one, Moshe asks Yitro not to leave because he had been a valued guide for them. Chatam Sofer thinks, along similar lines to what he said in the previous verse, that Yitro longed for home, where he was much better than everyone else. Among the Jews, he was largely a nobody, righteousness-wise.

Moshe points out he had already rendered the nation a great service with his idea about judges and officers, and would likely have more good ideas in the future. Yoma 87a thinks those who benefit the community are protected from great failures, so Yitro could have the confidence he would grow in his righteousness if he stayed as well.

Chatam Sofer is portraying Yitro as ready to strike out on his own, get recognition for what he had achieved by stepping out of the shadow of the Jewish people. Moshe was urging him to realize the benefits of staying, in personal growth, despite the downside of not yet finding his own full self-expression.

[A rebbe once suggested to me it was time for me to learn on my own, I had gotten from him what was needed; it was remarkably generous, in contrast to a different rebbe, who had told me I should stay until I could predict all his questions and his answers.

I think the one who told me to go thought he was no Moshe Rabbenu and that in my circumstances the advantages outweighed the loss. But it is true that I was never fully part of some group, unlike those who stayed in so and so’s shiur for five or ten years.]

The Night-Time Word of God

The parsha begins with Hashem having Moshe tell Aharon the correct way to light the Menora. Ha’amek Davar to Bamidbar 8;2 notes a comment of Ibn Ezra, the Torah deliberately linked this parsha to the end of the last. There, we were told of Moshe entering the Mishkan to hear Hashem speak with him; the Menora here tells us that could happen at night, hence a need for the Menora and its light.

Ramban had objected, based on Chazal’’s view that God did not speak with Moshe at night. Ha’amek Davar defends Ibn Ezra by expanding the meaning of God speaking. A couple of times in this commentary, he tells us, he has already claimed the Menora was there to help Jews with pilpula shel Torah. Normally the phrase means the in-depth study of Torah, a study Shemot Rabba said happened at night. Here, Netziv thinks it means Moshe’s review of what God had taught him during the day, and calls that Torah She-be’al Peh, Oral Law.

I think Torah She-be’al Peh more usually refers to the oral tradition of what the Torah meant. Netziv is saying that as Moshe went over what he had been taught, he gained new in-depth insight, and that became Torah She-be’al Peh as well. In his reading, human insight joins the original Torah and becomes part of it. [I think my teacher Prof. Twersky, z”l, thought Rambam held that way as well, but it is still surprising, especially since Netziv is using it to say that is the way God spoke to Moshe at night, too.]

With assistance from above, Moshe would come to the Ohel Mo’ed at night, lit by the Menora, review his learning from that day, have pilpula shel Torah, come to new insights, in that way hearing God speak to him.

In a comment in his Harchev Davar too long to summarize fully, he argues the Chanukka candles symbolize this aspect of Torah, too. While the sacrifices in the desert were to foster Moshe’s full prophecy—and therefore, Chagiga 6a tells us, stopped after the sin of the spies denied Moshe that prophecy for 38 years—the Menora, and Chanukka candles, symbolize what never stops, the human ability to learn from Torah in new ways. God’s direct Voice may stop, God’s Voice of letting us see further into Torah never does.

A week of awareness of the greatness of human contribution to God’s World. In bringing the Divine Presence and blessing, for Kli Yakar, in deciding when to stay with a teacher and when to strike out on one’s own, for Chatam Sofer, and for Netziv in the kinds of insights we can always have, even when prophecy is not a current possibility.

About Gidon Rothstein

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