Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Beha’alotcha – What Should I Say?

The title word of the book Bamidbar (In the Wilderness) is connected by rabbinic tradition with dibur (speech). The book and the word intertwine; portable cultures rely on words.

The desert brings a range of speech: First, there is the speech of complaint, the ancient kvetch. The Israelites are unhappy with the manna and demand meat. According to the Rabbis, the manna could taste like whatever one wished, so why would they complain? An acute suggestion from R. Jonathan Eybeschutz explains that everyone collected the manna equally. Therefore, no one could be better than his or her neighbors. They claimed to be upset about food, but what really bothered them, even in the desert, was social status.

The other instance of social status masquerading as complaint in the parasha is the gossip of Aaron and Miriam about Moses’s wife. For right after the complaint about his wife (12:1) they said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” Behnd it sound echoes of: “Mother always liked you best.”

This illustrates a reality about gossip. People rarely gossip about those they consider their social inferiors. Employers do not gossip about employees, but employees do about employers. Part of gossip is reducing the status, moral or social, of the one derided. Once again, as with the manna, negative speech is about social status.

Then there is the unelaborated but important speech of Eldad and Medad, two men who are prophesying in the camp.

In response, Joshua complains that the two are offering prophecies. Moses gives a famous answer wishing that all God’s children would be prophets. This is the speech of humility.

We just celebrated Shavuot, when we rejoice in the giving of God’s words. The words of human beings can also change the world.

Now that Israel has received the words of God at Sinai, their education will be in the use of words to uplift, not to destroy. We cannot achieve prophecy, but we can aspire to decency. We can speak words of kindness and love, not of hate. For life and death, as Proverbs teaches us, is in the power of the tongue.