weekly parasha 88.
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"And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite [Midianite] woman he had taken to wife [and divorced - Rashi]â€¦ And they said, 'Did the Lord speak only to Moses? Did He not also speak to us'?" (Numbers 12:1, 2).
Towards the end of our portion this week, we find a very strange dialogue, quoted above, between Miriam and Aaron, the elder brother and sister of Moses. Why are Moses' siblings criticizing him, and what do they mean by insisting that God spoke to them as well as to him? To which conversation are they referring? I believe that the text can become clarified if we properly understand the general name for the study of our mystical tradition, the Kabbala. The Hebrew term kabbala means acceptance, and for our great mystical teachers, everything depends on our ability to properly accept.
Rabbi David Aaron, the founder and director of the Israelite Institute in the Old City of Jerusalem, tells of the first time he came into a class given by a well-known mystical thinker in the city. The teacher summoned Rabbi David, and held out an apple - presumably for him to take. Rabbi David put his hand over the apple, only to find that the teacher immediately removed the apple. This procedure repeated itself a number of times, with Rabbi David attempting to lift the apple from the mystic's hand, and the mystic appearing to be "teasing" him by removing his hand again and again. The other students began to laugh; then one of them whispered to David not to grab the apple in a closed fist, but rather to accept it in his open and cupped hand, just as one accepts the Kiddush goblet, filled with wine, right before the blessing of sanctification. That's what David did, and the teacher immediately placed the apple in his cupped hand and smiled. So David learned the first lesson of Jewish mysticism: everything depends on one's ability to properly accept. And whatever proper acceptance means, it begins with the understanding that one never dare grasp only for oneself, but one's hand must always be ready to receive and remain open, ready to share one's bounty with anyone else who may wish to partake of it.
In the biblical portion of Balak, we shall read of Balaam's talking donkey, who teaches his master a crucially important lesson (Numbers 22:21-35). Rabbenu Tzadok of Lublin (known as the Pri Tzaddik) explains that the Bible, through Balaam's donkey, is attempting to teach us that God is constantly sending out "Divine Rays of Splendor," which can be received by all those human beings who not only are waiting to receive them, but whose antennae are properly attuned to receiving them, just as special receptors are programmed to receive the electric waves of transmission present in the very atmosphere all around us.
Rabbenu Tzadok proves his point by recounting how he was once walking along a desolate road when he saw a peasant farmer walking toward him carrying a large bale of hay; the bale turned over, the hay fell to the ground, and the hapless farmer asked the rabbi to help him lift his produce. "I'm sorry but I can't," answered Rabbenu Tzadok, already feeling weak and thirsty from his travels. "No, you mean you won't," responded the peasant farmer. Rabbenu Tzadok immediately began helping the gentile, all the time thanking him for the invaluable message he had taught him. Whenever we say that we can't, we really mean that we won't; if there is a strong enough will, virtually anything becomes possible.
Apparently, God speaks through donkeys, through farmers, through childrenâ€¦ We must really develop within ourselves the finely honed antennae to receive the Divine transmissions.
This is the deeper meaning of the biblical verse "These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice which never ceased" (Deut. 5:19). The Divine Voice heard at Sinai constantly continues to communicate; it is up to us to develop our minds and our souls sufficiently to be able to accept those Divine waves or rays.
Let us now return to Moses' siblings who couldn't understand how this great prophet could have divorced his Midianite wife, Zipporah.
The Almighty, in an attempt to raise the spiritual level of the Israelites and prepare them for the Revelation at Sinai, instructed them to separate from their wives for three days prior to the appearance of the Almighty atop the mount. At the conclusion of the Revelation, God instructs His prophet, "Go now and tell them to return to their tents [and their wives]" (Deut. 5: 27, 28). Miriam therefore tells Aaron that Moses, too, should have returned to Zipporah. After all, was not the commandment to return to the natural familial situation after the Revelation given to everyone - including Moses?
What Miriam did not understand was that Moses was sui generis, unique and different "in kind" from everyone else, not only in his generation but for all subsequent generations, a prophet in a class by himself. The great philosopher-legalist of the 12th century, Maimonides, summarizes Moses' uniqueness as follows: "All other prophets had their 'prophetic moments of Divine communication,' either in a dream or in a vision; Moses prophesied when awake and standingâ€¦ the holy spirit garbed and enveloped him, whenever he desired itâ€¦ He was constantly prepared and ready for Divine communication, just like a heavenly angel. Therefore the other prophets in later generations would return to their homes and to their bodily, physical needs once the spirit of prophecy departed from them, whereas Moses could not return to his wife, but had to separate himself from her forever, because his mind was constantly bound up with the "mind" of the Rock of Eternity, whose Divine glory never left himâ€¦" (Maimonides, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, Chap. 7, Halacha 6). After the Revelation, as recorded in the portion of V'et'hanan, when everyone else returns to their family tents, God then singles out Moses and separates him from the general population, addressing him with these words: "But you stand here with Me and I shall [constantly] speak to youâ€¦." (Deut. 5:28).
This verse tells us that Moses was in a continuous state of prophecy, always attuned to the Divine signals of emission; he was a nonstop "receiving" (Kabbala) station, a receptor of the Divine rays of splendor. And this is why, Maimonides explains (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, ibid.), Moses could no longer return to the tent to be with Zipporah, his Midianite wife. For Moses, the "three days" of the people turned into the rest of his life.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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