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Behaalotcha Sermon

Below is the sermon from Friday, June 8, 2012.

At the conclusion of the parsha we find an interesting story about Miriam, Moses’ sister. She criticizes her brother about his Cushite wife. She is apparently dark skinned and clearly not an Israelite. By the way the translation is confusing. The standard English translation suggests that both Miriam and her other brother Aaron criticized Moses about this. But the Hebrew is more specific. Only Miriam spoke against Moses.

They both however criticize Moses with these words: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” Wow, that is harsh. This does not sound much different than Korah’s later charge. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” As you know Korah and his followers are severely punished for their rebellion. But in our Torah portion, Aaron is not punished at all. Only Miriam is.

She is punished with leprosy. Part of the question then is what is the difference in their criticisms? Despite my great love and affection for Miriam and of course her extraordinary accomplishments (she is only one of three women in the Bible to be called a prophet), she is here deserving of criticism. She is punished because she attacks the personal, namely Moses’ wife.

The assumption of the rabbis is that she is guilty of gossip. She speaks ill of Moses in public. It is as if she said to others, “Did you see what my brother’s wife is wearing…” Or, “Can you believe that he married a Cushite?” The rabbis draw a connection between gossip and leprosy. Gossip is moral leprosy, they argue. A person’s character is disfigured by such words.

That is the rabbinic insight about gossip. Lashon hara, the evil tongue, is to be avoided at all costs. Even when the information is true, we must be reticent to share it. Lashon hara can forever damage a person. Imagine Moses’ embarrassment. He is standing before the congregation and his sister is going on about his wife. Imagine his wife Zipporah’s embarrassment. I must admit I feel some discomfort criticizing Miriam but she offers us a great and important teaching.

Herein lies the problem for our own age. We are more at ease speaking about people instead of with people. We are more comfortable criticizing than debating. The Jewish tradition believes in machloket, debates. It believes in machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. Yet we shy away from such debates. We appear to fear arguing about ideas.

Instead we label those with whom we disagree with names such as traitor. Only last week an argument raged about the Israel Day Parade. Some on the right sought to prevent the New Israel Fund from participating in the parade. They support left-wing organizations, such as Rabbis for Human Rights. They support organizations that stand in opposition to the actions of the Israel Defense Forces. True, I may not be comfortable with every organization NIF supports, but that does not make them traif. In order for us to build a better Jewish state, we must be open to all opinions. It is treasonous to question the IDF’s primary purpose of defending the Jewish state. It is not treason to question specific actions of the IDF.

An example from the other side. Recently I participated in an email exchange about President Obama. The subject was what I thought be a poor joke about what it would mean to have four more years with Obama as president. One person labeled the joke, racist. It was not. One can oppose Obama’s policies without being racist. True some don’t like Obama because they are in fact racist. But not all opposition is racist. Calling it as such avoids dealing with the content of the disagreement. Disliking the president’s policies does not make a person racist.

These attempts to delegitimize the other is a way of avoiding debate. Label the opposition as racist or treasonous and then you don’t have to really deal with the ideas, you don’t have to really engage with what really matters. We really need, here and in Israel, real and honest debate. Name calling is not going to solve any problems. What ever happened to sitting down with those who you really disagree with?

Back to the Torah. In our portion as well Moses is feeling overburdened as the leader. So God tells him to appoint 70 elders to help with the leadership tasks. The spirit of God descended upon these as well. The Torah then reports that Eldad and Medad spoke in ecstasy in the camp. They were apparently overcome with the prophetic spirit. But wait only Moses is the prophet. A youth runs out and tells Moses, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” Joshua shouts, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said, “Are you distraught on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that Lord put His spirit on them.”

You can read this remarkable, if unfamiliar, episode as Moses saying, “Good I can really use the help.” Or to put into contemporary terms, “Can someone else please volunteer?”

But in this instance I choose to read this episode differently. Moses says, “Don’t worry. It is good to have dissenting opinions. Let someone else also say what they think God means. We have 40 years of journeying, and struggling, together. Truth is not the province of one individual.”

When there are great problems to be solved, dissent is required. Less name calling, less personal attacks are in order. More honest debate, more machloket l’shem shamayim is necessary. We need a lot more of Eldad and Medad. But we also require something even more important. We need more who have the courage to listen to dissenting voices, to listen to criticism. We need more who are of the character of Moses, even if it is for a moment.

Our times require us to be Moses, to not hear dissent as personal attacks. And to turn to those who offer ad hominem attacks and say, “Tell me what is wrong with my ideas?”

Let us sit together and debate. We both love this great country. We both love the State of Israel. One idea, one position will never solve all of our problems. Only honest, and forthright debate, has a chance of healing the divide.