Saturday, 3 June 2017

Parsha: Beha’alotkha, "The Whispering Campaign"


Dvar Torah on Parashath Beha’alotkha
Rabbi Chaim G.Z. Solomon

The Whispering Campaign




Our sedra gives us three very puzzling vignettes, back to back.  Bemidbar chapter 11 begins thusly:  “Vayy’hee ha`am k’mithon’neem, r`a b’oznay Hashem - and the people were like murmurers, evil in the ears of the Lord.  The Lord heard and His anger was kindled.  The fire of the Lord burned amongst them, and devoured (those) at the boundary of the encampment.” (Bemidbar 11:1) Curious, as generally when such devouring fires issue forth, action and consequence occur somewhat near the center of the camp.  Also, when the people complained, how was it that the murmurs were heard by God, but perhaps not by Moshe?  Further, the actual complaint is not recorded.

In a curiously connected report, verses 4 and 5, we have more complaints. “V’hasaphsuph asher b’qirbo, And the ‘mixed multitude’ that was among them had craved cravings; and the children of Israel returned to weeping, saying: Who will provide us flesh to eat! We remember the fish, which we would eat in Egypt for nothing (chinam); the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic...And Moshe heard the people weeping. The ‘asaphsuph’, frequently rendered ‘mixed multitude’, is a puzzler.  

So to the complaint of the Children of Israel - first, they ask for meat, but then ‘fondly’ remember the fish and vegetables they ate ‘for free’ in Egypt. What does ‘free’ mean here?  The Israelites were slaves, after all!  At the end of the chapter, God’s anger is again kindled against the People, and God strikes those that lusted and meat-eaters, all the People, with a very great plague.  Interestingly, it is only those who lusted whom Scripture records are there buried.

So ends chapter 11.  Chapter 12 picks up straightaway with yet another curious vignette.   Miryam and Aaron speak against Moshe.  First they complain regarding Moshe’s Kushite wife, though the specific issue is not mentioned.  Then, they turn right around and raise a complaint that can really only be taken as criticizing Moshe as arrogant, “Has the Lord indeed only spoken through Moshe?  Has he not also spoken through us?”  God hears (like the first vignette) and God’s anger is kindled against Miryam and Aaron (as in both previous vignettes).   Here though, only Miryam is punished, and even so, only with tsara`at, not death.  Why is only Miryam punished?  And why is the punishment not death?

The trope ‘yichar aph’, rendered, ‘anger was kindled’ when applied to God with respect to the `Am, the People, appears in Shmot 32 (the Golden Calf), Bemidbar 25 (Ba`al Peor), and foretold in Devarim 6, 7, 11 and 29.  In each of these instances idolatry is the relevant transgression.  In our sedra, the anger of the Lord is kindled against the people, but idolatry is not clearly the transgression.  Our sedra appears to be the only outlier in this pattern, though Moshe applies the trope ‘yichar aph’ to God when recounting in Bemidbar 32 the incident of the Spies (Bemidbar 14).  Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 1.36) would have us categorize all such usages of this trope applied to the People as caused by the sin of idolatry.  How are we to understand Rambam’s required classification?

In the second pericope we’ve studied, the phrase ‘zakharnu, et haddaga, asher nokhal b’mitsrayim, chinam, we remember the fish, which we would eat in Egypt for nothing’ certainly could do for some unpacking.  What is this ‘chinam’, generally rendered ‘for free’, or ‘for nothing’? Sinat Chinam - baseless or causeless hatred, is a phrase with which we are all familiar, unfortunately.  What is the ‘chinam’ of our verse meant to inform?  Yoma 75a would interpret chinam here as free from the obligations of mitswoth, specifically with respect to physical immoralities, for which ‘fish’ must serve as some manner of euphemism.  Sifre Bemidbar 67 is explicit in this regard, that ‘chinam’ in this verse is to be understood as ‘free from the commandments’.   God’s anger is kindled against the people, for an act signifying a desire to shake off the yoke of Torah.  The implication of Rambam’s classification is staggering.

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Whispering Campaign.
1.(idiomatic) A method of persuasion in which damaging rumors or innuendo are deliberately spread concerning a person or other target, while the source of the rumors tries to avoid detection.

In our third pericope, the exact subject of Miryam’s calumny is almost immaterial.  That Miryam could be criticizing Moshe for separating from his wife, on account of concerns over ritual purity vis a vis a perceived requirement for prophesy, well, that would be a textbook example of lashon harah.  Onqelos’ understanding of the word ‘Kushite’ as ‘beautiful’ is in consonance with Chazal’s interpretation of Miryam’s actions as in sympathy with a neglected wife, as the excuse for this criticism.  On the other hand,the possibility that Miryam is exhibiting color-consciousness would be even worse. What is curious and quite material is that it is clear from the language that Miryam was the primary speaker of the first complaint (vat’daber, not vay’dabru), and that it was God, not Moshe, that ‘heard’ (parallel to the first pericope).


Onomatopoeia
1. An onomatopoeia is a word that imitates or suggests the source of the sound that it describes.

So now, what do we make of the ‘asaphsuph’?  The difficulties with identifying asaphsuph as ‘elders’, ‘strangers’, ‘foreigners’ has been dealt with elsewhere  and need not be repeated here.  We merely must construct an alternative hypothesis.  For that, though, we have really no guidance from Tanakh itself, for this is an example of a hapax legomenon, a word that appears in Tanakh only this once, so no contextual hints as to its meaning may be drawn from other instances.  The word itself is perhaps a quadriliteral, with a root samekh-peh-samekh-peh. ‘Saph-saph’.  Even if not, it is still very similar to such words as gimgum (גמגום) stuttering tzichtzooach (צחצוח) polishing tiphtooph (טפטוף) dripping shifshoof (שיפשוף) rubbing, and of course baqbooq (בקבוק) a bottle (what is the sound of liquid pouring from a bottle?)

We’ve a word in English

Susurration
1. The sound of whispering

Perhaps the very word used to label these pestiferous miscreants itself is an onomatopoeia?

The pattern begins to come together.  These three vignettes, though not a re-telling of the same story, use several similar devices to tie them together.  In the first pericope, no one really spoke out loud, and the complaint itself was so immaterial it wasn’t even recorded.  It was those who were not central to the camp, those on the ‘outskirts’ bore the brunt of God’s kindled anger.  These, perhaps, were the people on the edge, whispering.  Whatever they were whispering, it was evil enough to warrant death.  In the second, the asaphsuph, the whisperers, goaded the People into their weeping.  The People’s complaints themselves seem logically unconnected, as if the first was merely a pretext for the second.  In their complaint, however, they rebel against God, throwing off the yoke of Torah in a baseless act of disloyalty.  God’s anger is kindled, yet the worse punishment seems to be attached to the whisperers.  In the third and final pericope, Miryam goads Aaron with a primary complaint that seems unspecific as to its nature (parallel to the first vignette) and unconnected to the secondary (parallel to the second vignette).  The secondary complaint does itself smack of an act of disloyalty against Moshe, the most humble of men, though it is God who seems to take it personally.  And who is punished? It is Miryam, the whisperer, the instigator.

So now what is left to us is to understand the severity of God’s response in the first two pericopes.  The third is easily understood as a lesson against one of several possible variations of lashon hara; Chazal and later commentators all seem quite comfortable with tsara’at as the appropriate punishment.   Miryam as the whispering instigator gives us a key to understanding the first two.  (Perhaps as a tool to strengthen the connection between the second and third pericopes Scripture uses as a play on words the root asph, gather, to describe how Miryam is to return to the camp after her seven day exile, instead of several more natural words, e.g. ‘return’, ‘enter’,  ‘come in’.)  Rambam would have us interpret these first two pericopes as instances of idolatry.   How so?  Our other clue is the Report of the Spies.  A principle message of the spies was that of God’s implied inability to see the People of Israel successfully through the settlement of Canaan.  Indeed, echoes of ‘Who can provide us meat’ are heard.  The message is clear.  Denying the omnipotence of God, ‘shorting his hand’ and through that pretext seeking to divest oneself of the yoke of Torah is no other sin than that of idolatry.  Underhanded disloyalty towards Moshe is bad enough to warrant tsara`at. Whispering others into disloyalty towards God will surely bring the severest consequences as the instigation of idolatry.

There is no middle ground between the genuine faith of Caleb and Yehoshua and the rebellious idolatry of the spies, whisperers and goaders.  Ours is to choose the path of genuine faith and loyalty to Torah. Bivrakhah,

- Rabbi Chaim G.Z. Solomon, Ph.D.


Note: Rabbi Solomon is a former student of mine, and is Rabbi in Mt. Dora, Florida

 
Shalom,

RRW

Thursday, 1 June 2017

P. Nasso, The Nazir - Living in Moderation

The Nazir: Live in Moderation - Judaism - Israel National News
R Eliyahu Safran:
"Perishut is an attitude to live by, not necessarily a way of life to live with. It is a personal, not a universal, goal. So too Nezirut is a personal and temporary goal, to be used when necessary. It is not a rule to be imposed upon the community. It is not Torah."
http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/10295

Shalom,
RRW